by Larissa Lai and Jean Lum
How to describe oneself, not fitting into the commonly advertised norms of Occidental or Oriental "culture"? How do we of Asian origin perceive one another? There is a certain reticence on the part of individuals to identify with others, to collaborate on any kind of artistic or political endeavour. Perhaps we are afraid of being seen as identically inferior, as one, two, or ten clones of that inscrutable Chinaman, Dr. Fu Manchu, or perhaps that delicious but tragic lotus blossom, Madame Butterfly.
Growing up among predominantly white European Canadians, we behave as white and Western as we know how. Although we look "different", there is no pattern of behaviour for us to imitate but the white Euro-based norm. How can we move beyond that reality?
One way is through community action. Timing is not arbitrary; movements are interdependent with other activities and processes. In the past, other movements have affected one another. The Civil Rights movement in the US during the 1960's produced 'Black Pride' for African Americans, AIM (American Indian Movement), which can be directly linked to the land claim issues of today, and the Women's Movement. All occurred at approximately the same time. These events created a climate in which Asian Americans could also begin to address issues of identity. Communities come together at specific points in time, and in relation to the social, economic, and political conditions that inform them.
The early 70's was an exciting period of activism in Vancouver's Chinatown. New immigration meant new life and new growth. It was a prosperous and optimistic time. The Cultural Revolution in China was affecting local politics, leaving Chinatown highly factionalized with groups supporting different party lines.
Historically the most powerful organization, the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) was controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT), based in Taiwan (Nationalist China). It represented the official voice of the Chinese community to the Canadian government, which did not recognize the People's Republic of China at that time. However, for many years the CBA had not been in an active leadership role. It did not playa vital part in solving the new problems that plagued Chinatown in the early 70's.
The community had been rallying to prevent several civic projects from destroying the neighbourhood. The proposed construction of a new firehall and that of a freeway through the centre of Chinatown were stopped by hard fought struggle. These specific actions directly contributed to the preservation and revitalization of the Strathcona neighbourhood. It is now a desirable inner-city location for white yuppies.
During the 70's, some forty organizations identified the need for a Chinese Cultural Centre (CCC). Discussions were held with all three levels of government. At a time when plans were well underway, the CBA, which was not involved, started a rival organization called the Chinese Canadian Activity Centre. Not surprisingly, the CBA alleged that the planning committee for the CCC was dominated by radical left-wingers.
Refusing to be intimidated, a group of young, self-proclaimed Maoists retaliated. They produced a rag of a paper called Gum San Po. It dealt with issues that other organizations were afraid to touch, addressing the happy and unhappy moments in the history of Asian Canadians, overtly denouncing the racism perpetuated by the mainstream press, and boldly defying the CBA.
Antagonism between the CBA and the supporters of the Chinese Cultural Centre was so intense that volunteers conducted a round the clock guard of their storefront on Pender Street against rumoured Kuomintang vandalism. They formed the Committee to Democratize the CBA, obtaining a court injunction which forced the CBA to hold democratic elections. The old guard, the KMT, was finally ousted from the CBA in 1979. According to Patrick Chen in his article in Inalienable Rice (1979), "The election was the first CBA community-wide election in any Chinatown in North America and marked the creation of the first truly representative CBA organization in the history of the Chinese Canadian community" .
Many of those who worked on these early actions went on to form the Asian Canadian Writers' Group. These empowering events served to solidify relationships that continue to this day. Principal members included Jim Wong-Chu, Sean Gunn, Sharon (Sky) Lee, and Paul Yee. Early on, the group identified the need for representation and a revision of popular history to include an Asian component. However, the group functioned more as a means for internal communication than as a means for communication with the outside. In general, they helped to nurture ideas and legitimize one another's projects. They met sporadically, depending upon whether there were pressing community issues, and whether there was a need for dialogue. One of their first projects was Inalienable Rice, a Chinese and Japanese anthology of short stories, poems, photo essays and articles. It was a collaborative project with the Powell Street Review and printed in an edition of 600.
The Asian Canadian Writers' Group has since become a network of writers from across the country. Many of the original members have produced and published important plays, scripts, novels and books of poetry.
Co-Operative Radio (CFRO) was one of the first independent non-commercial radio stations to be given a broadcasting licence by the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Television Commission). It took tremendous energy organizing, lobbying and fundraising to start what is still a low power, low budget station. It exists on the good will of the volunteers and money sent in by "alternative" listeners.
The "Between Us Chinese Youth Conference" in 1976 was held at the University of British Columbia. It brought together native-born and immigrant Chinese Canadians to address problems that existed between them. The idea of producing an English language program to be directed at the English-speaking Chinese Canadian community was launched. Pender Guy, as it became known, was a complimentary addition to the Cantonese- language program already on Co-Op Radio.
Pender Guy was on-air from 1976-1981. The half-hour weekly show provided up-to-the minute coverage of the struggles in Chinatown. Many stories presented a link with other activist groups across Canada, uniting the groups on the issue of media racism.
Specifically, there were national actions organized to prevent the 1979 release of Bamboo, Lions, and Dragons a racist documentary produced by the National Film Board about Asian Canadians. Pender Guy was also part of the widespread protest against the CTV's program W5 that aired on Sept. 30, 1979. The segment, entitled "Campus Giveaway" used images of local-born Chinese Canadians to suggest that foreign students were taking over Canadian campuses. In addition to covering current issues, Pender Guy produced aural histories, news, reviews, music, literary programs, and the popular serial "Super Pender Guy".
In 1977, Pender Guy was given its first and only grant. This generated a flurry of activity, enabling the program to train and empower many more young people in the areas of radio production and media literacy. The grant permitted them to produce "The War Years", a high-quality documentary series about Chinese Canadian veterans of WWII.
Despite winning regional and national broadcast journalism awards, it was a constant struggle to maintain the program. A shortage of skilled labour, lack of funding, the emotional stress of addressing volatile issues on a regular basis led to a severe case of burnout. Finally , the members decided to end the show, determined to produce their best shows right up to the end of the season. They saw this as preferable to letting the show fizzle out from lack of interest.
Chinatown Today, previously called Chinatown Tonight, went on air at Rogers Cable 4 in 1983. It came about as a result of complaints to the CRTC that the absence of a Chinese Canadian program was discriminatory.
The concept of community television generally was a direct result of public pressure on the CRTC to force cable companies to create community stations in the early 70's. In order to justify the profits reaped from cable hookup to millions of homes, the cable monopolies were required to provide a community channel.
Today, community cable barely meets those original guidelines. Since support services are minimal and little attention is paid to either technical quality or content, the station continues to be perceived as amateur television. Worse still, the cable companies now use the threat of reducing this service as leverage to coerce the CRTC into approving price hikes to cable subscribers.
Chinatown Today is run by local-born and Hong Kong-born volunteers. It produces segments in Cantonese and English. People involved became interested for a wide range of reasons, some wanted to cover financial investment possibilities, others, humorous parodies, still others political issues. According to Sid Tan and R. Montgomery Lee, two of the show's producers, it has become an uneasy liaison of widely differing agendas. Many of the young people involved do not feel the need to address problems of cultural experience and identity. For Lee, their "white wannabe trip" was more than a little frustrating.
Both Lee and Tan also see it as a "Hong Kong" show. The hierarchical division of labour seemed to be predicated upon national origin. Local-born performed the technical work, while the Hong Kong-born appeared on camera.
Sid Tan did manage to produce the "Gold Mountain Edition" which profiled events like Invisible Colours, the film and video festival by women of colour screened in Vancouver in 1989. Lacking assistance, Tan did almost all of the research, production, narration and hosting. Lee found similar problems with projects he attempted to initiate. Between the destructive internal politics of the show and ambivalence on the part of Cable 4, it was a highly unproductive and uncreative environment. Both Lee's and Tan's participation has since diminished.
The Powell Street Festival, organized by the Japanese community, is an annual event that began in 1977. This was a centennial year for Japanese Canadians, marking the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Canada. Two national touring projects, one a stage show featuring the best of Nikkei culture, and the other an exhibition of historical photography, attempted to articulate the pain and uncertainty of the past century in Canada.
For the first time since WWII, the scattered community re-formed to affirm their contribution to a nation which had taken so much from them. The first festival was held at Oppenheimer Park, in the heart of Vancouver's previously thriving Little Tokyo. It was a showcase for the newfound awareness of the Nikkei, fusing their Japanese heritage with their Canadian experience. Staging such a public event was a strong statement for those who had been conditioned for so long to be ashamed of their Japanese origins. The process of reclaiming had started.
The festival continues to be a community-based event involving up to forty organizations each year. Its programming has included workshops by playwright Rick Shiomi and a screening of The Displaced View by Midi Onodera. There are also food booths, raffles, martial arts and flower arranging demonstrations.
Although the festival is volunteer-based, a full-time coordinator has been paid to maintain an office for the last five years. Issues such as artistic direction, themes, policy, and finances are discussed by a small board. The organizers have started to program and cosponsor events throughout the year and are currently planning to publish a book that will serve as a document and celebration of the vision that nurtured the festival. The book will feature the photographs of Tamio Wakayama.
We have looked at a number of media projects that have helped create a sense of community. Writing, radio, television, and street festivals serve as means by which we can communicate with one another and with the outside. However, community-based projects continue to be viewed as "amateur", perceived as amusing pastimes, not as professional ventures. We have specifically discussed four broad-based groups, which have, in general, been prevented by a lack of funding to initiate projects or pay maintenance and other staff. They have worked with minimal, outdated, understaffed facilities with the result that the quality of production could only reach a certain level, no matter how skilled and dedicated the volunteers. For instance Pender Guy, prided itself on its ability to produce shows that were "nearly CBC quality" using the most basic equipment Co-Op Radio provides as much technical help and moral support as it can, but alternative radio is a poor cousin to commercial radio. There simply weren't the resources for Pender Guy to further develop or to continue. Some of the key members have gone on to careers in the radio industry.
At the same time, the obvious tokenism of Community Cable 4 is only too evident. It is no coincidence that very few people watch Chinatown Today. A poorly produced, underfunded program can hardly expect to compete with glitzy commercially-produced network fare.
The Asian Canadian Writers' Group continues to meet sporadically attempting to involve new members and sustain older ones. It is largely maintained by the enthusiasm of Jim Wong-Chu. Although some of the members have received critical success, they have been unable to earn a livelihood from writing. Without legitimization or understanding from the mainstream press, whose reviewers are seldom people of colour, their books are misunderstood and seen as too risky by publishing houses.
Although the Chinese Cultural Centre was built and opened in 1980 with the help of radical activists, it quickly became a bureaucratic and conservative institution. It does not address the concerns of contemporary thought and practice.
The Powell Street Festival, although it does receive some funding, cannot obtain sufficient funds from government or corporate sources. Each funding agency tries to pass the buck for such projects onto the next agency, claiming them to be another's mandate. In the end, it is the community itself which ends up paying thousands in volunteer hours and from its own pocket.
It should be noted that the Japanese Redress Fund, from which the Powell Street Festival receives some assistance, is in fact a pooling of money that personally belongs to individuals who were already wronged twice by the Canadian government. First, in the snatching of personal property and real estate during internment, and then again in redress, where they were paid only a fraction ($20,000 per person) of what their properties were worth in spite of the admitted injustice of internment. This same money, begrudgingly paid out, is being used by the community to re-establish what was originally destroyed by the Canadian government. Meanwhile, revenue from the BC Heritage Trust and BC Lotteries monies are going toward the restoration of WWII gun emplacements at Wreck Beach that were erected to repel enemy troops that never came.
Although we are told Canada is multicultural, when it comes to the monetary and infrastructural affirmation of Asian Canadian efforts, we have to struggle harder to receive less. It continues to be white mandarins who decide what constitutes our culture and what does not. Every now and then, when we are lucky, we are permitted into their institutions. In the name of diversity and liberalism, they pretend that these institutions are just as much ours as they are theirs. We seldom appear within their power structures or on their administrative boards. If we do, it is due to a conscious effort not to look exclusive.
Imagine what it could be like if we controlled our own means of production and exhibition, if we had our own networks, publishing houses and presentation venues. Imagine the uproar and accusations of being self-serving if we were to demand our own "parallel galleries", our own artist-run centres where we are neither guests nor strangers.
We would like to thank the following for their time and recollections: William Dere, Sean Gunn, Diane Kadota, R. Montgomery Lee, Sky Lee, Sid Tan, Tamio Wakayama, Barry Wong, Jim Wong-Chu, and Paul Yee.