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Rights + Justice

Fighting to Belong: Chinese Pioneers of Vancouver’s White Neighbourhoods

When daring to live beyond Chinatown meant battling racist taunts and flying fists. Latest in a series.

Christopher Cheung 6 Jul

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor at the Tyee. You can find his stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

For Wes Jang, the fights started in the late-1960s when he was eight years old. It usually began when two or three of the other kids called him a “chink.” Jang would push back or call his antagonists a name in return. Before he knew it, Jang would be in the middle of a circle, and fists would fly.

He often got punched in the face before the schoolyard supervisors hauled everyone to the principal’s office. They’d all get the strap for fighting. The teachers didn’t think anything of it. “Kids being kids,” explained Jang.

This was a normal experience for Jang, even though his family had deep roots in Canada. His parents, and even one grandmother, were Canadian-born. His dad helped build aircraft during the war and one grandfather worked for the government.

But that didn’t mean that life as a Chinese Canadian in south Vancouver was easy. His neighbourhood of Sunset didn’t have many Chinese; he was only one of three in his grade. Sunset was mostly populated by Germans who had come to Canada after the war.

“If you don’t stick up for yourself, the teasing just goes on and on,” he said. “You know it isn’t right, so you fight back. Being in a German neighbourhood, there weren’t many colours, so it was very easy to get beaten up for your colour.”

After the war, families like Jang’s began settling beyond Chinatown in other parts of Metro Vancouver. In those places, however, even for kids like Wes Jang, who had only known life in Canada, there was no guarantee they’d be accepted by non-Chinese Canadian neighbours.

Adults conveyed their racism less violently than some of Jang’s schoolmates, but made it felt nonetheless. “There was a lot of anger towards the Chinese,” recalled Jang. “But when I say anger, I don’t mean a really hostile anger. You could just tell that it was in the air.”

Jang lived in a time when Vancouver was learning to deal with growing diversity. He remembered that it was common for Chinese like him to be ridiculed or stared at, sometimes out of fascination. It was a time of less acceptance and political correctness. Jang’s own group of friends used racial slurs.

“It was so normal,” said Jang. Even the classmates who called him a chink and fought him were friendly at other times.

In the Vancouver of Jang’s day, the population included about 15,000 people of Chinese descent. One-third lived in and around Chinatown. Jang’s family was part of the other two-thirds, mostly settled on the city’s east side. Jang remembers that one neighbourhood on the city’s whiter and wealthier west side, Kerrisdale, was an “awkward” place for Chinese to be.

After the Second World War ended, Chinese language schools in the Vancouver area saw a drop in enrolment. Parents of Chinese descent worried less about whether their children would make it in Canadian society. The 1950s saw the first Chinese Canadian employee at city hall, the first female Chinese Canadian lawyer, and the first Chinese Canadian in parliament.

“At the time, Canadian-borns tended to be mostly drawn to mainstream western culture,” said author and Chinese Canadian historian Paul Yee. Clubs appeared in Chinatown for western hobbies like photography and even volleyball. Those who were interested in traditional activities the neighbourhood had to offer, like martial arts or family societies, tended to be foreign-borns.

Wes Jang played hockey and was a Boy Scout. Participating in those activities, though, didn’t earn him the right to not be harassed for not being white. “You just wish you could blend in more so you don’t stick out so much as to be a target.”

He remembers being taunted with one popular chant: “Chinky, chinky Chinaman.”

‘You are in Canada now!’

In Marpole, another neighbourhood in Vancouver’s south, Christina Ling-Lee was the first Canadian-born Chinese on her block. An unpleasant encounter her mother had with a neighbour opened her eyes to what it meant being a minority.

“My sister and I were playing in the backyard and my mother called out to my sister and me in Cantonese,” said Ling-Lee. “She remembered the neighbour next door screaming, ‘You are in Canada now! Speak English!’ Until then, we always felt that subtle racism was there. They would never try to bring it forward, but they would look upon you as different in some way.”

Ling-Lee was born in 1963. Growing up, she did not see her ethnicity as a something that separated her from the wider society. She made friends with all the neighbourhood kids. But a shift happened when she entered Churchill High School. There, people started calling her a chink.

“It was really, really terrible,” said Ling-Lee. “I remember one time I cried to my mom and dad. I said I was so upset, I didn’t want to be Chinese because I was so sick and tired of being called these names. It was really hard. As the grades grew higher, I guess as the kids are more aware, they’re more verbal.”

There was one place where she didn’t feel like a minority: Chinatown. “Every Chinese person went down there,” she said. Chinatown was unlike her quiet residential neighbourhood, with vendors shouting out produce prices and food always in your face, from tofu in huge buckets to oily pork on hooks in the windows. “You couldn’t walk on the sidewalk, it was so busy.”

851px version of Chinatown in 1970s
The influx of Hong Kong immigrants to Vancouver in the late-1960s and 1970s brought a new bustle to Chinatown. From the City of Vancouver Archives, item CVA 780-476.

Christina Ling-Lee’s father was a Shanghainese who had lived in Hong Kong, then a Cantonese-speaking British colony, and her mother was a Cantonese who grew up in New Delhi. Vancouver’s Chinatown, with its largely Cantonese Chinese population, was a comforting new home for them.

However, it wasn’t a place of belonging for Ling-Lee. She wasn’t yearning so much for reminders of the land her parents left behind, but instead signals that, as a Canadian, she was accepted by her fellow Canadians.

For Ling-Lee and Jang, there never came a satisfying moment of apology or reconciliation for the racism they faced daily in their young lives.

“You just had to accept it,” said Jang, “because there’s nothing you could do.”

The scars could only be healed by time. For a few summers, Jang worked at the summer fair in Vancouver’s Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood, deep in the city’s immigrant east side. There, he was able to see what was possible when there was more diversity, rather than being one of the only Chinese.

851px version of Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) fairgrounds in the 1970s
The Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) fairgrounds in the 1970s. It was a popular place for Vancouver high schoolers to work a summer job. Photo by Bob Tipple. From the City of Vancouver Archives, item CVA 180-7106.

“There was a strong Italian-Chinese camaraderie in that pocket of the city,” he said. “When I was working there, half of my friends were Italian and half of my friends were Chinese! There was a lot less tension and more acceptance.”

Over the years, as immigration increased in Vancouver as a result of federal policy, the city’s neighbourhoods began to diversify.

But Jang remembers times in youth when he was made to feel ashamed for being Chinese. He and Ling-Lee talked about feeling pressure to act more Canadian and less Chinese growing up.

“We assimilated,” Ling-Lee simply said. “We had to integrate fully, we had to speak English, and we had to learn how to belong.”

Ling-Lee still lives in Vancouver, and works as a flight attendant. She slowly learned to accept and take pride in her heritage. She celebrates Chinese New Year with her children and enjoys occasionally speaking Cantonese with Chinese friends.

But some old wounds remain. She can’t wipe away memories of being taunted, of being called a chink.

“I hate that name being thrown around,” said Ling-Lee. “To this day, if I hear that name, I will get very upset.”

Friday: The series wraps with a tale of young sisters bringing new blood, today, to a bedrock of greying Chinatown: the benevolent association.

Find all the stories in this series here.  [Tyee]

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