By Amy Reiswig, September 2012
How Canada’s cruel polices around immigrant Chinese workers affected one family.
Since 1885, Canada, and particularly British Columbia, has been faced with the problem of Oriental immigration.” So declared the Encyclopaedia of Canada, originally published in the mid-1930s and now cited in Victoria writer May Q. Wong’s family memoir A Cowherd in Paradise (Brindle & Glass, April 2012). Wong is the Montreal-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who were victims of Canada’s discriminatory head tax and restrictive immigration policies. In a work of diligent research, Wong reveals those policies to be the real “problem of Oriental immigration,” one that often tore families apart.
A Cowherd in Paradise recounts the lives of Wong Guey Dang (Ah Dang) and Jiang Tew Thloo (Ah Thloo) from beginning to end and in both personal and political terms. The book chronicles their struggle to make a living, a marriage and a family in the context of both Chinese history and the history of legislated discrimination in BC and Canada. That discrimination took many forms—from the Chinese Immigration Act, to laws that “denied Chinese the right to vote, to own land, and to work on Crown land or provincial projects,” writes Wong. Sadly, her parents did not live to hear Prime Minister Harper’s 2006 apology to the Chinese people.
The reason for that apology was not just that those laws were conceptually and ethically flawed, but because of the very real consequences wreaked on so many individuals, like Wong’s parents.
Ah Dang first came to Canada in 1921, at the age of 18, returned to China and married (based on a matchmaker’s photo), but then returned to Canada for work, unable to bring his bride. He went back to China as often as he dared. Ah Thloo therefore raised two children against the backdrop of Kuomintang clashes with the Chinese Communist Party, the War of Resistance Against Japan, World War II and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to name a few major events. Separated by immense distance, both geographic and emotional, Wong’s parents fought, forgave and persevered for the sake of family. Ultimately, Canada’s exclusionary laws meant that by the time they were reunited in 1954, Ah Dang and Ah Thloo had been married for a quarter-century and had spent less than five years together.
Wong’s history, however, is more than just facts. “You read about all these things happening,” she tells me at her home overlooking Telegraph Cove (paradise indeed), “but what is the impact of these things?” As a former government worker, now retired, Wong’s training in analytical thinking means she wanted to know—and to share—much more.
Her father a successful restaurant owner, Wong grew up in the culturally diverse Main of Montreal. She studied psychology and sociology at McGill and began an MA in psychology at Guelph before moving to Victoria with her veterinarian husband. Eventually she earned a Master’s in Public Administration from UVic and went on to work for various government ministries here in Victoria, mostly in policy at the Ministry of Health.
Wong’s relationship with her parents was very close, and she speculates that the decision to work for government may have been influenced by her mother’s experiences. “My mom was always talking about social justice and public policy—not in those terms, of course, but in terms of fairness,” she explains. And that interest in fairness (or the lack of it), in how people’s lives are affected by policy, informs the book’s very human—rather than just historical—focus. For example, of her father’s arrival in Canada—finally reaching the dreamily-nicknamed Gold Mountain—Wong describes how Ah Dang “spent his nineteenth birthday behind bars. October to February were four months of confinement and starvation in a cold, dank, dreary building in a chilly, damp, rain-drenched city by the sea. Who would have believed it of Gold Mountain?”
Thus the book is not just a work of research, but of revelation. When Ah Thloo was in her 80s and living in Victoria—the paradise of the book’s title—Wong began recording her stories for fear of losing them altogether, and readers therefore come to know Wong’s parents intimately. For example, we see details of her mother learning to ride the family’s water buffalo; compassionately bathing her grandmother’s (Wong’s great-grandmother) misshapen bound feet; and having her first full bath and getting her first pair of underwear right before her wedding. “My mother would tell us these stories and we’d be laughing into the night, and crying,” Wong recalls, noting how much never made it into the book. “The first draft was 20,000 words longer—or was it 200,000?” she laughs.
And while the stories may be her parents’, the book is all Wong’s; this is not the work simply of a family archivist but of an author, for it is rooted in empathetic imagination that immerses the reader in emotional experiences. “I knew them very well,” she reflects. “I was the only child where my dad got to be a parent full-time. Because of that connection, I was able to feel and write what they must have been feeling.”
Wong, who will be reading at Vancouver’s Word on the Street festival on September 30, explains that she wrote the book for three reasons. “One was to honour my parents; their lives were so courageous. The second is to remind people of what can happen when you have a bad law. Having worked in government and been a political junkie, I can see how laws are made to address a situation but are not necessarily well thought out. I wanted to remind people not to forget that lesson. The third reason is to inspire readers. From the lives that these two people led, we can be inspired to learn from mistakes, learn that it’s important to keep family together.”
As we feel sorry for ourselves heading back to reality after summer’s warmth and leisure, Wong’s book reminds us of the struggles of others and the need to remain vigilant about government decisions that impact us all—even here in paradise.
Writer, editor and former Montrealer Amy Reiswig enjoyed discovering that she used to take sanity walks in the same parks as Ah Dang and went to two of the same schools as May Wong. We are all somehow connected.