Recommendations by Karen C

This month, we celebrate the history of Canadians of Asian descent and acknowledge their experiences and contributions to our country. The theme of Asian Heritage Month in 2021 is “Recognition, Resilience, and Resolve.” This year especially, we as Canadians are called to “come together to combat all forms of anti-Asian racism and discrimination.”

Asian Heritage Month 2021 poster

There are many ways we can fight anti-Asian racism, and knowledge and understanding are among the tools we can use. Here’s one piece of local knowledge:  according to the 2016 Census, there are over 4,000 residents of Peterborough who are of Asian descent from at least 57 countries. When I started writing this blog, I realized that I knew very little about the people of Asian descent who live in my own community. I reached out to my neighbour, Yvonne Lai, who is the Director of Community Development for the New Canadians Centre, and asked her for some help educating myself.

Snapshot of Chinese Migration to Peterborough

Yvonne put me in touch with a number of local organizations and individuals, then lent me a book that includes an entire chapter dedicated to Chinese migration to Peterborough from 1892 up to the early 2000s. Reading it has been enlightening, and I’m hoping to track down a copy for the library’s local history collection.

The Chinese Diaspora book jacketHere are some of the things I learned about the history of the Chinese Canadian population in Peterborough from Zhongping Chen’s chapter in The Chinese Diaspora:

  • The first people of Asian descent to migrate to Peterborough in 1892 were Cantonese from Taishan, Kaiping and Zinhui counties of Guangdong province in southern China.
  • Canada was not as welcoming as it could have been. As early as 1885, the Dominion of Canada discouraged Chinese immigration with a $50 head tax, gradually raising it over the next 25 year to an outrageous sum of $500 by 1910 - over half the cost of a 3-bedroom house in Peterborough!
  • Everyday racism resulted in most Chinese arrivals finding work in either Chinese restaurants or laundries in Peterborough. For many years they were kept “at the socioeconomic bottom of this small urban community,” in a vicious circle in which their low income, terrible working conditions and poor living standards reinforced racial and legal discrimination.
  • In 1947, anti-Chinese immigration laws were repealed. Many of the Chinese residents of Peterborough became naturalized citizens, bringing their wives and children from China. Only then was a second generation of Chinese Canadians even conceivable.
  • In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Chinese Canadians began including wealthier, more educated immigrants who came from larger cities in China, especially once Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College were established.
  • Many ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia sought asylum in Peterborough in the late 1970s and early 80s. These immigrants had a vastly different experience coming to Peterborough than their predecessors. They were welcomed and supported by not only second and subsequent generations of Chinese Canadians, but also by Caucasian families, sponsoring churches, and eventually, an organization called Peterborough’s “Boat People Committee.”

Although they were the first Peterborough residents of Asian descent, the 2016 Census shows that the then 1,050 people of Chinese descent made up 25% of the Asian Canadian population of Peterborough, second only to the 1,095 Canadians of East Indian descent. The remaining 50% of our city’s Asian Canadian population is incredibly diverse, hailing from over 55 different countries across Asia, either directly, or ancestrally.

From Opera to Zumba Right Here in the Patch

NotChinese Opera Appreciation and Workshop poster only did Yvonne share some local history of Asian Canadians, she introduced me to a very accomplished Peterborough resident of Chinese descent:  Shaoling Wang. Shaoling is a professor of Chinese Language and Culture who has taught at Trent University since 2007. For the past several weeks, she has been hosting free Chinese Opera Appreciation events via Zoom. Shaoling invites all who are interested to join these Zoom events to learn more and develop an understanding of Chinese culture and civilization. You can catch the last one in the series on Saturday, May 22 from 7 to 10 pm.

Shaoling Wang's Kung Fu Zumba YouTube thumbnailPerhaps Chinese Opera sounds a bit intimidating? If you’d prefer something more modern to develop your appreciation of Chinese culture, check out one of Shaoling’s incredible, home-based Zumba videos on her YouTube channel. She’s even designed a dance piece incorporating Chinese Kung Fu - what a fun way to learn and get fit at the same time!

Stories for More Than 1,001 Nights

If neither music or dance interests you but you still want to celebrate and learn more about the Asian-Canadian experience, I encourage you to register to attend the free Giller Master Panel on Monday, May 31 at 7 pm:  Asian-Canadian Writers Share Their Stories. Hosted by CBC’s Ali Hassan, several Canadian novelists and artists will discuss how their experiences, as well as the rising number of incidents of hate crimes perpetrated against Canadians of Asian descent, have affected their own writing.

In the meantime, here are just some of the library’s great titles written by Canadian authors of Asian descent: