Chinatown – Picture and a Thousand Words

The Toronto Star, December 9th, 2007

The author's grandmother, Gar Yin Hune, is farthest to the right.

My grandmother was a statistical anomaly. Between 1923, when the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and 1947, when the act was repealed, fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter the country.

My grandmother arrived in 1938, though whether she was included in the exclusive official list or simply slipped through the cracks on a cultural visa and is still unclear.

You can see her at the bottom right of the picture above, taken just after she arrived in Vancouver as part of a small Cantonese opera troop. The confidence in her smile, even while surrounded by strangers in a strange country, the defiance in that hand on her hip –they’re clues in her body language that point to the stores of bravery and pluck she must have had to make the long trip as an eighteen-year-old.

The story of how she got here is almost too Hollywood to be appreciated. As one of the daughters of a rich entrepreneur who owned a theatre and kept numerous wives, she was both privileged and neglected. At thirteen she followed one of the wives to the theatre. She learned to perform Cantonese opera, became a star, and toured parts of South-East Asia. When she got a visa to perform in Canada, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. She left just as the Japanese were sacking Nanjing.

In the photo, you get the impression that the arrival of these four young women was a major event in Chinatown life. There are no other women in the frame. The men have gathered around and, though some look confused and some vaguely hostile, they allow themselves to become part of the shot. Deep in the background, you can see a Chinese kid in white – perhaps a shop boy at the store behind him – standing on something to see over the crowd, mouth agape, captured in a moment of amazement.

And for most, a group of pretty young Chinese women on the streets of Vancouver would have been an amazing sight. “Seeing Chinese women in public was a very rare thing,” says Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia. “Chinatown was a world where there were very few women.”

The reason for the lack of women is partially to do with normal patterns of immigration – early Chinese immigrants came here with the expectation of earning enough money to return to their families in China – but mostly to do with sixty years of uniquely racist anti-Chinese legislation.

The Head Tax, which was implemented in 1885 and charged Chinese immigrants the equivalent of a year’s salary to come to Canada, meant you simply couldn’t afford to bring over people who couldn’t earn that fee back quickly. And the introduction of the Exclusion Act in 1923 effectively barred all Chinese from the country, separating families for generations in the process.

When my grandmother eventually settled in Toronto in the late ‘30s, then, the world she joined was almost exclusively male. In 1921, Toronto had 1,947 Chinese men and just 88 women. After the Exclusion Act, that ratio became even more unbalanced. When Jean Lumb arrived in Toronto from Vancouver in 1935, she remembered just 14 other women in the city.

The result was the creation of a unique bachelor society. Chinatowns across North America were full of men. Men working long hours at laundromats and restaurants. Men spending their days off at gambling halls, opium dens, and all-male performances of Cantonese opera. Men living together, sharing habitation and dividing chores out of economic and, one suspects, emotional necessity.

“It was a fairly lonely, isolated life, especially if you didn’t have family,” says Henry Yu.

In the absence of family life, other social structures gained new importance. Clan associations, based on a common surname, and district associations, based on one’s county of origin, became fixtures in North-American Chinatowns. The associations provided social services like money transfers and letter writing, and also worked as gathering places where men could talk to one another in their mother tongue, play cards, and experience a small token of Chinese culture.

In a 1972 documentary study, Victor and Brett de Bary Nee interviewed dozens of people in San Francisco’s Chinatown. America has a similar history of anti-Chinese legislation, and reading through the pages and pages of interviews you get a vivid picture of life in a mid-century North American Chinatown – the vitality of the place despite the back-breaking work, the ways that a community is built in a world where families are so rare, the loneliness of enforced bachelorhood.

It’s a fascinating world and one that, in some ways, will be replicated at a much larger scale in the years to come. Tomorrow, though, it won’t be Chinatown that’s a bachelor society, but China itself.

The country’s One Child Policy has lead to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses. By 2020, some estimate the country could have as many as 30 million more men than women.

It’s an unprecedented gender imbalance, and the consequences are almost impossible to predict. Social scientists are expecting everything from higher crime rates and increased human trafficking to political instability and a more aggressive foreign policy in order to give the expanded male army something to do.

And though it’s difficult to equate the geopolitical consequences of life in twentieth century Chinatowns with the future of China, it is possible to understand something of the emotional truth of life in a world without women, a place where the arrival of four girls is a major event.

During their study, Victor and Brett de Bary Nee’s met dozens of older single men who, even years after the Exclusion Act ended, still found their only social outlet in gathering in a public square in Chinatown each day.

“The old Chinese men are a sad bunch, you know,” a younger gardener told them. “There’s no future and there’s no past, so therefore they’re stuck. Just like I mentioned many a time, they’re just waiting for the box.”