The stories are heartbreaking. There’s the baby girl sold for a sack of rice, the decades-long separation of husbands and wives; the relatives back in China tortured and killed by the communists.
The stories are found in Denise Chong’s latest book, Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance. These are the stories of some of the Chinese immigrants who settled in the Ottawa area more than half a century ago, often opening laundries and restaurants because no one would hire them.
The restaurants, initially at least, specialized in hamburgers and steaks, Canadians not yet ready to try anything more exotic than the American-Chinese dish of chop suey.
Chong is best known as the author of The Concubine’s Children, The Girl in the Picture, and Egg on Mao. She will be appearing at the Ottawa International Writers Festival Oct. 29 to discuss her new book in a session called Living History. She will be joined by Ottawa historian, Charlotte Gray, who also has a new book this fall. It is called The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country (read a backgrounder on it here).
Although Chinese immigrants arrived in Ottawa as early as the 1890s, their numbers remained small until the 1950s. This is largely attributed to the expensive “head tax” imposed on Chinese immigrants until 1923 and then the “Exclusion Act,” which prevented new immigrants from coming to Canada until 1947. Throughout this early period, most immigrants were men because the rules made it exceedingly difficult for Chinese women to come to Canada.
Chong’s book focuses on the families that came to Canada after the Exclusion Act was rescinded. Most of the stories involved families in Ottawa or nearby communities such as Perth and Brockville. And most of those Chinese who did come to Ottawa after that did so because a relative already lived here and would be able to help with housing and finding a job.
Jobs, in those days for Chinese immigrants, usually meant working long hours in a Chinese-owned restaurant or laundry, trying to save money to bring over wives or children left behind in China. Reuniting families was difficult during the Second World War because of the Japanese occupation of China. Then a civil war raged. The communists won and immediately began persecuting anyone deemed to be outside the working class.
Although Chinese immigrants faced some discrimination in Ottawa, the consensus was that they faced less discrimination than those who settled on the West Coast in Vancouver, Victoria or San Francisco, where fears of “The Yellow Peril” were more pronounced. However, Chinese immigrants to Ottawa were sometimes denied housing or employment because of their race; children faced the taunts of classmates calling them “Chinks;” Chinese men dated “white” women at their peril, although anecdotal evidence indicates French-Canadians were more open-minded about this than English-Canadians.
Eventually most families thrived. One family, the Poys, produced former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. From the Hum family — make that the Hum families, that being a common surname among often unrelated Ottawa arrivals — various Chinese restaurants sprang up in Ottawa. Today, one of the city’s most prominent restaurant critics passing judgment on dishes for more refined than chop suey is Peter Hum of The Ottawa Citizen.