What We Think About When We Think About Chinatowns
I grew up in the Northwest quadrant of Calgary in a community called Edgemont. It was about as far away from anything in the city you could get. My friends who lived in the south used to joke that they might as well drive all the way up to Edmonton if they came over. Growing up in this suburb I was about as far away from the Chinatown in Calgary you could get. And yet, almost every weekend my family would take close to 30 minute drive for either dim sum or a Hong Kong style café for a shared meal.
The Chinatown in Calgary is compact. It is easy to drive through without a second glance. The Chinese Cultural Center is in the shadow of Prince’s Island Park and you could go to the park and the infrastructure connected to it without ever noticing the Cultural Center. On these weekend dim sum trips my parents would allow me to invite friends, they were mostly all white and mostly hadn’t ever been to Chinatown much less tried or seen the things I liked to eat at Dim Sum. I didn’t think twice about ordering char siu bao, steamed beef balls, or lo bak go. In fact most of my white friends were more adventourous 10 year olds than I was and would try the stuff I thought my parents ordered was gross because it smelled bad. Looking back now, I was fortunate, I never was made fun of at school for bringing non-white food for lunch and none of my friends turned down Dim Sum with my family. And yet, I didn’t really compare what I ate for dinner at my house with anyone else at school. Because my friends at dim sum accepted the food I liked I thought everybody else did too. I was wrong.
The first time I remember we learned about anything about Asia or China in school was in Grade 6. I couldn’t tell you what we learned but I remember feeling that it wasn’t anything about modern China or anything that I could grab onto or relate to. It feels as if what we learned about China was it was some faraway and mythical place as if the scrolling text on the textbook said, “A long time ago, in a continent far, far, away.” It didn’t anger me when I was 12 but it definitely didn’t make me more curious or care about a country that my mom is from. In my grade 6 class I was one of two or three Chinese or Asian kids in the class of 30. To wrap up the topic of China, we went on a field trip to the Chinese Cultural Center. The only thing I remember from that day was we had lunch at the restaurant there and it was one of the only times where I felt like I was an authority in my group of friends because some of them besides not knowing what the dishes were or how to use chopsticks, had never been to a Chinese restaurant before.
That was my favourite part of the day, all the other activities I was just as new as the majority of my class. I didn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin anymore, I stopped going to Chinese School in Grade 3 so I could play basketball. I’m reminded that this topic was about China and Chinese culture not Chinese-Canadian culture. And this was a story that I could never find.
As anyone can tell food is the first, second, and third thing I associate with Chinatowns. I never thought of it as a place where people live. Chinatowns to me growing up were a place of restaurants and shops. It never occurred to me as a place that was considered undesirable or a place to be avoided. At least the one I went to every weekend in Calgary. The first time I ever found myself uncomfortable in Chinatown was in the one in Vancouver. Unlike Calgary’s compact and tidy Chinatown, the Vancouver one was sprawling. Vendors and shops spilled out into the sidewalks. The odors of food, herbs, and anything else mixed together and hung in the hot summer air and wrapped around you like a blanket. It was busier, louder, and smellier. I hated it. I I never asked why the Chinatown in Vancouver was so different than the one in Calgary. I never asked about the one in Calgary, we didn’t even learn about it on that trip to the Chinese Cultural Center.
Why haven’t I ever thought about Chinatowns in Canada? How they came to be and what purpose they serve? When researching these questions I realized the answer I was looking for was to a different question. I wanted to know how Chinatowns fit into the fabric and identity of Canada. In a way this is the story of every Chinese Canadian because if Chinatowns don’t have a place in Canada, how do we? I’ve said this before but it’s an idea that is ingrained in me, there isn’t a Chinese or Asian Canadian identity to point to. Nobody grows up speaking Chinese Canadian, nobody eats Chinese Canadian food. Like so many other Asian Canadians in this country I feel this ultimatum I must decide for my life, whether to assimilate completely or to hold onto the traditions and values of countries and continents I have never spent an extended period of time in. This ultimatum isn’t real. I cannot cut out where my family is from and where I was born. I’m both of these things. And Chinatowns are too. They aren’t some walled off communities where Canadians and other cultures have never interacted with.
When we think of resistance we think of demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins. What comes to mind are hashtags, news coverage, and binary discussions of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I believe that the small acts of resistance, the ones that happen everyday on a level that’s so habitual that it feels normal: speaking a language that isn’t English, cooking food that your grandparents made for you when you’re little, and pursuing relationships with people that don’t look like you. These things proclaim to those who want you to act a certain way or stay in a particular space that you exist and that their rules or expectations do not control you. To me, this is what Chinatowns have historically been. A place of resistance against the white hetero-patriarchal vision of Canada since Confederation. When I think of Chinatown I may think of food but it’s so much more. Food intersects with race, language, physical space, and sex. The realities and social expectations of Chinatowns are shaped by the people interacting in them on a everyday basis. It’s a place that doesn’t ask you to choose between two worlds.