WE ARE IMMIGRANTS – The Hidden Hardships and Legacy of Early Chinese Canadian Immigrants explores a hidden aspect of emotional and physical turmoil that early immigrants faced as economic migrants from mid 19th century to 1950s. While suffering did not end there, this series adds a visual angle to a muted anguish that took place at a crucial juncture when the Chinese participated in making Canada a country.
Initial accumulation of sources began with visits to old railway towns, one being Carmangay, Alberta, where locals believed their isolated unmarked graves to be those of Chinese railway workers, and where a local voluntary grounds keeper of over 25 years decided to erect crosses for them, marking them as “Unknown, C.P.R. 1910”, for he felt they deserved to be marked. Discussions with descendants of early immigrants also affirmed long-term separation, isolation, indignation, social and economic injustices. Their stories compounded my understanding that not only did the immigrants suffer; their experiences were also intergenerational.
Documentary archives where subjects are dignified and confident were selected if they also complemented my storyline. Most of the sources were captured by city archivists of the time tasked with documenting railway constructions. Parallel to collecting images, text references such as Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike (1920) and Jim Wong-Chu’s Chinatown Ghosts (1986) were just two of some well-known literary sources that influenced my methods. Over time and through experimentations, my work became somewhat eclectic in its variety of interventions.
Using sharp objects on soft emulsion is a metaphor for human skin being subjected to penetrating objects (metal tools, rocks, and harsh weather conditions). Charred markings on the negatives symbolize countless undocumented deaths by construction accidents. Black blotches and holes signify the inevitable void and depression from loneliness and segregation. Splatter across a page, a face, or a group mimics the experience of being spat at, slapped, publicly humiliated, and tormented.
The yellow color, a stinging label yet the seed of my identity, is a celebratory symbol for all Asians. It is ingrained here to underpin the notion that Asians were one of the earliest settlers in Canada despite being made to feel otherwise. Liken the confident man with the yellow scarf or the yellow trees firmly rooted at the storefront, Chinese immigrants are part and parcel to Canada’s military forces as well as economic development and therefore deserve to be included as Canadians. Notwithstanding scramming gestures, they should be encouraged to stay.
Anti-Asian sentiment is but one form of discrimination that is inherent is every society. The COVID pandemic has merely accentuated its pervasiveness. While racism remains relentless in some places, I am encouraged that it is now considered unacceptable etiquette. Only through understanding of Canada’s past can one truly appreciate its diversity. My hope for this work is therefore to encourage a wider and continuous discourse, keeping this history alive for present and future generations.