Chinese in Vancouver Then and Now: 1972-20103 min read


Vancouver Opera is holding a series of community events as precursors to their staged production John Adams’s Nixon in China, premiering Saturday, March 13th.

Photo: Vancouver Opera/Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

One of these events, “Chinese in Vancouver Then and Now: 1972 – 2010”, was a panel discussion held March 9th at Vancouver Public Library’s Alice McKay Room. It took a fascinating look at how Richard Nixon’s and Pierre Trudeau’s respective visits to China and recognition of Mao served as a lynchpin for the way that many Chinese Canadians viewed themselves and their identity in Canadian society. Moderated by University of British Columbia associate history professor, Henry Yu, the panel was made up of eminent architect Bing Thom, filmmaker and writer Colleen Leung, and diplomat Earl Drake.

Like many panel discussions, the conversation took its meandering and interesting routes and tangents – I mean that in the best way possible. I enjoy meandering tangents. I’ve tried to pick out the most soundbite-y of soundbites below:

  • Nixon and Trudeau in China and how this event affected Chinese Canadians
    Leung: For overseas Chinese people – after the recognition of China by Trudeau, Nixon – that’s when they started thinking of themselves as Canadian.
  • the view of Communism during the McCarthy era compared to now
    recounted the mindset during this time, of how, if you were Chinese “more than ever, you became a banana.” One story he recounted was of Paul Lin, who was born in Canada and later moved to China to become a translator, broadcaster, and professor. When he returned to Canada, he was hired by UBC. Shortly thereafter, the front page of a major Vancouver newspaper announced that UBC had hired a “Commie.” Lin was sacked. A short while after, he was hired by McGill and was later instrumental in Trudeau’s establishment of diplomatic ties with China in 1970.
    “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a communist or a capitalist. In the end, they’re all the same.”
  • the changing perspective of China by the world;
    Leung: “The gold mountains aren’t here now. It’s in Beijing.”
  • A short clip of the film Comrade Dad, a documentary by Karin Lee on her father Wally Lee, who managed China Arts and Crafts, a bookstore sympathetic to Communist China (this film is available through Vancouver Public Library, btw!)
  • The danger of polite Canadians;
    Thom: “Canadians don’t have enough arguments. Everyone’s just too polite.” and Yu partially agreed, noting that South Afrikaners went BC to learn apartheid and that due to our having such a “peaceful transition,” we don’t often see our own faults.
    Thom: “People tend to wait for somebody else for tomorrow.”
  • The non-homogeneity of the Chinese people;
    Yu: “The history of Chinese Canada is no longer encapsulated in a single narrative.”
  • Why young Canadians don’t know who Norman Bethune is (I didn’t) while in China, he is revered with monuments and statues.
  • Ending with a bout of fortune telling (future predictions of the next “Mao/Nixon” moment).
    Thom: Next divide? Economic.;
    Leung: These kinds of changes aren’t happening in a single moment. They’re happening right now.;
    : The balance of power. China rising up to meet (if it hasn’t already) the economic and political power of the United States. I personally got the impression that this could be seen as a good thing, as Drake suggests that a “multipower world is better than a unipower world.”

The night was enlightening and mind-expanding. I began the evening with a couple of friends talking about different kinds of meat (We went to Memphis Blues for dinner, ok? Don’t judge us.) and ended the night discussing economies of scope and the balance of economic power in the lumber industry amongst China, Canada, and nations in Africa (It was actually an interesting discussion. Again, don’t judge us.)


Interested in other events in the Vancouver Opera Nixon in China series? Click here for more details.


Biew 13 March, 2010 - 8:37 pm

You’ve got a great memory! The panel discussion was indeed intriguing. As I mentioned before, it didn’t really occur to me until that night why China would close itself up during the Ming Dynasty and not want to deal with the world. Yu put it so well; because they didn’t need to….they were world #1. I really never thought of it that way.

Now to read about who this Bethune guy is all about.

Vincent 13 March, 2010 - 11:02 pm

When Thom talked about the polite Canadians, he also hinted that Canadians are perhaps too complacent with their own life. I do think that we as a people need to care more about what’s going on beyond their family and their job. I mean… while family and work is very important, it is harder to manage the two when you see your child’s quality of education is eroded by the constant underfunding of your provincial government, your job is on constant threat of being eliminated because multinationals are buying out companies and moving operations off shore. All the while the environment is getting polluted, what you eat is getting less wholesome, and the weather is getting turned upside down because of climate change. We shouldn’t stand there and watch everything go down the tubes, but instead we should pay attention and see how we can affect change. After all, we are all stewards of the world and we ought to care for more than our own lives.


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