Monograph published by The Ottawa Art Gallery; 1st edition (October 12, 2016). Authors: Susan Crean and Michelle Gewurtz.
Working in oils, watercolour, pastels and glass media, Jerry Grey explores themes of nature, politics and history. Her work from the 1970s links directly to her time participating in the highly influential Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops in Saskatchewan. Modern painting in North America was evolving toward ever more austere, reduced realms of colour and form and Grey participated in the 1964 and 1965 Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, which were jointly led by painter Jules Olitsky & composer Stefan Wolpe (’64) and artist Lawrence Alloway and John Cage (’65). The works she produced between 1968-1978 stand as meditative monuments to the grid as a visual structure that continues to offer up transformative possibilities.
"The theme of remembering runs through the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It is behind the suggestion that Indigenous curricula be mandatory and in Justice Murray Sinclair’s insistence that non-Indigenous Canadians learn about residential schools and Indigenous history. In the context of reconciliation, how do we do this?"
On June 6th I was part of a panel at the Art Gallery of Ontario brought together by curator and writer Sarah Milroy. It was also the week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made its report. Here is what I had to say about Carr and her legacy.
My thanks to Sarah Milroy for the invitation to be part of this gathering today. I would like to note that though I’ve spoken here at the AGO on several occasions — it was usually outside the front door and at a protest — this is the first time I have actually come by invitation. And I’d like to acknowledge that fact.
It is also many years since I swore off talking about Emily Carr. At least in public. Following the publication of my book The Laughing One in 2001, I did a national tour, (of radio, Television interviews), appeared at readings and festivals and author’s luncheons. The rush of activity that normally abates after 3 or 4 months — only in this case it didn’t. I continued to get requests from students, collectors, psychiatrists, other writers, dealers, academics and Carr fans. All welcome although the volume was intimidating at times. When I started receiving letters addressed to Emily Carr, though, I decided it might be time to leave her and her legacy to others. (The exception has been the two collaborations with Maliseet artist and writer Shirley Bear about Carr and Sophie Frank.)
More salient for us today — and as someone who spent an entire decade thinking about Emily Carr and following her around the Northwest Coast of British Columbia — I have to thank Sarah, and commend her for the gift of this exhibition. I’ve seen a lot of Carr but I have to say I’ve never seen her quite like this. I find it remarkable what a open, intuitive and intelligent curator can draw out of the mish-mash of history, legend and make-believe that attends Carr’s legacy. Still. In Sarah’s hands I feel we are finally getting an unobstructed view of Carr the artist : the unapologetic colourist of the post-Paris years, the expert draughtsman’s singing line, the deep rhythm of those forest interiors let loose, and the vision at the end when, as poet George Stanley puts it, she was painting air.
If I may, I’d like to also acknowledge some of the people who assisted Sarah in the creation of this thoughtful celebration of Carr’s work : Kristina Ljubanovic designed the installation. Aleks Grzywaczewska designed the graphics. Craig Whiteside and Ben Oakley were the primary Installers. Ruth Jones, Jacques Oulé, Jason Laudadio and Randal Fedje also helped at times. Paul Mathiesen did the lighting.
The Journeys of Emily Carr
To preface my comments about the two paintings I’ve chosen to speak about, let me admit that what drew me to Emily Carr was not her paintings. ((Totem Mother (1928) and Guyasdoms D’Sonoqua (1930).)) Originally it was her writing, and specifically the descriptions of her first attempt to move out of the isolated outpost that was Victoria one hundred and fifteen years ago, to study in England and a few years later in France. Both times she fell seriously ill and had to return home. The opinion of people at the time and most writers since is that she was suffering some kind of emotional breakdown. The doctor at the clinic in the UK called it hysterics. However, reading her journals in the sixties and knowing nothing of this, I totally understood her predicament and having had similar experiences living in Europe which forced me to conclude people do not always thrive physically in foreign places; even healthy people, even in fabulous and fascinating foreign places like Paris or Florence.
What struck me then was how miserable Carr was travelling; what surprised me was her dogged determination to do go back to Europe a second time in 1910. What kept her going? Once back in Canada, moreover, she was at it again. This time she struck out even further afield making the first sketching trip to First Nations communities up the coast the summer after her return from France. These journeys were of a different order than her sojourns in Europe which had been in search of training, and exposure to other artists exploring modernist trends. This was a quest for her own roots in Canada, and it had already drawn her to the carvings and designs of the Indigenous peoples. In 1906 she’d struck up a friendship with Coast Salish basket maker Sophie Frank and began visiting her on the reserve across second narrows in North Vancouver. (A connection that lasted until Sophie’s death in 1939)
Carr was no thrill seeker, and not much of an adventurer though she was certainly intrepid. But beyond her unwavering dedication to her work, she had a private mission which was to put distance between herself and the transplanted culture of her English parents which she found hypocritical and confining. A culture, after all, which saw the mountains as ugly, and Native culture as barbaric. Her openness to Aboriginal culture can be understood, in part, as a flight from her own background. Without leaving the continent, moreover, she could travel into realms that were utterly unfamiliar to her; and a long way from polite society. She opened up to difference and plumbed it for depth.
More significantly, she spent time in communities not only radically different from hers, but radically under siege from Canadian authorities and the white settler society around them. These were the Visitors who Never Left. Visitors and they included Emily — as, indeed, they include most of us in this room.
Carr was invigorated by her journeys — and terrified. Frightened at the prospect of what she’d meet, and happy with what she was finding. Both states of mind are recorded in her writings, and visible in these two works. On the one hand, the bear figure at the base of a pole at Gitanyow which she saw as a metaphor for motherhood, and on the other, the huge and menacing D’Sonoqua. Carr knew she-he (for the D’Sonoqua is both male and female) was an important figure to the Kwakwaka’wakw, and she tells of her own spectacular encounter with a figure like this one near Gwyasdums. It was raining, she slipped on sodden earth and wet salal ending up on her back staring at those hearts-shaped breasts. She is spooked. She has dreams of the D’Sonoqua. Admits she yearns to see one, even to hear the whooshing sounds (from those pursed lips) as she comes crashing through the forest like the wind. Yet she dreads it from bottom of her soul.
When I first saw thispole in Gitanyow in the early 1990s, it recalled for me this image painted by Carr in 1928: the tight focus, the large, ungainly paws with tiny human-soul between them. When I see the painting now, though, I remember Freda Diesing. It was Freda who took me to Gitanyow. I’d called her up to see if she was around (she had a house in Rupert, a second place in Terrace and she floated back and forth between them) as I was heading up her way. She said I should come visit her and she’d show me her poles. I’d seen a few of her famous portrait masks, and had spent some time with her in Toronto when an exhibit of Native women artists lunched the International Congress of PEN in 1989, so I knew she’d carved several poles, one in Kitsumkalen, another in Rupert. As it turned out, Freda actually meant all the poles along the Skeena that she’d learned from. And that was quite a number.
Over several days we drove up and down that stretch of Hwy 16 to the K’san Village where Frida had worked for a while, and on up to Kispiox. One by one she introduced me to ‘her poles’. We’d stand together and she would read them, moving from the bottom up through the narrative, pointing out details, telling me about the pole itself and what she liked about it, who carved it and for whom. She was Haida, but had lived along the Skeena all her life. There weren’t many new poles then; those at Gitanyow were decades old and very weathered. Some had turned dark with age, but the most impressive one by far — the Hole in the Sky pole which Frida said was the oldest pole still standing on the Coast — was a brilliant, silvery white.
We talked of many things over those days. I learned about her life and her mother’s. Both married out to white men who succumbed to TB; Frida contracted it herself in her 20s, the aggressive x-ray treatment leaving her unable to have children. “They fried my eggs”, she joked. Although her grandmother was a noted Haida carver (known as a carver of canoes), and a master maker of spruce root baskets, it was a very long, tough road for Freda and other Native women wanting to be artists in the 1950s and 60s. The brilliant Daphne Odjig notwithstanding. Freda started late. And some talented women, she noted, never got started at all. We talk of that, too. For Frida and I were, of course, driving the stretch of highway in northern B.C. now widely known as the Highway of Tears. These were the years when a few people had begun to sound alarms about the missing and murdered Native women and girls. Writer and activist Mary Billy in Squamish had been keeping a list for several years, publishing the results in the newsletter that she sent out to feminists and writers all over BC ; the count was in the hundreds even then.
This image of the D’Sponqua — well, just the name, actually — invariably yanks me back to the afternoon I spent with Agnes Hunt Cranmer in her kitchen in Alert Bay, as she dried halibut, and patiently repeated the word for me, while I attempted to pronounce it. It was mother’s day weekend and I’d brought flowers and greetings from my friend Joan Skogan, a white woman who married-in and lived there for a time. Agnes Cranmer was the widow of Dan Cranmer, the man who gave the famous potlatch on Village Island in 1922 the one that was busted and led to the first conviction won by the Crown under the anti-potlatch laws. (Since 1884 some 150 indictments had been issued, but the charges were all either thrown out or sentences suspended.) This result this time? Twenty-six participants including grandmothers sent to jail in Burnaby, and the confiscated carvings sent east and (eventually) into museum collections. But, I must note, getting that conviction required some rigging in the form of an amendment to the Indian Act allowing prosecutors to act as judges.
Ninety-three years later, our Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, in her speech last week to the Global Centre for Pluralism mentioning this law, called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples Cultural Genocide. Some quibble with the term, or shy away from it by declaring we are not the responsible generation (even though the last residential school only closed in 1996), and I think we have to remind ourselves that none of us get to pick our ancestors. Honouring them means accepting the bad among them, along with the good. Acknowledging this national shame, as Doug Saunders wrote in the Globe this morning, does not have to define us. What we do now though, I think will.
Like Carr, I approached my journeys up the coast with a mixture of anticipation and extreme anxiety. I’ll say it. Fear. Of course, there was no way I could presume my way into Native communities armed with good will and ignorance as Carr did. Those communities are, for one thing, very used to white people showing up with something on their minds. They’ve seen it all — had the missionaries, Indian agents, anthropologists, residential school administrators, politicians, judges, and the police. And recently journalists and environmentalists had joined the list. So I had to be very clear what I was doing there. Whose history was I proposing to write. What I expected from my hosts and the people I met, and what I offered in exchange. Above all, I needed to school myself on the history that wasn’t taught in school and university. The history of contact as recounted by Native historians writers and artists, and a younger generation of storytellers. Very quickly I learned two things. First that I could only do this with accomplices. One or two people who could and would be guides, or counsellors — there really isn’t a word for their role which was intellectual and spiritual, though I’d say the main ingredient was friendship. And second, that there were going to be two sides to my journey, one that I would write about, and one I would not. (Although I do recount the time Lee Maracle called me out on co-op radio.) In other words there was the non-public side to the evolution of my thinking and understanding, experiences that made it possible for me to write what I did.
By now the history of contact includes Supreme Court cases that have been won by Aboriginal litigants, Delgam’ukw and Tsilhqot’in among others. And it is obvious that Indigenous communities have defied the fate assigned them by Emily Carr’s generation. Carr writes with pathos about Sophie Frank’s twenty-one dead children; babies born and gone in a matter of months, a cycle repeated with horrific regularity. Carr witnessed this hardship up close, saw Sophie’s return to prostitution, and drink; tried not to be judgemental. And in the end, could not resolve the contradiction between what she perceived in the magnificent carvings and what she saw Sophie having to endure.
My last trip to Haida Gwaii was with Shirley Bear when she was Aboriginal student advisor at Emily Carr College in Vancouver. She and a friend from back home who was investigating the different ways communities were accommodating the return of ancestors’ bones from museums, were going to Skidegate to stay with Dianne and Dull Brown, and Shirley suggested I tag along. She’d heard there were still Carr stories about, and people who remembered her. Shirley is not a fan of Carr’s, I must tell you; but while I was researching and travelling we talked. She and her family were living in Vancouver then and she had a studio down on Parker Street for several years where we hung out for long hours. It was a time of intense debate about appropriation, especially in the women’s community, particularly about the appropriation of voice in writing. (The controversy that split the Women’s Press.) We talked about appropriation in regard to Carr, and in particular in relation to Sophie Frank, and the manner in which she presented Sophie to the world. The result was our performance piece Dear Sophie / Dear Emily which we originally did at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Based on letters Sophie wrote to Emily and Carr’s writings about Sophie, we billed it as a conversation about art, appropriation and friendship. Part of the piece was improv; we’d leave the script and carry on as the two characters. And then we speak as ourselves, pursuing the conversation in the present tense, inviting the audience to join in.
Shirley lives in Noogootkook, the reserve called Tobique on the Aroostook River that flows into the Saint John. A woman who’s well known across the country as an artist, feminist activist and writer, her reputation cuts across many communities and she has a tremendous following (and, I should add, an Order of Canada). Her renown is partly because of the role she played in the repeal of the infamous clause in the Indian Act that stripped Native women of their status when they married out. She’d returned to her home to stay with her mother in Tobique with two small children when her marriage to a white man ended and she’d no place else to go. In due course she was told she’d no right to be in her mother’s home, and had to leave. On Christmas Eve, Shirley and a small group of women occupied the Band Office, joining a larger group of dissenters who were refusing to be thrown off other reserves. It was a huge grassroots campaign, and in 1985 12 (1) (b) was removed from the Indian Act .
But not without the addition of a new prohibition limiting women’s ability to pass on their native status. The remedy is actually worse. An estimated 40,000 children have been denied status because their fathers are unknown or unidentified. And another decision was just handed down this week, as another Native woman is denied Native status. ((The suit was brought against the Attorney General of Canada by Lynn Gehl. For information and background see http://www.lynngehl.com/. Decision Citation: Gehl v. Canada ONSC 3481 Court File No. 02-CV-237750CM3.)) Canada being the only country in the world which still has a department responsible for deciding the racial purity of (some of) its citizens. As constitutional and human rights lawyer Mary Eberts puts it, “For me, it’s a sign that colonialism is alive and well; Canada is still using bureaucratic means (the registration system) to reduce numbers of status Indians in the hope of making ‘the Indian Problem’ go away.” In her considered opinion Native women in Canada have been designated as prey. Legally speaking they are targeted, and, as we have witnessed in our time — don’t forget, before the serial murdering pig farmer, there was the serial murdering barber operating in the downtown eastside of Vancouver — our Native sisters can be killed with impunity.
I wrote The Laughing One because I wanted to look at what Carr did in her life, most especially her choice to depict the Native villages she visited, including in her paintings the distinctive carving on houses, poles, and canoes, and her choice to use indigenous designs on the clay pots she made for the tourist trade. She criticized others for doing this, claiming special status for herself as someone who knew and understood them — both the designs, and the native people. I first wanted to understand what she actually knew — and there was a fair amount in the archive that had not been published indicating she was no naïf on the subject of appropriation, and that she’d run into Native people who objected to her painting their poles. Eventually, the outtakes from the published record (mainly from Klee Wyck, andthe journals Hundreds and Thousands) were published in Opposite Contraries which I always have seen a testament to the effort, as recent as the 1960s, to clean-up Carr’s record by removing the unsightly references to suffering Native women.
Carr’s original purpose in making these trips had been to document the carvings as a kind of momento mori of a disappearing culture; when that idea got nowhere, she painted them for herself, integrating them into her larger preoccupation with landscape. In the 1930s she started writing about her travels and the Native people she’d met along the way. It is as a result of these renditions of contemporary Native life, that the issue of Native Rights and Settler Society wrongs have come down to us as part of Carr’s legacy.
My book — which is subtitled “A Journey to Emily Carr” — is about Carr’s relationship to Indigenous peoples, but it is also about our relationship today; the relationship to the shared history of Native and Non-Native Canadians. Carr will remain a problem for us until we deal honourably and appropriately with settler Canada’s obligations to all Indigenous communities — starting with acknowledgement and including reparations. Until we do that, I for one don’t feel comfortable claiming Carr as a national icon. Put more positively I ask, if she is to be a National Icon what does she stand for? What do we see in her life and work that addresses our founding communities — Native and non-Native?
I think the answer might be this: To the extent that Emily Carr and Sophie Frank embraced a friendship despite the disparity between them, I believe they are a model for us. A model of two people forging a personal connection across cultural/racial divides without permission or protocol. Like dancing in the dark; like creating into the future. Like imaging a fair resolution to historic injustices, and recognition of their present-day manifestations. My guess is that Carr wore her heart on her sleeve where Sophie was concerned and Sophie saw there a deep well of caring; more significantly, Emily encountered in Sophie — and in her community — a generosity and acceptance that was heartening beyond words to her, and palpable encouragement.
In the last five years, besides the Tsilhqot’in decision, we’ve seen the Truth & Reconciliation Commission set up, complete its work and make its report. The comments of Justice Murray Sinclair of the Commission this past week demonstrate that self same generosity Emily experienced, that I have, and I daresay that many of you have too. And it’s a generosity that I feel the non-Native community of Canadians has never really earned.
Thus far reconciliation has been left pretty much to Native people themselves, along with a few guilty Churches. Yet reconciliation is demonstrably not something that can be delegated. I believe Chief Justice McLachlin’s remarks take us a giant step along the path to Reconciliation. And clearly, the timing of this exhibition is fortuitous. We are at the perfect moment in history to be revisiting Emily Carr and her legacy.
I’d like to end with this observation : That the work of Indigenous artists, writers, musicians, and performers has been, and continues to be, central to the work of healing within the Native communities. They have also increasingly been reaching out to non-Native communities, working with non-Native artists, and I wish to pay tribute to their patience, their generosity, their humour — and their faith in us.
12(1)(b), the infamous clause in the Indian Act which stripped Native women of their status when they married non-Native men, was repealed in 1985. Like many, I assumed that ended of the story. We were all wrong !! Here is what Ottawa served up in its place. as explained to me by constitutional and human rights lawyer, Mary Eberts. PLEASE SHARE.
“The legislation that removed 12(1)(b) is still known colloquially as Bill C-31, passed in 1985, to coincide with the coming into force of section l5 of the Charter, which guarantees equality.
“Bill C-31 did several things. It began by preserving all the rights of the Indian men and the non-Indian women who got Indian status by marrying those men, and the children of these marriages. All of them became what is known in the vernacular as 6(1)(a)’s, after the section in Bill C-31 which preserved their status.
“The other fundamental plank of Bill C-31 was to provide, in 6(1)(f), that in order to get “full” status in the future, a person has to be born of two parents with status under the Indian Act. In the past, status was available with only one Indian parent as long as the parent was the father (or, in the case of a child born out of wedlock, an Indian mother). Instead of achieving equality by giving the woman the same right to pass on status as the sole Indian parent, as men had had under the old Act, the framers of Bill C-31 made a new rule insisting that two Indian parents were needed to provide “full” status.
“I use the term “full status” because the distinction between full status –which can be passed on to one’s children – and having only a life interest in status was another innovation of Bill C-31. (ie: status dies with you and cannot be transmitted.) More to follow…
“Under 6(1)(c) of Bill C-31, a woman who had lost status because she married a non-Indian man was restored to Indian status. That was an improvement over the old situation. However, that woman’s children with her non-Indian husband would only have one parent who is an Indian, and thus could not get “full” status under s 6(1)(f). Children with only one parent who is Indian got status under s.6(2). They could not pass this status on to their children, unless they had children with a status person.
“Canada has instituted some very harsh rules to govern the administration of this 6(1)(f) / 6(2) situation. If you are a woman status Indian who has a child outside of marriage, or has a child with an unknown or unidentified father, then the government will consider that you are the only Indian parent of that child. That means that if you are a 6(1), you can give your child status. But if you are a 6(2) you cannot. Since 1985, there have been about 40,000 children (estimated) denied status because their fathers were unknown or unidentified.
“This situation actually rolls back the rights of the woman which had existed under the old, pre-1985 legislation. Under that, an Indian woman could pass her status along to a child born out of wedlock, as long as no one came forward and proved that the child’s father was not Indian. Now, the woman has to establish that the father IS Indian. This is difficult in cases of, say, rape, incest, or other violations. For me, it is a sign that colonialism is alive and well; Canada is still using bureaucratic means (the registration system) to reduce the numbers of status Indians, in the hope of making “the Indian problem” go away.
“The last big change made in the 1985 Act, bill C-31, was to give the Bands permission to enact their own criteria for band membership. If they do not do this, then band membership follows Indian status, as it used to before l985. If the Bands do enact their own membership codes, they can exclude from membership people who might otherwise be members because they are status Indians. A good example is the Caughnewaga membership code which says that a man who marries a Caughnewaga member is not a member. If you are not a member, you cannot live on Band land. So the Band is asking the woman to choose between her husband and her band…..marry this guy and you are exiled. Same story, different way of accomplishing it.”
M.E. A Portrayal of Emily Carr is a rare and moving study of an artist’s struggle against despair and loneliness and an intimate portrayal of the close friendship between Edythe and Emily. The two artists were good friends and met not long after Edythe had returned from Paris where she had studied art. Written as a friendly appreciation of the character of Emily Carr, rather than her life, Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher's rendering was described in reviews of the time as "a fond memoir, well-written, a modest and excellent little book, throws new light on her methods of painting and describes the humourous adventures of camping with Emily Carr.” It also contains edited versions of 20 letters written by Carr to her friend, and the cover features a rare painting of Carr recently discovered. M.E. was first published in 1969 and has been out of print for years.
This article was originally published in The Toronto Star on January 26, 2011 as part of a special supplement celebrating the Chinese New Year. It’s the story of Wong Dong Wong who came to Canada as a teenager in 1911 to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Vancouver. He was an orphan with no future in China but he made one for himself in Canada, migrating East to Toronto in 1917 to work as a domestic cook during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada. He was hired by my grandfather in 1928. You can download a PDF version of the piece (78Kb).
I was probably a couple of days old when I first met Wong Dong Wong. From then on he was part of my life, someone I was always in touch with and saw regularly until he died 25 years later. My earliest memories include him, and, throughout my childhood, he was a source of unending magic.
Example: The drawer in the kitchen mysteriously stocked with contraband goods — comics, candy and chewing gum. Example: The May 24 fireworks extravaganza he put on in the back garden attracting half the neighbourhood, the crowd expanding each year until the Forest Hill Police dropped by to investigate.
He could mend bikes, do string games and make ice cream; he played gymnastics endlessly with us in the back yard, and he took me to see my first movie.
He could save your bacon by fishing articles out of the storm sewer lost in games of sink-the-battleship in the gutter after a rainfall; but he could also make you shrivel up smaller than Alice-in-Wonderland when your behaviour crossed the line and he issued a summons to the kitchen.
The other side of this idyll, and the reason for Mr. Wong’s presence in our lives, was anything but pleasant. It was the overtly racist immigration laws of the time, specifically the ChineseExclusion Act in Canada, which condemned thousands of Chinese men to lives of social isolation and targeted injustice in Canada.
Separated from family, often too poor to return to China despite a lifetime of labour, they ended their days, alone in rooming houses.
Mr. Wong paid a $500 Head Tax to enter Canada in November 1911.
He was 16, although immigration officials at the port of Victoria decided he was 11, and entered that age in the ledger noting he was 4′ 9” in height and had a scar over his left eye.
He was born in Taishan (Toisan) county in Guangdong in 1895, and brought to Canada as a teenager by a relative who had a job waiting for him in Vancouver.
By 1917, he’d acquired facility in Cantonese as well as English, and had mastered the basics of Canadian (English) cooking. Quite probably he’d also repaid his debt. He then moved to Toronto and found work as a domestic cook which meant fulltime, live-in employment in the homes of white people. He was working for a family in Rosedale when he met my grandfather in the late 1920s.
I began researching Mr. Wong’s life two years ago, using his C.I. 36 certificate to locate him in government records.
Always in my mind, though, was his village in China.
I remember talk about his making the journey home, but it was 1965 before he retired, and he was not in good health. He had worked for my grandparents, latterly my widowed grandmother, for 37 years, and was a great deal more than a cook. He ran the household which included cleaning, laundry and gardening as well as cooking, and when my grandmother reached her 80s and 90s, he was a companion to her.
Undoubtedly Mr. Wong worked longer than he should have.
He stayed because of a promise to my grandfather, and, I suspect, because the Canadian government’s refusal to accept his correct date of birth meant old age benefits were delayed until he was 70. His last years were spent in a rooming house in Chinatown, but not alone. He became close to his neighbour Jim Wong, whom he considered a son. (It was Jim who held Wong’s photo at his funeral in 1970).
When I saw Jim’s son, Tao Wong, recently we shared memories of weekly visits to see grandfather Wong: Tao’s family went on Sundays, my sister Jennie and I on Wednesdays. For 40 years, both families have visited Mr. Wong’s grave.
Wong Dong Wong never returned to China. Almost 100 years after his voyage to Canada, I found myself preparing to make the journey “back” myself.
To write about him, I needed to see his homeland, to experience firsthand, as a friend said, “the richness that must have haunted the memories of Mr. Wong when he looked about his Canadian landscape, and, surely, longed for home.”
I knew I might never find his village, much less the story of how and why he left. Yet, six months into the project, my collaborator in China, Smile Leung, located Wing Ning village, and, last Fall, we travelled there together.
Smile and I met first with the Village Head, Wong Jinhua, who told us we would not find Wong Dong Wong in the official genealogy. Wong was an orphan, whose father had died the month he was born and his mother two years later. His uncle, Wong Wanshen, had felt sympathy for the boy, and so arranged for him to go to Canada. There were no prospects for him in China.
Wong Jinhua introduced us to Wong Wenxi and his family, the descendants of Wong Wanshen. They retold the story of Wong Dong Wong, and showed me a photo of Wong Wanshen, as well as the family’s hand-bound, hand-written record of births going back to 1875.
And there it was, the entry “Wong Zongwong born late in the evening, August 28th, 1895.”
If I make this search sound simple, it wasn’t. I succeeded only because of friends, and the generosity of the Taishanese community, not to mention the perfect strangers who contacted me after an article appeared in Sing Tao daily — Taishan County’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau included.
Christmas is the time my family most remember Mr. Wong. We bake his shortbread, improved, I think, by the encounter with his Chinese savoir-fare.
Over the years, Chinese New Year’s has come to mean something, too. Living next to the Seto family in South Riverdale for 20 years, it was Wong’s Scottish shortbread for Mrs. Seto’s dumplings at the beginning of each lunar year. In Vancouver, a few years ago, it was Todd Wong’s combination Robbie Burns’ Day/Chinese New Year banquet Gung Haggis Fat Choy.
New Year’s for me this year is a time to celebrate the remarkable Mr. Wong.
Susan Crean is a Toronto writer and recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which made the trip to Taishan possible. More of Mr. Wong’s story can be found on her website: www.whatistoronto.ca
This piece was published in Tai Shan magazine in November, 2010 as part of story about Chinese Canadian history, a scan of which you can download as a PDF (2.3Mb).
This version, in Chinese includes a photo of our meeting. [On the left Liang Xiaomei (my assistant and interpreter), myself, Cheri the officer who contacted us, the editor of Taishan Xing Ning and director Chen Yao Hong.]
I am a Canadian writer of Scottish and Irish descent. Two years ago I began work on a book which will include the story of a Chinese Canadian, Wong Dong Wong, who was born in Taishan, and came to Canada as a boy of 16 in 1911. In 1917, he relocated from Vancouver on Canada’s West coast to Toronto, and by the late 1920s when he met my grandfather he was working as a domestic cook. In 1928 he came to work for my grandparents and stayed for 37 years. He retired to Chinatown in 1965, and died there in 1970 having never — so far as my family knew, returned to China.
Tracing Mr. Wong’s Story
All this time later, I started tracing Mr. Wong’s story, dreaming that I perhaps would succeed in finding his village. I knew it was in Tai Shan, but I very little about his origins; the family stories varied on the subject of a wife or children. He was very private, but when I was little he told me about being an orphan, and how once he’d lost his way in the fog while tending his uncle’s cow. He’d been terribly afraid, but the cow knew her way, and guided him back home through the night.
I began with the documents he left, which fortunately included one identity card issued in the early 1940, and largely in Chinese. Thus I was able to locate his ancestral village — Wing Ning. I planned the trip over a year, but just before I left for China last September, a story about my search was featured in the local Sing Tao.
This brought a lot of calls and emails by people who were touched by the story. Several offered help, and more than one family contacted relatives in Taishan. The list included the County Bureau for Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs which contacted me before I’d left Beijing for Taishan!
Arriving at the Village
We met first with the Village head, Wong Jinhua, in the office of Zhen Changmin Overseas Affairs director for S’anhe County. This was the first of three meetings with Mr. Wong who was generous with his time, and in helping me meet people in the village. Director Chen Yao Hong and his staff in the FOC Affairs Bureau had researched what they could in advance, and offered continued support. I was travelling with an assistant and interpreter, but several of Bureau staff speak excellent English. We were included in the dinner being given that evening to honour Albert Chen, the founder of the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, by deputy mayor Suzanna Huang. (And it happened to be the birthday of them both!)
We were welcomed in the village. Our arrival was not secret. We visited Wing Ning twice, and spent time there with elder Wong Wenxi who is a grandson of Wong Wanshen, the man responsible for bringing Wong Dong Wong to Canada. Wong Wenxi was six when his grandfather returned from Canada in the mid 1930s, and knew the story of Wong Dong Wong whose father died just before he was born. Wong Wanshen adopted the boy, and from papers the family still have relating to Wong Wanshen’s life in Canada, it seems likely he’d arranged a job for young Wong upon his arrival in Vancouver.
Meeting Mr. Wong’s Family
We met the sons and daughters, and grandchildren of Wong Wanshen’s grandson who showed us around the village and pointed out the landmarks. We met with the oldest resident, now in has 90s who remembers Wong Wanshen as a man of means when he returned, a man who looked after many things in the village.
The trip was a terrific success. I found Mr Wong’s story and met the descendants of his kin. This only happened because people found a reflection of other stories they know about and are connected to in Mr. Wong’s life. These are the stories of the Head Tax generation, an era of Chinese Canadian history when young men were condemned by Canadian Exclusion Laws to a lifetime of relentless work and solitude in Canada. Like Wong Dong Wong their lives were invisible to history during his lifetime, but their enormous contribution to Canadian life is finally becoming known.
Reference: The story of Chinese Canadian pioneers can be found at http://www.mhso.ca/tiesthatbind/ which documents the contribution of the original immigrants from Guangdong to Canada who built the critical last section of the TransCanada railroad through the Rocky Mountains to the coast.
This article was originally published in the Wongs’ Association Convention magazine in 2011 as part of an exploration of Chinese in Canada history. You can also download the article as a PDF (2.3Mb).
Climbing the narrow staircase to the Wongs’ Association’s third floor office in downtown Toronto, past the plaque reading Wong Kung Har Wun Sun Association in Chinese and English, you reach a nondescript door that gives no hint of what lies beyond. When the association bought the building in 1979 the entire top floor was redesigned and the space opened up. Along with offices and a small kitchen, it now accommodates a large assembly hall with a 20′ ceiling where the shrine to the Wong ancestors stands in gilded solemnity, lit from above by large windows encircling the raised roof — itself a first in the neighbourhood. So, past the door you walk into a burst of natural light — even on a rainy day.
Arriving at the Wong’s Association
Tuesday afternoon at the end of March might seem an unlikely time to find anyone at here, but my visit is at the invitation of Chuck K. Wong, a director of the Association for more than a decade. He is on duty today, one of a roster of volunteers who make sure “there’s always someone here to let members in.”
He shows me around, pointing to the Wong family tree and the photographs of Association members that line the hallway, and the place of honour inside the Hall for the photos of the Association chairmen going back to the 1950s.
A Tase of Chinese Canadian History
He relates the story of the ancestor commemorated here (one of 21 sons of the original patriarch) and gives me a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Association and its two antecedent organizations. The original members were Toishanese, and given the small Chinese community living in Toronto during the Exclusion years (1923-47), their numbers dwindled. “To strengthen the association we needed more members, so other Wongs were invited to join us,” he explains.
His knowledge, he tells me, comes largely from conversations; what he knows is what elders have told him over the years. So he worries about losing these memories before the history of the Association has been properly recorded.
What’s on Chuck K. Wong’s mind, though, is not the past but the up-coming tri-annual national convention which will bring Wongs from around the world to Toronto for three days in August. He sees the event as an opportunity for re-engagement.
An International Gathering
The international dimension of the clan’s experience is a key part of the Wong heritage. Emigration has produced an astonishing diversity in the name itself, he notes. It has also, obviously, nurtured a skill for negotiating cultures, not to mention foreign languages and customs. Two characteristics seem to be key. First the tendency of Toishanese to treat each other as family, and to believe in the ethic of helping one’s own and sharing resources.
So, from the beginning the community reached beyond the Chinatowns across the country into small towns and remote places like Moose Factory creating a web of relationships built up between relatives and friends that enabled people to survive.
Secondly, there was the clan’s reputation for honouring its word. The Association, for example, set up a committee which operated like a credit union, providing seed money for members when no bank would. “There was nothing on paper. It was all on people’s word, ” Mr. Wong emphasizes repeating the old adage: “When you deal with a Wong, nothing can go wrong.”
A Valuable Community
Mr. Wong was himself inspired by his great uncle Wong Nan Yao, the third chairman of the Wong Kung Har Wun Sun Association who first took him to the Association, and who always spoke of the importance of contributing to the community, and giving back. Times change, and today the Association may no longer be the social and economic lifeline it was, but the value of community has not disappeared.
A week later, on a Saturday afternoon, we pull up to Greg K.W. Wong’s house and find him working in the garden, eagerly making up for the long delay of Spring. He is part of the convention committee whose work is well underway at this point.
We chat in his spacious kitchen, my friend Chuck C.C. Wong, who brought me along, has taken on the task of putting the convention booklet together. Greg K.W. Wong regularly hosts sessions like this at his house — and very soon in his back garden, too — and clearly knows a lot of people. He recruits individuals who want to make something happen, and charges them with doing just that.
An affable man, he welcomes participation and delegates decision-making. So the cast of volunteers gathers numbers like a chain letter.
Greg K. W. Wong also sees history as instructive. However, there will be no dwelling on the past at the convention. “The intention is to encourage young people to ask themselves what they’d like to achieve, not to encourage them to carry chips on their shoulders.” Like Chuck C.C. Wong, he worries about the history that is locked up in memory, including those stories never spoken of. And he also speaks of the necessity of collaborative action.
He tells the story of how during the Exclusion years, when racism was virulent and the Chinese were barred from public places like trains, hotels and swimming pools, people would travel from Chinatown to Chinatown via an “underground railroad” of safe houses. This was how the community worked, looking after its own. And to this day, if you stop of at a local Chinese restaurant you are likely to be greeted as family.
The power of association has to do with numbers, but it also has to do with the sharing skills and knowledge. It can be a source of individual self-knowledge, and self-confidence. “Given the history of the Wongs in Canada, and our contributions to the country, to be a Wong today means being equal to all and second to none.”
Writer, literary activist and good friend Betsy Warland is currently hosting an inter-active, three-way Salon on her website. It centres on her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between, and each month she posts two excerpts — one from Oscar and one contributed by a guest writer. Then she invites people to riff off the two excerpts. Last month I was the guest writer, and put up a section from the opening of Digging to China.
Betsy is a well known Vancouver writer and teacher, former director of The Writers’ Studio at SFU. She’s a poet and non-fiction writer, but in reality invents her genres, as you’ll see in Oscar. A genial and ingenious experimental writer who is capable of rendering a table of contents into poetics, or folding footnotes into poem.
I’m fascinated by the way people have done just what Betsy asked — been sparked by the juxtaposition of the two pieces, found resonances with other work, and ideas. Just like a….salon.