Chinese pioneers are one of the founding peoples of British Columbia, according to a new book by high-profile immigrants from China.
Broadcaster Guo Ding and policy researcher and businessman Kenny Zhang, who were each raised in Shanghai, made this assertion in Canada’s Chinese Gene: A Sense of Belonging, Ownership and Contribution, which was recently translated into English following its original publication in Chinese in 2017.
They insist that if it were not for Chinese immigrants, the Canadian Pacific Railway linking B.C. to the rest of the country never would have been completed. The terms of union for B.C. to join Confederation included a transcontinental railway—something that prime minister John A. Macdonald promised would be finished without additional taxes.
“This policy essentially doomed the funding for the railway construction from the very beginning,” Ding and Zhang write. “Thus, Chinese workers were recruited to take up the heavy burden that others, especially white workers, would never have taken, to build the most dangerous section of the railway while accepting the lowest of wages.”
According to their research, 15,000 construction workers, including 9,000 Chinese, built the most perilous section, from Fort Moody to Eagle Pass, southwest of Revelstoke. Upwards of 600 Chinese workers died.
In a joint interview with the Georgia Straight, both Ding and Zhang said that most people of Chinese ancestry in B.C. don’t think of themselves as one of the founding peoples of the province.
Ding said that many view Chinese Canadians with suspicion because of a fundamental misunderstanding: that they are simply people who arrived seeking a better life rather than being essential pioneers in the creation of B.C.
“That’s why we always see them as foreigners with Canadian passports,” Ding said. “That kind of concept seems to last forever. They never see the Chinese community as part of this country or this province. That’s wrong.”
That’s one reason why Ding is so adamantly in favour of the creation of a new Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver.
Zhang said that if there were no Chinese immigrants in the early days, the province could have easily come under American control. That’s because the railway would not have been completed, leaving people feeling that they were tricked into joining Canada.
“The federation would be totally different,” Zhang said. “B.C. could be part of other countries.”
According to Ding, none of the Chinese workers who sacrificed so much were invited when the ceremonial last spike was driven into the track by company director Donald Smith at Craigellachie, near Eagle Pass, on November 7, 1885.
“They were isolated,” Ding said. “They could not be accepted by the mainstream.”
Book tracks contributions in other areas
Another section of Canada's Chinese Gene address the important role that Chinese Canadian military veterans had in the country's history. Ding and Zhang make a compelling case that they played a critical role in laying a foundation for the end of discriminatory legislation that kept families apart for decades.
In addition, the book examines why there are fewer politicians of Chinese ancestry than South Asian ancestry. As well, it addresses how the Chinese Canadian media has evolved over the decades.
Another chapter focuses on the economic contributions of Chinese Canadians. It points out that in 2016, the United States was responsible for 47 percent of total direct foreign investment in Canada.
That amounted to $392 billion.
China, on the other hand, only accounted for 2.6 percent of direct foreign investment in Canada, amounting to US$21 billion. That lagged behind the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Brazil.
The largest share of Chinese direct foreign investment from 2003 to 2016 was in the energy sector, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation, where Zhang used to work.
"People tend to overestimate investment from China," Zhang told the Straight.
Another common misconception, he said, is a belief that Chinese Canadians have some kind of connection with the Chinese Communist Party.
"It's totally ridiculous," Zhang declared.
That's because people of Chinese ancestry come from many different countries. Some are from mainland China, others are from Hong Kong, others are from Taiwan, and others are from Southeast Asia.
Then there are those whose ancestors came during the Qing dynasty before the Chinese Communist Party existed.
"The other thing is given this complexity of different sources, different generations, and different time periods of Chinese immigration to Canada, this community is not homogenous," Zhang said.
Canada's Chinese Gene closes with more recent columns by Ding and Zhang, which were written during the pandemic, including some that appeared on Straight.com.
Ding’s 2018 book, The Voice of a Chinese Canadian, included a preface by Attorney General David Eby. In it, the attorney general praised Ding for his efforts to educate politicians and the public about the history and culture of minority groups in B.C.
The preface acknowledged that Ding had publicly criticized Eby in connection with a 2015 housing study by Andy Yan, which relied on land-title information supplied by Eby. However, after the attorney general told Ding that he was unhappy that this study was cited to advocate discrimination against Chinese Canadians, Ding invited him on his Omni TV show to denounce racism.
“I agreed to do so,” Eby wrote. “His offer, and my acceptance of it, was the beginning of our friendship.”
According to the preface, Ding and Eby now “regularly meet for meals with our families, sharing food, jokes, and stories about our lives”.
Ding and Zhang are both founding members of the Canada Committee 100 Society, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group "dedicated to promoting the best interests" of the Chinese community in Canada.
The authors plan to hold an online launch of the English-language version of their book with three Zoom events on August 14 and 15. They'll be joined by B.C. senator Yuen Pau Woo and Stan Remple, the retired graduate program director of Trinity Western University.