Charlie Wu: I'm a Taiwanese Canadian, not a Chinese Canadian

On the eve of TAIWANfest, the organizer explains why he’s not willing to be pigeonholed about his identity

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      By Charlie Wu

      Call me Taiwanese, please!

      In 2006, I was named as one of the top 100 influential Chinese Canadians in B.C. by the Vancouver Sun. Then-premier Gordon Campbell sent me a letter of congratulation. Would I prefer to be on a list of top Taiwanese Canadians?

      Absolutely. The term Chinese Canadian was so loosely used and often very generalized that there was no choice to say “no” at the time, and I wasn’t brave enough to do so. The reality is that when one is referred to by an identity with which one isn’t comfortable, it shouldn’t be used at all.

      Fast forward to 2020. There was a campaign launched against anti-Chinese sentiment in B.C., and I was asked to endorse it. I asked the organizer if it would be okay if I could sign as a Taiwanese Canadian; I was respectfully declined. This time, I felt so true to myself.

      I thought a campaign to raise the awareness of discrimination should actually address the hidden or rarely discussed discrimination within the Chinese-speaking community.

      After a few years of “Dialogue with Asia” at TAIWANfest—where I have had plenty of opportunities to speak with other Asian communities such as Hong Kongers, Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese—I think it is time for me to really stick with my Taiwanese label. Continuing to tolerate the generalization is simply wrong after learning the problem isn’t just for Taiwanese only.

      Read former premier Gordon Campbell's 2006 letter to Charlie Wu.

      Before I go further, do I have any problems if people wish to call themselves Chinese or Chinese Canadian? Absolutely not. I respect their right to choose their own identity.

      I often see people add pronouns to their names. Most people don’t get to choose their names when they are born, but they should be able to decide how they want to be referred to.

      The complexity of an identity is always an emotional and sometimes political issue. It is so hard to tell people a life story every time one is introducing themselves; it is also really hard to correct people when their references make you uncomfortable and the focus of the discussion isn’t about identity.

      The public has little time to learn about these complexities, or most don’t care to make the differentiation. However, should the very people who are advocating for harmony in diversity or protecting people from hatred—such as governments, institutions, charitable organizations, or media outlets— continue to be naive about this issue?

      What’s wrong with being called Chinese Canadian? For some, this is almost the same as a Canadian being called British or French. Other than the language I speak, I just don’t identify with the Chinese label, or China. It is even harder for me to identify as Chinese when most people accept China’s version of what Taiwan is, despite the constant military threats China is making against Taiwan.

      Moreover, many Chinese Canadians would even argue in the same way as the Chinese government: forcing Taiwanese to call themselves Chinese. I know that Taiwanese people share some customs and traditions deemed Chinese, but so do Koreans, Vietnamese, or Japanese.

      Taiwanese people love many Chinese art forms, including calligraphy and food, but so do Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Beyond those traditions, Taiwanese people also celebrate their Indigenous heritage just like Canada. Taiwan, as a thriving democratic society, has seen wave after wave of doers, thinkers, and leaders who are inspired to be different from Chinese.

      I have nothing against Chinese culture or Chinese people, just like many Canadians. In this year’s TAIWANfest, we have worked with Chinese-born and Toronto- based artist Tong Zhou on his new work, (Un) Being Chinese, an interesting perspective for anyone who wants to dive further into defining the meaning of being Chinese.

      Tong Zhou's (Un) Being Chinese reflects on identity and stereotypes.
      Tong Zhou

      We visited scientists and scholars who would help us see perspectives on Taiwan and China, people whose views would be prohibited in China. Lastly, we invited speakers who could actually see the “Taiwan model” as a path for China, a provocative thought that should be discussed more frequently.

      If there is a year for people interested to know why the Taiwanese deserve a separate mention from the Chinese, this is it. I am proud to be part of a movement that aims to carve out a space for the Taiwanese people in the world.

      There are two things you could really do to help this movement. First, be mindful of your own stereotypes toward anything Chinese. Ask more questions and have more discussions before making up your mind.

      Second, if you must make a general reference, refer to the Chinese community as the “Chinese-speaking community”, because the community is too complex and consists of people from far too many places. The only thing they have in common is probably the languages used in the community.

      I trust most of my fellow Canadians are very supportive of allowing people to determine their identities. I hope this iteration of TAIWANfest makes those decisions easier.

      Charlie Wu is managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, which organizes the annual TAIWANfest in Vancouver. Many of this year’s events take place from Saturday to Monday (September 5 to 7), but other presentations will continue to September 27 on the TAIWANfest Facebook and YouTube channels. For more information, visit