David H. T. Wong says he dreamed of having a career as a cartoonist starting when he was a child growing up on Vancouver’s East Side. In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight in a Chinatown mall, he confesses that there was “no hope in hell” of this occurring because his parents would never have approved of this as a career choice. So he became an architect.
On the side, he spent a great deal of time volunteering as a community activist on behalf of Chinese head-tax payers, environmental initiatives, and other causes. The Straight first interviewed Wong in the mid 1990s when he tried valiantly to prevent the Vancouver park board from chopping down nearly 400 mature trees on the Fraserview Golf Course.
But Wong never lost his passion for drawing. When the economy imploded several years ago and his architectural practice slowed down, he picked up his pencil and tried to turn his dream into a reality. Four years later, the result is a new book, Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America (Arsenal Pulp Press).
“Most young people couldn’t care two beans about history because it’s very boring,” Wong says. “I wanted to present it in a way which was interesting, dynamic, and engaging. I felt that illustrations were a way to do it.”
The book chronicles shocking racism experienced by Chinese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, describes the role of Chinese pioneers in building transcontinental railways, and shows what everyday life was like for people of Asian descent in North America. Escape to Gold Mountain also features cameos by Chinese revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen and such local figures as real-estate agent Faye Leung, cultural activist Todd Wong, and poet Jim Wong-Chu.
“I’m hoping the Vancouver school board and all the school boards will look at this,” Wong says. “It’s a great way to teach history.”
David H.T. Wong discusses his graphic history of Chinese North Americans.
Wong depicts the ethnic cleansing of Chinese Americans, which was extensively documented in U.S. academic Jean Pfaelzer’s 2007 book Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. Through illustrations and words, he shows how an anti-Chinese league in San Francisco burned Chinese laundries and stores in 1877, resulting in four deaths and dozens of injuries. The expulsion from areas in the western United States was referred to as pai hua, and some of those who fled for their lives ended up living in Victoria.
In the interview, Wong mentions that his great-grandfather Sam was one of the first members of his family to move to North America, arriving in California in the 1880s. Wong says that for 50 years, his family didn’t know what had happened to his ancestor.
“About six years ago, Senator Larry Campbell was kind enough to offer a hand, and together with Senator Lillian Dyck, they found the remains of my great-grandfather in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.”
Wong’s book devotes a great deal of attention to the “Iron Chink”, a machine devised in 1903 by an Ontario man, Edmund A. Smith, to mechanize work performed in fish-processing plants. Its introduction caused thousands of people of Asian descent to lose their jobs, including many in the Lower Mainland.
“It could behead, split, gut, and clean salmon in one continuous operation,” Wong writes. “Replacing skilled Chinese workers and reflecting racist anti-Asian attitudes of the time, Smith registered his invention as the ‘Iron Chink’ on his first US patent.”
Escape to Gold Mountain includes an upbeat chapter near the end, telling the true story of a Canadian man named Frank Wong—no relation to Wong—who was not permitted to serve in the military near the start of the Second World War. Wong says, however, that he was allowed to enlist after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, and ended up fighting on the beaches of Normandy. His eldest daughter married a Canadian whose German-born father had fought with Hitler’s forces on the other side. The two in-laws and former enemy combatants became friends.
The book closes with apologies and expressions of regret by politicians on both sides of the border for the historical treatment of the Chinese in North America.
“These are the stories of our ancestors—our pioneers—who actually built our nations, and it’s something I would love to celebrate with the next generation,” Wong says. “But more important, it’s a book about racism. And it’s also a book about hope, because what I would love for people to get out of my book here is that hatred may not be continued for future generations.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.