University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2011
248 pp., illus., $32.95 paperback
A double review with Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885–1945
by Lisa Rose Mar
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2010
246 pp., illus., $27.95 paperback
Two new books show how, despite being denied the vote and subjected to exclusionary immigration laws and widespread racism for years, Chinese immigrants to Canada exercised and maintained power in this restrictive environment.
In Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885–1945, Lisa Rose Mar focuses on the role of English-speaking immigrants who acted as middlemen. Often employed as immigration agents, interpreters, and legal aids, these men held a unique position of power in the Western world.
Mar demonstrates how they effectively used this power to navigate direct and indirect systems of discrimination. As the five confident men on the book’s cover signal, Brokering Belonging is about generations of intelligent middlemen who, in more ways than we realize, laid the foundations for a more tolerant and inclusive Canada.
Alison Marshall’s The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba focuses on Chinese “bachelors” — men who immigrated to Canada but were forced to leave their wives and families behind. Like Brokering Belonging, The Way of the Bachelor demonstrates how Chinese immigrants carefully constructed their new lives in Canada despite an unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment.
Marshall looks at how these Chinese men formed social networks with each other through everyday acts of eating, working, and worshipping. Their system of support enabled Chinese immigrants to maintain traditional customs while carving out spaces for themselves in their new communities. Marshall’s focus on rural Manitoba offers a unique perspective, and her use of personal stories allows readers to feel a connection to a complicated history.
Both books are well-researched yet concise, making them equally accessible to academic and general readers. Although the authors focus on different people and regions, their work is united by the amount of agency they grant to Canada’s Chinese immigrants. Without downplaying the restrictions placed on immigrants, both Mar and Marshall tell histories of how Chinese newcomers not just survived, but thrived in Canada.
— Joanna Dawson (Read bio)
Joanna Dawson is Canada's History's Community Engagement Coordinator and has a blog called [Hi]story telling