‘Mr. Chinatown’ presents historical chart nationally, locally

Saanich resident David Lai draws on his lifetime of studies on Chinese immigration and settlement in Canada to produce special chart

After getting a showing in Parliament on Oct. 6, a poster-sized chart summarizing Chinese Canadian History from 1788 to 2010 got its Victoria debut last weekend to an audience including several prominent community leaders of Chinese descent.

Project author and Saanich resident David Lai drew on his lifetime of studies on Chinese immigration and settlement in Canada to produce the chart.

“Dr. Lai needs no introduction, he is afterall Mr. Chinatown,” said emcee Grace Wong Sneddon. The 35-year UVic professor emeritus of geography “has surveyed more than 40 Chinatowns in North America and Australia,” she said.

Lai addressed the attendees, including senator and project patron Vivienne Poy and Oak Bay-Gordon head MLA Ida Chong, with his typical humor. Turning down the lights for a slide-show presentation, he sent this invitation: “If you feel sleepy, you can doze. I will wake you up after.”

Using a railroad as a visual to ground the 222-year timeline, Lai’s chart begins with the first Chinese labourers, brought by the British to build a fortress in Nootka Sound. It ends with the 2006 apology by Parliament for the discrimination faced by Chinese immigrants who paid a head tax.

Victoria plays a central role in the national story of Chinese Canadian heritage as the first landing point, in the early days of the Fraser River gold rush.

With the introduction of the head tax in 1885, Chinese immigrants coming from Hong Kong were taken to an immigration office in Victoria, resembling a prison, where they had to wait until they or their relatives could produce the head tax.

Years ago, Lai investigated the abandoned office. “I discovered some Chinese started to scratch some writing on the wall,” he said.

Translated one of the messages read: “I can see neither the world outside nor my dear parents. When I think of them, tears begin to stream down. To whom can I confide my mournful sorrow?”

The chart project, launched by the David Lam Centre at Simon Fraser University, was first done 10 years ago, said David Choi, the centre’s adjunct professor.

“This (version) has been completely revised and rewritten,” he said. Also new this time around, are booklets for each of Canada’s significant Chinatowns. They’ll be launched in cities across Canada in the months to come.