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Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada.

Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada, by Alison R. Marshall. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 2014. xvii, 268 pp. $95.00 Cdn (cloth), $32.95 Cdn (paper.).

Cultivating Connections builds upon Marshall's previous book, The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba (Vancouver, 2011), where she first argued that the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist League) played a key role in organizing Chinese immigrant communities on the prairies, whereas in larger cities such as Vancouver and New York, the Chinese Benevolent Association assumed this role. In her introduction, Marshall argues persuasively for the importance of being attentive to affect or emotion in tracing the local and transnational interpersonal networks that tied Chinese immigrant communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to one another and to China itself. Marshall is sensitive to the need to tell stories of immigrant communities not just from without, as they were perceived or acted upon by others, but from within. To that end, she draws upon archival materials, including detailed membership records kept by the KMT, and some 300 oral history interviews conducted over many years during which she became actively involved in the activities of the Chinese Canadian community in Winnipeg, serving as director of its Chinese Cultural and Community Centre from 2009 to 2012.

The result is a series of detailed portraits of particular men and women whose lives illustrate the role of religion and the KMT in creating interpersonal networks that extended across the prairies, and differences in the experiences of Chinese immigrant men and women. The KMT provided men with opportunities to demonstrate their assimilability, Marshall argues, whereas immigrant women on the prairies were isolated to a greater degree than those who lived elsewhere because of racial discrimination, geography, and traditional gender biases rooted in Chinese culture. Rich in detail, these vignettes introduce us to such individuals as the Christian missionary Reverend Ma Seung who ministered to Chinese Canadians across the prairies and beyond; Charles Yee and Charlie Foo, who married non-Chinese women, one Ukrainian and the other British in origin; and Quongying Wong, the daughter of a Chinese geomancer who immigrated to Canada and drew upon traditional Chinese religious rituals to protect her family. In describing these practices, Marshall's background as a scholar of religious studies allows her to suggest the significance of a coin sword and other artifacts that others might miss.

Immigration historians will recognize the overarching narrative as one imbedded in the community histories of most immigrant groups: "first settlers, ... initial hardships overcome by hard work and frugality, an invariable commitment to political quiescence and conservatism," and, eventually, modest success and a legacy now woven into the Canadian social fabric (Knight and Koizumi, A Man of Our Times: The Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman, Vancouver, 1976, p. 7). In Cultivating Connections, we learn, for example, that Arthur Mar "found ways to persevere, flourish, and leave a legacy on the Canadian Prairies in spite of tremendous adversity;" Charles Yee "overcame the obstacles of poverty and bigotry to achieve success and ensure the success of his children;" and that "Chinese Canadians quietly and nobly lived under a severe shadow of discrimination" (pp. 5, 99, 67). We catch glimpses of other individuals who responded to conditions on the Canadian prairies by turning not to religion or the KMT but to other networks, such as the thirty Chinese men who attacked five members of the KMT in Winnipeg in 1930. Although she criticizes the Manitoba Free Press for characterizing all those involved as "barbarians" and briefly notes that the attackers did not share the political views of KMT members, Marshall makes no further effort to humanize these individuals or to examine in greater depth the grounds for their opposition to the KMT (p. 103).

Marshall means well in making the decision to tell only those stories that the families of those included in the book wanted told. In her words, she assured them that she "wasn't interested in telling their dirty secrets or exposing painful memories" (p. 166). But telling a more complete story need not entail prying or intrusion, and it avoids obscuring alternate strategies to which Chinese or other Asian immigrants turned in negotiating the race-based constraints that confronted them in Canada. What is regarded as taboo or important to keep secret itself changes over time. The challenge we face as historians is to understand the past on its own terms, and not to impose on the past the judgments of our own time.

That said, Cultivating Connections stands as a tribute to those included in its pages. Although not a comprehensive study, this series of readable, accessible, and richly detailed portraits, in itself, makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Chinese Canadian communities on the prairies.

DOI: 10.3138/CJH.ACH.50.2.005

Andrea Geiger, Simon Fraser University
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Author:Geiger, Andrea
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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