Posted on Sunday, March 20th, 2011 at 12:03 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: s.e. smith
Lisa Rose Mar, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era 1885-1945 (Oxford University Press, 201o).
In Brokering Belonging, Lisa Rose Mar brings a fresh perspective to Chinese-Canadian scholarship surrounding the Exclusion Era. During the Exclusion Era (1885-1945), a series of increasingly draconian immigration laws limited Chinese immigration to Canada and the United States. Mar’s book illustrates the gaping holes in the immigration policy of the era and provides new insight into who filled those holes. A highly integrated and cooperative system of powerful members of both the Chinese and Anglo community supported a steady stream of illegal immigrants to Canada and the United States from China and supported them upon arrival.
Mar’s book takes an approach she refers to as ‘making history from the middle,’ looking not at the role of immigrants or whites shaping immigration policy, but that of the go-betweens. Power brokers played an active role in both Chinese and Anglo society, and Mar’s examination of this era in Canadian and US history shows that Chinese-Canadian politics and engagement during this period took on an international scope, encompassing not just Canada and the United States but China and the British Empire.
Using Chinese-language documents, she probes into the role of power brokers in Chinese immigration, engagement with the Canadian legal system, and political activism. Brokering Belonging takes apart common assumptions about the Exclusion Era and points out that power brokers played a significant role in shaping mainstream attitudes about Chinese immigrants. The ‘model minority’ myth owes its inception in no small part to the gaming of the University of Chicago’s 1924 Survey of Race Relations, engineered by influential members of the Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities.
Chinese power brokers issued travel papers and false documentation in China and followed their clients all the way to Vancouver and other major port cities, ensuring that Chinese interpreters friendly to the cause intercepted these immigrants and verified their stories for Anglo immigration officials. These interpreters could and did determine who entered Canada and who was turned back at the border, which ‘paper sons’ were legitimised by entry into Canada, and who would be exempt from paying the costly head tax for entry.
Power brokers did far more than control the movements of immigrants. They also played a key role in the legal system. Though not officially allowed to practice as attorneys, interpreters acted as ‘Chinese lawyers,’ attempting to negotiate settlements within the Chinese community and turning to the Canadian legal system when this was not effective. Many of these interpreters functioned essentially like lawyers, and were highly familiar with the workings of the legal system and the ways in which it could be abused and manipulated.
Mar also highlights the Chinese-Canadian resistance that occurred during the Exclusion Era and ties it in with the worldwide rise in anti-imperialist and socialist protest that coincided with this period in history. Members of the Chinese-Canadian community orchestrated boycotts of Chinese and US goods, protested school segregation in Canada, and agitated for workers’ rights and changes in racist Canadian tax policy. This lively protest movement laid the groundwork for full legal integration and the generation of activists who pushed for full social equality in the 1960s and 1970s.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Brokering Belonging is the discussion of the University of Chicago’s sweeping Study of Race Relations in 1924. Most scholarly analysis of this study focuses on the perspectives of the survey organisers and turns to the data collected as an invaluable resource for learning what Chinese and Japanese-American lives were like during this period. Mar offers a different story, one where power brokers carefully orchestrated and controlled survey results.
Interpreters determined who should provide information to the University of Chicago sociologists and coached their answers to shape a specific vision of the Chinese and Japanese-American community. Their manipulation of the survey resulted in a view of Asian immigrants as a model minority into the United States, one concerned with full assimilation into society and an adoption of values and goals promoted by the government and common to other residents of the growing United States. This had a profound impact on shifts in immigration policy and the eventual relaxation of laws restricting Asian immigration.
The level of power and control necessary to manipulate the survey results illustrates the influence power brokers exerted over the lives of many immigrants into the United States and Canada, playing an active role in their lives throughout their stay in immigrant communities. At the same time, far from being insular and focused primarily on the Chinese community, these men and women behind the curtain also exerted influence in Anglo society, working alongside not just Anglo officials but also political parties and social organisations to accomplish their goals.
Mar highlights the often conflicted role of power brokers in the Chinese community; while working for increased rights and access to society, they were also exploiting immigrants and actively shaping outside perceptions of the immigrant community. This complicated balancing act is often erased in histories about this period, which tend to focus on the experiences of immigrants or those of Anglo immigration officials and policy makers.
Brokering Belonging paints a far different picture of Chinese immigration and Chinese-Canadian society during the Exclusion Era than the one often put forward in traditional narratives. It is a superb work of scholarship and a fascinating examination of a turbulent period in history that resonates very strongly today, where debates over immigration and attitudes about immigrants and minorities continue to rage in the United States and Canada.
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