RAILWAY NOVEL: "...just a bunch of coolies..."

Sat, Dec 20th, 2014 11:18:53 am

          Here's a confession. The railway marks a moment of shame in my life. But that moment was a key milepost in my life.
          In my final year of high school, the guidance counselor sent me to help put on a conference, sponsored by the government, about Chinese-Canadian youth. It was about identity and awareness. I didn't want to go but it was hard to refuse my counselor.
          One day, at a planning session, somone mentioned Chinese railway workers. Without evening thinking, I blurted out, "Why would you want to talk about them? They were just a bunch of coolies."
          After a moment of silence, the meeting resumed. But I was shaken. Although no one pointed a finger at me, I was horrified at my words. They showed how thoroughly "brainwashed" I was.
          At that time, I knew little about Chinese railway workers. It hadn't been part of my schooling, yet, somehow, I had picked up enough hints in my young life to disdain those men.
          How had that happened?
          Ironically, Pierre Berton's THE LAST SPIKE had just been published, and I had received a copy for Christmas in 1972. By the time of that conference meeting, I would have read Berton's sympathetic account of the Chinese railway workers. Yet that failed to sway me from my disdainful take.
          I began to see how subtle and thorough the process of assimilation was in nurturing certain kinds of heroes but not others. I realized how powerful the mass media and the education system were, in what they included and didn't include.
          After that session, I was "reborn" into Vancouver's Chinese community. I started doing volunteer work in Chinatown: teaching English, collecting oral history, fund-raising for a cultural centre, doing exhibits on Chinese-Canadian history. I became obsessed with Chinatown, convinced that community involvement was vital to minority groups because it provided a much needed political education.
          And it was from my volunteer work in Chinatown that I stumbled onto a writing career.

brochure from the conference
Here's how I looked in high school
My Chinatown friends and me, 1975. Jim Wong-Chu photo.
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