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Tracing My Mainland Chinese Roots to Chinatown: A Personal Narrative

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Framing My Perspective

Over the past several months, I have had the unique opportunity of being part of a City of Vancouver Committee looking at Historical Discrimination Against Chinese in Vancouver from the City’s incorporation in 1886 to provincial franchisement in1947 and later to the granting of full municipal voting rights in 1949.

I am very consciously aware that (other than two amazing and brilliant civic historians who happen to be Caucasian), I am the only member of the committee without a common history from Southern China. Indeed, I am almost the youngest member of the committee by at least 15 to 20 years.

As I listen to the stories told in a room, like the one told during today’s second consultation session, I am conscious that I am outsider. I recognize the privilege I have now as someone who was able to call Canada my birth country in the years post-Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The stories of wives separated from their husbands for generations or two-years worth of income head taxed upon arrival, was not one I had to live through.

From a day to day level, I have never had to sit in the back of a movie theatre, because the front seats were reserved for whites only (Although, as one of my colleagues reminded us we, at an alarmingly higher than usual rate, often end up getting seats in the back corner or near the washrooms at many restaurants). I was able to be article and be called to the Bar of B.C. as a lawyer something Gordon Cumyow, son of Alexander Cumyow, was unable to do because he was not on the voter list in 1918. I am grateful for those that made this so. Brave Chinese-Canadian veterans who fought for Canada in World War II, returned, and argued for equality paved this pathway. Chinese-Canadian workers, demanding equal respect from labour unions, created their own employment organizations and forged worker movements that carved this pathway to try and bring and end to both the institutionalized and legally endorsed racism of the time.

It is also to be noted that I also do not speak Cantonese. My knowledge of Cantonese does not extend beyond the basketball court slang tossed around during my high school days. However, through what I can decipher, it is a language of energy and passion. I am reminded of my own dialects of Shanghainese (and increasingly Chongqinghua, adopted from my wife) that I have become accustomed to from spending time in both Shanghai and Chongqing. Much of the Chinese advocacy movement today is led by Cantonese-speaking youth, children of immigrants who came to Canada in the decades and, in some cases, generations before my own late father did. I commend them their activism and truly believe their language connection to their ancestors who themselves, were early advocates, is immensely important.

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What Chinatown Means to Me

Many of these stories that I have heard in the past months are centered around one, much debated, neighbourhood in Vancouver – our Chinatown.

I want to state at the outset that I appreciate that I am writing at a very sensitive time, with the 105 Keefer consultations currently occurring in the City of Vancouver. I am still working through the City staff report and do not feel informed enough to comment, nor do I feel commenting in this piece adds value to the story I want to tell.

I do hope, that those who read the piece below, and never been to Chinatown – hell, may be even be too scared or disgusted to go Chinatown and experience the markets, classic restaurants, and bakeries – give it a much deserved chance (or second shot).

Growing up in Vancouver in the early 90’s, there really was no choice for Chinese groceries, meat, seafood, and baked goods – other than Chinatown. T&T at this stage was non-existent. There was no Foody World, No Osaka Supermarket, no Empire Supermarket, and the other groceries that now line Bridgeport and No. 3 Rd in Richmond. Even Victoria Drive, which is now bustling with grocers, was “too far East” to us in those days.

Going to Chinatown was the weekly family trip. We’d pack into our family’s small Toyota Tercel and drive to Chinatown. Some days we ended up parking a few blocks away in Strathcona, to avoid paying the parking meter. Money was tight in those days.

We would easily spend three hours there on any given trip. We would do the usual shop tour, primarily focused around a supermarket, my late father used to joking refer to as “Laji Dian” or “Garbage Store” in Mandarin (specifically on East Georgia and Gore Street). What was trash to some was our treasure. The vegetables were cheap and there were always crowds fighting over the sale of the week. As an aside, this same store (albeit a little quieter), has now replaced T&T as my wife and I’s go-to for Chinese vegetables. Last week we bought a bag of peashoots for 99 cents (when they usually go for 3.99 or 4.99 a pound at most Asian grocers). You are missing out if you don’t go.

For me, however, Chinatown was all about the buns. Ironically, I don’t even think we even had the best ones back then. I don’t remember going to New Town or Maxims all that often, other than we needed to also buy birthday cake. We always went to the small counter on the corner of Main and Keefer (I think). These buns were cheaper and buying bulk saved money.

I loved the barbecue pork puns (and still do today). I don’t remember if it was because I was younger but I remember the filling used to be much meatier. They were so good. I would eat them while walking along the streets while my mother and father shopped.

I also now credit Chinatown for also turning me into a huge foodie. We would often order small blue crabs (my mom’s favourite), pig intestine, and duck feet. These were the protein of my childhood, and certainly a once a week delicacy. Occasionally, we would also buy salmon (tucked away in black plastic bags) from sellers (now I realize were likely First Nations) down the back alleys.

You also have to understand to, that for me, Chinatown was my China. I had only been to China when I was four for several weeks and had zero recollection of the place. I had few Chinese classmates in my early elementary years in the Westside of Vancouver. Chinatown was the only place where, now that I come to think of it, I felt… normal and at home.

I regret, looking back, not better understanding my surroundings in Chinatown. At that time, Chinatown was still so vibrant that I don’t think it dawned one me to recognize that the work was not easy, that the faces behind the counter were old. I could not have predicted, that just a few years later, we would all leave Chinatown for the “cleaner”, “air-conditioned”, indoor grocery complexes provided by T&T. Had I known concepts such as farm-to-table, organic, or even been to China and understood the role of the outdoor Cai Shi Chang (“Vegetable Markets”) I probably would have stayed.

Like many, during my later elementary school years (this would have been the late 90’s for those keeping score), I rarely went to Chinatown. I avoided it. I think my family did too. This was probably around the time too, that the Downtown Eastside became more of a social issue and for a Chinese family growing up there was a proximity issues. Drugs were taboo. They were done by bad people and that being close to them we would somehow be exposed. Had I known what I later would know from volunteering in the Downtown Eastside, I again, would have changed my perception and fought against the underlying assumptions around Chinatown.

I remember a few key moments – in between where I went back. In high school, we did a photo project, where I recommended that our team do a project in Chinatown. I took a photo (poor quality), but I remember at the time thinking that the individual cleaning beans reminded me of a man panning for gold. We titled it “Picture Worth a Thousand Words.” Entirely, an oversell but something I still remember today.

In undergraduate (around 2009 I believe), I had the opportunity to go Singapore with Dr. Henry’s Yu’s class to study their Chinatown. Prior to that trip, we began by studying our Chinatown. Our group created a concept for an empty lot (again not trying to draw 105 Keefer references). At the time, we probably thought we were being global – trying to draw Singaporean Hawker influences and Seattle architecture. What we really should have done is looked inward. Chinatown is now a national historic site (long overdue) and we are hoping with this Apology and pronouncement on action times that there will be more history to come.

Just last week, we were buying ginseng in Chinatown and had a great conversation in Mandarin (the shopkeepers were fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin). They expressed to us the challenges, day to day, of ensuring that they would not be subject to theft. One can only imagine, that given the reduced traffic, a handful of high quality ginseng or dried sea cucumber could put a dent in business.

I am glad I have been able to introduce my wife to Chinatown. At first, she too thought the cash only nature of the stores, the walking distance, and the cleanliness were an issue. Now, we realize, that we easily save $50 dollars a week shopping in Chinatown and that it is entirely worth the commute. We have also re-discovered New Town bakery which has become the River Rock Casino of my tummy (interpret it how you will).

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 Conclusion

Chinatown, to me – a Canadian with Mainland Chinese roots, zero Cantonese language abilities, and only a brief, emerging window into the historical value of the streets – is still important. I would suggest it can be important to you too, regardless of your ethnocultural roots. I know personally, I’m going to make it my mission to move beyond seeing Chinatown as simply a land asset or (in my case) a provider of sustenance and into a centre of human capital. The popo’s and shushu’s here have been through times in this City that I would argue, would have taken us all down. They have paved the way for us to be able to have influential voices in influential areas in this city. The well being of their rest of their lives on this planet, simply transcends any dollar value.

Politics aside, some of the love and identity that I used to put in Chinatown as my China has now been partially filled by China. I have visited my own grandfather/great-grandfather’s ancestral village in Shaoxing. I have visited my wife’s ancestral hometown in Kaixian, Chongqing. I can tell you one thing about these places – the elderly are revered. They sit at the heads of tables. They are consulted on important family matters. Yes, this too, is being negatively affected as China faces it’s own challenges with capitalism. In these cities, and major cities in China, the ancestral home of a patriarch and matriarch is a gem. I would absolutely hate to see Chinatown, as the ancestral home of Chinese in Vancouver and arguably of Canada proper, lose it’s glimmer due to our neglect.

Inside the Migrant’s Mind – Official Label Launch

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I am proud to officially launch my new label – IMM (Inside the Migrant’s Mind). For many of us Canadian immigration starts with an IMM form. We are proverbial monarch butterflies. Our migrations around the world form the greatest natural phenomenon on earth.

Stay tuned as we explore the poetic power of our immigrant pasts, stories of love for our past and hope for our future.

With Meraki.

Will

 

 

CKFTA Pt. 1 – “Management Trainee On Professional Development”

Most of the Canada Korea Free Trade Agreement (CKFTA) has been in force since January 1 of this year. However, in the few months that it has been implemented it appears very little is know or has been written about its potential for facilitating movement between our two countries.

In this first installment, I will be looking at the specific category of “management trainee on professional development” , an definition and category that is distinguishable from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) upon which much of the CKFTA is based.

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Agreement Text

Article 12.8 defines “management trainee on professional development” as follows:

management trainee on professional development means an employee who has a Bachelor or Baccalaureate degree or who has a license at a professional level concerning the intra-company activity, who is on a temporary work assignment intended to broaden an employee’s knowledge of and experience in a company in preparation for a senior leadership position within the company;

There are a few key words in the definition.

  • The individual must be an employee,
  • The individual must have a bachelors license at a professional level
  • There is an intra-company activity
  • The work assignment must be temporary
  • broaden knowledge and experience in a company in preparation for a leadership position within the company;

Annex 12-A: Temporary Entry for Business Persons – Section C – Intra Company Transferees is the first and only mention of management trainee in an application form.

It provides that :

8. Each Party shall grant temporary entry and provide a work permit or visa to a business person employed by an enterprise who seeks to render services to that enterprise or a subsidiary or an affiliate or a branch thereof as an executive or manager, a specialist or a management trainee on professional development, provided that the business person otherwise complies with existing immigration measures applicable to temporary entry. A Party may require the business person to have been employed continuously by the enterprise for one year within the three-year period immediately preceding the date of the application for admission.

Significance

The significance of having “management trainee” included in an Intra-Company Transferee (“ICT”) section is a departure from a work permit category that has gotten harder and more difficult to apply for.  The benefits of an ICT are clear.  These applicants are exempt from having to obtain a Labour Market Impact Assessment.

In Operational Bulletin 575 – June 9, 2014, Citizenship and Immigration Canada introduced changes making the Specialized Knowledge category more rigorously defined. Under the current ICT regulations, the worker must possess “knowledge at an advanced level of expertise” and “proprietary knowledge of the company’s product, service, research, equipment, techniques or management.”

The only other options are “Executive”, “Senior Manager”, or the even more difficult to obtain “Significant Benefit” category. All of the above options seem more akin to Senior level “experts” rather than younger Korean trainees.

While under the new Express Entry system, they will have difficulty obtaining permanent residency under the Canadian Experience Class or Federal Skilled Worker program for the work experience they gained as a management trainee, it opens up pathways to permanent residency by virtue of the significant Canadian work experience gained. For example, Provincial Nominations and LMIAs are arguably easier to obtain with previous Work Experience with the same Employer supporting the nomination/application.

It is also important to note that both Canada Korea pledge not to require labour certification tests (i.e a LMIA) or impose or maintain a numerical restriction (i.e. a cap) on applicants to this section.

Potential Strategy – Business perspective

A start-up Korean company looking to do business in Canada may be interested in incorporating in Canada to create a vehicle for their management trainee. They may even think about bringing over a senior exec (as an ICT) to begin operations. A trainee, of course, cannot train by themselves and the presence of another Korean senior exec or, even better, Canadian executive and manager would be an asset down the road.

It may also be useful to have the management trainee obtain a Canadian undergraduate/graduate degree, something that will give them significant leverage in the case they wish to pursue a more permanent option down the road. Of course, such a process would enable the student to obtain a Post-Graduate Work Permit for three years, and there would be no need to obtain an ICT for the present time being.

However, down the road, if the Korean Foreign National student chooses to return to Korea to work for a few years or for those Foreign-educated Korean students who do not have Canadian work/study experience, the management trainee option may open up significant doors that otherwise would have been closed.

Canada is eager to provide the experience to future Korean management and leaders. It is up to the Korean companies now to take advantage.