The best books to reimagine Chinatown

Alison R. Marshall Author Of The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba
By Alison R. Marshall

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese culture. My great uncle owned an import-export shop in 1920s Montreal and many of the things in his shop decorated my family home. An aunt who worked in Toronto’s Chinatown took me to see a Chinese opera performance and this began my journey to understand Chinese thought and culture first with an MA in Chinese poetry and then with a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies. After I learned that Sun Yatsen had visited Manitoba, where I had moved for work, my attention turned to Chinese nationalism. More than 15 years later, my research and work on KMT culture continues.

I wrote...

The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba

By Alison R. Marshall,

Book cover of The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba

What is my book about?

The Way of the Bachelor documents the religious beliefs and cultural practices that sustained and lent meaning to Chinese bachelors in Manitoba. In the absence of women and family, these men opened the region’s first laundries and, by the turn of the twentieth century, developed a new kind of restaurant – the Chinese cafe. They maintained their ties to the Old World and negotiated a place for themselves in the new through a process called Dao – the way of the bachelor. At cafes and restaurants, churches and Christian associations, and the offices of the Chinese Nationalist Party, bachelors fostered a vibrant homosocial culture based on friendship, everyday religious practices, the example of Sun Yat-sen, and the sharing of food.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

Why did I love this book?

Having interviewed hundreds of Chinese Canadians, I knew that many of Canada’s earliest Chinese migrants met and gave money to Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, though most were less enthusiastic about Chiang Kai-shek. This book presented a complicated narrative of US-Chinese relations from the perspective of the Soong sisters, who straddled the boundaries of west and east and lived in a world where most Chinese were excluded because of their race. Similar to many of the bachelors in my book, the sisters were also influenced by KMT politics and religion. Both the Soong sisters and the bachelors knew that religion trumped race and that Christian identities and faith helped them open doors to dominant society that remained closed to most Chinese of the era. 

By Jung Chang,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the centre of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history.

Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair.

Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right.

Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang's unofficial main adviser - and made…

Book cover of Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance

Why did I love this book?

Denise Chong explores a similar period of Chinese Canadian history in Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance. Similar to my own book, Lives of the Family looks beyond Vancouver and British Columbia Chinatowns to tell the story of Chinese Canadian migrants, whose lives straddled continents, who ran successful businesses, and were involved with the KMT. 

By Denise Chong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lives of the Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

International bestselling author of The Concubine's Children, Denise Chong returns to the subject of her most beloved book, the lives and times of Canada's early Chinese families.
     In 2011, Denise Chong set out to collect the history of the earliest Chinese settlers in and around Ottawa, who made their homes far from any major Chinatown. Many would open cafes, establishments that once dotted the landscape across the country and were a monument to small-town Canada. This generation of Chinese immigrants lived at the intersection of the Exclusion Act in Canada, which divided families between here and China, and 2 momentous…

Book cover of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

Why did I love this book?

Racism is a dominant theme in my book and in historical work about Chinese Canadian history. Racist ideologies in the 1880s and 1890s drove the Chinese out of the United States and into urban and rural Canada. In Becoming Yellow, Keevak explains how the colour “yellow” developed to become a racial category used to describe people who were Chinese and to exclude them from the United States and Canada.  

By Michael Keevak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Yellow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In their earliest encounters with Asia, Europeans almost uniformly characterized the people of China and Japan as white. This was a means of describing their wealth and sophistication, their willingness to trade with the West, and their presumed capacity to become Christianized. But by the end of the seventeenth century the category of whiteness was reserved for Europeans only. When and how did Asians become "yellow" in the Western imagination? Looking at the history of racial thinking, Becoming Yellow explores the notion of yellowness and shows that this label originated not in early travel texts or objective descriptions, but in…

Book cover of Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada's Exclusion Era, 1885-1945

Why did I love this book?

Lisa Mar’s rich archival study provides a window into the important role of power brokers in Chinese Canadian political life and culture up until the end of the Second World War. My own book also tells the stories of Chinese Canadian power brokers who were active in political organizations and lobbied for the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act. Unlike the power brokers of Mars’s study, the men in my study were active and influential beyond Vancouver’s Chinatown and in prairie rural Canada.

By Lisa Rose Mar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brokering Belonging as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brokering Belonging traces several generations of Chinese "brokers, " ethnic leaders who acted as intermediaries between the Chinese and Anglo worlds of Canada. At the time, most Chinese could not vote and many were illegal immigrants, so brokers played informal but necessary roles as representatives to the larger society. Brokers' work reveals the changing boundaries between Chinese and Anglo worlds, and how tensions among Chinese shaped them.

By reinserting Chinese back into mainstream politics, Brokering Belonging alters common understandings of how legally "alien" groups' helped create modern immigrant nations. Over several generations, brokers deeply embedded Chinese immigrants in the larger…

The New Chinatown

By Peter Kwong,

Book cover of The New Chinatown

Why did I love this book?

Today most people associate Chinatowns with restaurants and tourism. In the past and for many Chinese Canadians, Chinatown was a ghetto and place of exclusion. But for many Chinese and other first-generation migrants, Chinatown was simply home. It was where friends (and sometimes families) lived and socialized, operated businesses, and felt a sense of belonging through mutual support networks and devotion to Sun Yatsen at KMT and other political meetings and events. Peter Kwong’s The New Chinatown tells a complicated narrative of Chinese political, social, and cultural life and dispels many Chinatown stereotypes. In my book, I tried to tell a similar story of Chinese political and social lives that weren’t defined by Chinatown stereotypes.

By Peter Kwong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Chinatown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Newspapers today are filled with stories of corruption and strife in America's Chinatowns, reversing the popular view of Chinese Americans as a model minority of law-abiding, hard-working people whose diligent children end up in high-tech jobs. In The New Chinatown, Peter Kwong goes beyond the headlines in a compelling and detailed account of the political and cultural isolation of Chinese-American communities. This new edition offers a revised and updated text as well as a new chapter on Chinatown in the 1990s.

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