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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Jung Chang

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

Why 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. 


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Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance

By Denise Chong

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

Why 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. 


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Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking

By Michael Keevak

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

Why 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.  


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

By Lisa Rose Mar

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

Why 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.


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The New Chinatown

By Peter Kwong

Book cover of The New Chinatown

Why 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.


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