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Family stories live on through our museums

It was a beautiful sight. Life-sized photographs of Sir James Douglas, the founder of B.C.
Royal B.C. Museum
Conservator Lisa Bengston puts the finishing touches on the seats of a 1903 City and Suburban Electric Carriage, which was part of the Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and B.C. exhibit in 2008.

It was a beautiful sight. Life-sized photographs of Sir James Douglas, the founder of B.C.; John Foster McCreight, the first premier; First World War soldier James Cleland Richardson’s bagpipies; a Saanich First Nation chief; artist Emily Carr; Emery Barnes, the former B.C. Lions football player and Speaker of the Legislature; author Joy Kogawa; and me.

I think that our first governor, Sir James Douglas, himself of Caribbean heritage, would have enjoyed seeing the diversity of ethnicities on stage and in the audience, as well as the combinations of Chinese jackets and Scottish kilts.

It was the 2009 Gung Haggis Fat Choy Dinner, a celebration of Robbie Burns Day and Chinese New Year that I organize, and I had borrowed some of the life-sized photos from “The Party,” the central piece in the Royal B.C. Museum’s 2008 Exhibit “Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and B.C.,” which celebrated 150 important people and builders.

I had asked for pictures of people of Scottish and First Nations ancestry, plus Joy Kogawa and myself, so we could recognize the Three Solitudes of B.C. Pioneers: Scottish, Asian, and First Nations Peoples. And I also asked for the picture of Emery Barnes because we were also celebrating Black History Month and his daughter Constance was co-MCing with me that evening.

By hosting this cultural fusion event, I have learned so much about B.C.’s pioneer cultures and history as well as the contemporary values of British Columbians living in today’s multicultural society. The Scottish-Canadian pioneers helped map the province and build the government systems, alongside Chinese labourers who searched for gold, built the railways, and mined the coal.

It has been increasingly important to recognize that we are living on the unceded First Nations territories, and that we are often all related through family and ethnic blood lines. In my own family, my grandmother’s brother married a First Nations woman, and so my mom’s cousin Rhonda Larrabbee is now chief of Qayqayt First Nations, her story documented in a NFB film Tribe of One. Around the supper table, my cousin’s children sport the names of McLean, McPherson, Ferguson and Kingsly. It gives real meaning to the phrase “All My Relations.”

Our family is descended from Rev. Chan Yu Tan, who came to Canada in 1896 as a Methodist lay preacher from Hong Kong. His elder brother Rev. Chan Sing Kai had first been invited to help start the Chinese Methodist Church of Canada. Soon, both brothers were ministering to the Chinese coal miners in Nanaimo, and other Chinese immigrants in Victoria, Vancouver and New Westminster.

These Chinese churches were the first to teach the new migrants the English language, and Rev. Chan encouraged people to learn the ways of Canada. In 2008, Victoria Chinatown celebrated its 150th Anniversary and created special recognition for key figures and groups. I was proud to represent my great-great-grandfather and accept the award for Community Builder.

In 2007, CBC Television created a documentary, The Chan Legacy, as part of its “Generation” series. The show emphasized how members in each generation had strived to help make community better, despite the systemic racism that created challenges. The reverend’s wife had served as a midwife. Son Jack became the first Chinese Canadian to serve jury duty, youngest son Luke went to Hollywood and became an actor. Grandsons Victor Wong and his cousins Daniel, Howard and Leonard Lee fought for Canada during the Second World War.

My grand-uncle Daniel Lee was very happy when we organized a family union for Rev. Chan descendants in 1999, and he gave our keynote address. I have been inspired by him and his stories about how he helped lobby for citizenship for Chinese Canadians after the war.

He tirelessly sold poppies for Remembrance Day, and each year he would write to Parliament asking for an apology for the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act that had limited and closed Chinese immigration to Canada from 1885 to 1947, forcing many families to live separate lives an ocean apart on two continents. His air force uniform is on display in the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver.

I think that social justice and accountability is something that I have learned from Rev. Chan’s teachings and Uncle Dan’s actions. We have to stand up for what we believe is right and fair. And so I soon found myself helping to save from demolition Joy Kogawa’s childhood.

I was then on the board for the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, so gathering letters of support from writer and literary organizations across the country was a logical first step. After a long struggle, Historic Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver has now become a fixture in the literary community and home to a succession of writers in residence.

It is now a sort of “living museum” that serves as an example of the property confiscation that happened, when Japanese Canadians were interned during the Second World War, and also a real-life focus point for Joy Kogawa’s book Obasan.

I feel blessed to have such a rich family history, and to have been able to make contributions to society. We held some family reunions and tried to share stories with the younger generations and hopefully inspire others to build on what we had done.

But today our family is scattered across the country and it is impossible to bring everybody and everything to one place at one time.

We have to find new people to take on new tasks. Our elders are passing away, and many committee members are no longer able to be involved. But with online genealogy charts, and links to interviews and videos, it is possible to reach more people with more information.

Museums and libraries are important pillars of our communities that help us tell not only the history of our society, but also the family stories that are interwoven through time and place.

The aforementioned stories would have been impossible to tell, or artifacts saved, if we hadn’t worked in partnership with other organizations. I’ve been able to share with family members what the conditions were like, when our ancestors struggled against systemic racism. We could use archival resources to find out when they had arrived in Canada.

It is always fun to visit the Royal B.C. Museum and walk through the sections of B.C. history and imagine what it was like to walk down the streets of 1900 Chinatown, when my great-great-grandfather ministered to his congregation, and encouraged new immigrants to learn to be Canadian.

It would be amazing to build a “museum” for a family reunion, and share more stories. It would take a lot of work, but it would be worth it.

We need to share our stories, not just with our families, but with each other. Especially, as we all become one big multicultural family from all over the world.


Todd Wong, a fifth-generation Canadian, is a cultural activist and creator of Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

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