When the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect in 1923, it not only effectively prevented the Chinese from immigrating to Canada, but also wiped out the families of thousands of workers already there.
Catherine Clement, curator of the opening exhibition for the Chinese-Canadian Museum that opened to the public on Saturday in Vancouver’s Chinatown, on the 100th anniversary of the controversial law’s enactment, said many people have been convicted sentence of celibacy or being cut off from loved ones in China.
“They just wither here,” Clement said. “They have no children to tell their stories. No one even remembers their existence… they went bankrupt while they were here.”
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Some end up in mental health institutions, including Coquitlam’s Essondale Hospital, Clement said, calling them “the face of exclusion”.
Now, their stories are being told at the exhibition, “The Paper Traces to the China Exclusion Act of 1923.”
Executives at the Chinese-Canadian Museum say they chose the opening date as a poignant reminder of an often overlooked part of Canada’s history.
“I think many people feel that through history lessons or through school, people never fully understand history,” said Grace Wong, the museum’s board chair.
“We see it as our duty, that public education is paramount to what we should be doing. And part of that is helping to retell that whole history.”
The museum opened its permanent location at Chinatown’s historic Wing Sang Building after more than six years of planning, starting with then-prime minister John Horgan authorizing the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism of the province established the organization.
The association behind the museum was formed in 2020 after community consultation, and the actual site was found in 2022 after the province provided $27.5 million in funding.
Friday’s opening ceremony was attended by BC Premier David Eby and other officials. Eby praised Horgan for supporting the museum as anti-Asian racism increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eby, who also highlighted Olivia Chow’s recent election as mayor of Toronto, called the Chinese Exclusion Act “the most racist legislation ever passed in our congress.”
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Museum CEO Melissa Karmen Lee describes the institution as a startup, saying the facility’s ultimate success will depend on how many visitors it can attract.
Lee said she hopes the museum can help revive Chinatown and attract more people to visit the community.
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“We hope to have partners, shops and cultural organizations also support us in moving to and from Chinatown,” she said. “We hope all of that becomes part of a visit to the Chinese Canadian Museum.”
Clement said the subject of the exclusion act, also known as the Canadian Immigration Act of 1923, first caught her attention when she spoke to Chinese-Canadian veterans during a demonstration. other exhibition.
“I would say, where were you born?” Clement said. “They would say Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary. And yet, they will pull out an immigration card, and almost all of them are dated 1924.
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“Years later, I realized they were evidence of exclusionary action,” she said. “These are people who served in the war for Canada, and they were born in Canada, but they have immigration cards. They are the only community in Canada where children born in Canada are issued immigration cards.”
Clement has compiled materials in the Paper Trail exhibit primarily through private collections and official records from organizations such as mental hospitals.
Lee said the museum will also feature a second exhibition on its opening, focusing on the migration of Chinese to Canada as early as 1788.
It’s important to show the diversity of voices in Chinese-Canadian history, she said.
“We have Chinese people immigrating to Canada not only from China but also from Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Mauritius,” Lee said. “So we wanted to tell all these stories when we talked about our exhibits at the Chinese Canadian Museum.”
Finally, Wong said the museum belongs to all Canadians regardless of ethnic or cultural background. She said she hopes people from all over the community will take advantage of the new facility to learn more about the challenges people face in striving for a multicultural Canada.
“It’s for all of us because Chinese-Canadian history is essentially part of the whole of BC history,” she said. “It’s a fundamental part of the entire history of Canada, and it’s a very important moment for all of us.”
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