West Coast Chinese Boy

Novels are one of our biggest tools as teachers, as they allow us to visualize new perspectives and explore ages long (or not so long) ago. Despite the slightly up front title, this book is a great resource to explore the plight of Chinese immigrants in Canada during the early 20th century. The book is autobiographical and written and illustrated by Sing Lim.
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Like residential schooling, the treatment of Chinese immigrants by the Canadian government is an ugly stain on the scarf of what it means to be Canadian, and the oppression and discrimination of the Chinese was normalized in society. In 1885, the government of Canada put the “Chinese Head Tax” into law, which required all new chinese citizens to pay at first 50, then within a short 2 decades rose to 500 pounds (a small fortune for the average Chinese citizen). This law was passed specifically to curb Chinese immigration into Canada. At the height of the white-supremacist era of society in BC, all Chinese immigration to Canada was outlawed in 1923. This was despite the fact that the vast majority of the railroad – especially the most dangerous parts – was done by Chinese immigrants, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. West Coast Chinese Boy tackles these issues from the eyes of a child, as Lim was a boy during the Head Tax era. In Vancouver, where this book takes place, many early 20th-century attitudes towards Chinese citizens still persist to this day – a grim reminder of those days of open discrimination. However, so too does the bright and vibrant Chinatown and the Chinese-Canadian community.

Much of the brevity in this difficult time comes from the descriptions Lim provides from this childlike perspective and his “artwork” in the style of the doodles he used to make with traditional chinese writing tools. Though they lived in the poorest, tight, cramped, leaking tenements, Lim happily recalls family feasts and fond memories of cooking with his uncle and running errands for the traditional chinese herbalist. He pays special attention to his traditional Chinese schooling and familial attitudes towards it. They had cut their braids, a denouncement of chinese citizenship, but his father was adamant that he preserve the traditional ways. This in many ways mirrors the struggles of aboriginal Canadians and other immigrants in Canada. They were not Chinese citizens, not entirely Canadian, but distinctly Chinese-Canadian. Descrimination is implied in the areas of town he does not travel, and how they had to travel in groups to mitigate instances of white Canadian bullying.

This identity is explored in the people that Lim interacts with, including his aboriginal friend, Johnny, his kind uncle Jing, the herbalist, and the various employers he had all over Vancouver. Overall, the book is a great way to introduce young (grades 3-6) students to this particular era of Western Canadian history. I wouldn’t recommend the book for higher grades unless it is coupled with other historical novels as it is a shorter book. However, it is visually stimulating and offers students an inside perspective on some of the people most affected by prejudice in this era of history in BC.

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