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Manitoba History: Review: Alison R. Marshall, The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba

by Stephen Grandpre
University of Western Ontario

Number 73, Fall 2013

Alison R. Marshall, The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011, 248 pages. ISBN 9780774819169, $32.95 (paperback)

Though playing only bit parts in conventional studies of Western Canadian development and settlement, Chinese immigrants played a significant role in the early history of the Prairie West. Undoubtedly, the images we draw upon when we think of these men (and they were almost all men) are connected to their part in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. For many Chinese immigrants, however, labour on the rail lines and in the work camps made up only part of their experience in Canada. As Alison Marshall points out, Chinese men were familiar local figures in towns and villages across the eastern prairies, and the restaurants and laundries they ran were conspicuous elements in the social mosaic of rural life. Within this context Marshall seeks to recover and describe the Chinese male immigrant experience on the Manitoba prairie.

Marshall focuses her study on western Manitoba, with special interest paid to Brandon and its environs, the small city being “an important hub in a network of relationships” for Chinese in the region. The earliest reference to a Chinese settler in western Manitoba appears in 1884; however, due to the paucity of sources, Marshall concentrates on the period from the national revolution of 1911 (which saw the fall of the Qing dynasty in China), to the division of China and Taiwan in 1949 in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. The immigrant experience is examined under four broad yet interrelated topics spread across five chapters: expatriate political commitment; traditional religion and Christianity; the phenomenon of the Chinese laundry; and the Chinese restaurant and the importance of traditional food in settlers’ lives.

The search for what Marshall calls “efficacies” characterized the way in which Chinese immigrant men attempted to get along in prairie society. Marshall argues that, in order to adapt and fit in to their local communities, Chinese settlers identified as Christians of various confessional stripes and participated in local Christian societies and clubs, while in private remaining faithful to traditional religious practices brought with them from China. The political and moral teachings of the Chinese nationalist revolutionary thinker Sun Yatsen, who encouraged the intermingling of Eastern and Western cultures, provided the inspiration for such social strategies. Sun Yat-sen’s teachings were disseminated in Manitoba through membership in the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist League, whose offices throughout the province served as gathering places for expatriate Chinese men. Participating in cultural and political events enabled Chinese immigrants to keep their traditions alive and stay connected to Chinese communities across North America.

The ways in which immigrant Chinese men sparked friendships and working relationships with each other is an important theme throughout Marshall’s study. These relationships were centered on the Chinese laundry and restaurant; where most Chinese spent the vast majority of their time, sweating for hours over hot ironing stations and ovens. This was so much a part of the Chinese experience that it became a subject of stereotype and scorn even before the men set up shop. As years went by, however, the Chinese restaurant became an important site of cultural survival and social identity, especially for the wives and children who joined their men on the prairies after the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947. This opens up the examination of the importance of Chinese food in the later settler experience, which Marshall argues was central in the forging of the Chinese immigrant identity in rural western Manitoba. The Chinese newcomers’ search for efficacious social strategies resulted in a hybridization of culture and identity: as ‘Chinese’ and ‘traditional’ in the home as it was ‘Canadian’ and ‘Christian’ at the local YMCA

Such a terse summary cannot claim to elucidate the many ideas, events, and processes that Marshall attempts to cover in this study. And it is partly because of this that the book suffers from so many problems. As a general observation, the book focuses as much on the Chinese immigrant scene in Winnipeg as it does on rural communities in the western region of the province. Marshall also begins the book by (mercifully) claiming that it will not be a record of racial discrimination and tasteless prejudice. However, throughout the book there is extensive discussion of experiences of just this kind, so much so, in fact, that one is left wondering if Marshall is altogether correct in her assertion that Manitoba could boast of a relatively honourable record on this account.

Important matters of technique and presentation also demand scrutiny. Due to the lack of extensive primary material, Marshall relies on oral interviews with individuals who are referred to throughout the book simply as “oldtimers” and whose memories, it has to be said, offer no special perspective on the subjects being discussed.

Related to this, and of major concern, is the lack of reliable documentation. Many block quotes, for instance, have no accompanying endnote, and when a reference to an oral interview can be found, Marshall often simply states that the information was “gleaned” or “compiled” from unspecified interviews. In terms of style, Marshall’s prose is interrupted by the inclusion of Chinese script in the text, along with unnecessary translations of Mandarin names and regional dialects. Most problematic, however, is the almost complete absence of any kind of narrative structure to tie together the wide and often confusing mass of material that Marshall compiles from interviews, secondary works, the occasional primary source, and tangential discussions of the intricacies of eastern religious philosophies and Asian history. The result is a work far more impressionistic than explanatory, punctuated throughout by the frequent use of the first person pronoun “I”, which in a study of this kind does not recommend itself.

It should be noted that UBC Press published this title as part of their “Asian Religions and Society” series. Nevertheless, one begins this book with the hope of learning about what it claims to be: a history of Chinese settlement in Manitoba. Regrettably, rather than being an exercise in history, it reads more like an anthropologicalcum-biographical survey, and is often little more than a collection of simplistic vignettes and opaque recollections, bookended by reference to prosaic theories and terms (such as “social heat” and “homosociality”) that I suspect would have seemed a bit convoluted, if not incomprehensible, to the individuals under study. One also cannot ignore the feeling that Marshall’s lack of critical reflection has the effect of turning her subjects into plaster saints. Still, the book contains a number of excellent photographs and pictures, indicating that there is certainly a story to be told. The history of the Manitoba Chinese remains to be written.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 22 March 2020

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