At a fundraising event some years ago, I met a fellow author—the celebrated Rohinton Mistry—like me on his own and, predictably, at the hors d’oeuvres table. Something he said came to mind when I was reading David Layton’s review of two books about Chinese immigrant history: that a writer perhaps has but one story in them but retells it in various forms. As Layton writes, whatever the particulars of the experience of an émigré—in this instance the reviewed books follow migrants from China to Italy and to Canada—each is “part of a narrative shared by immigrants all around the world.” Indeed, a migrant, no matter his or her origins, has the displacement first of leaving and then, arriving.
Closer to home, on the subject of Chinese migration to the Canadian prairies, Layton rightly broadens the history lesson. He allows that “when speaking about the history of Chinese immigration to Canada, one is essentially telling the story of Chinese male immigration” [my emphasis]. If numbers tell a story, yes. But consider this: Canadian immigration statistics do not record my grandmother’s arrival from China in 1924. Under exclusion, in effect as of the year before, other than proof of a previously paid head tax, only a Canadian birth certificate allowed anyone Chinese re-entry to Canada; my grandfather purchased such a birth certificate for my grandmother, one belonging to someone likely deceased or returned to China. As for the essential story being one of male immigration, again yes, if the weight of numbers is what focuses our gaze; women accounted for a tiny, even minuscule, proportion of the early Chinese who came to Canada. As a storyteller, I say, however, that those low numbers disguise what is a deep, even bottomless, well for writers of non-fiction and fiction to draw from to round out the narrative.