Born to Leave

For generations, migration has been a Chinese way of life.

Unless you’re Native American, you came from someplace else.” So said U.S. president Barack Obama in a speech on immigration urging his fellow Americans to consider that, when it comes to new immigrants seeking a better life, “most of us used to be them.”

This point should be obvious to Canadians who, like Americans, belong to a country that was founded and forged by waves of immigrants arriving on its shores. If we need a reminder it is because, like mass immigration itself, the passions it instils have rarely subsided.

If such arguments are effective in North America, they are certainly less effective on the other side of the Atlantic, where the idea of outsiders assimilating into the general population takes on a more threatening tone. Perhaps nowhere is the debate over immigration more contentious than in present-day Europe. Anti-immigrant parties have been gaining power right across the continent, from the rise of the UK Independence Party, now the third largest party in Britain, to the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, to Pegida in Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria and Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which came first in last year’s European Parliament elections in France.

These are the countries that belong to the prosperous northern tier of Europe. Further south, where youth unemployment has reached a staggering proportion since the financial crash of 2008, the situation is equally as volatile. Perhaps most notorious is Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, a particularly virulent nationalist party whose political advance has been checked by the extraordinary rise of leftist Syriza, a party founded only in 2004, which recently won the Greek elections.

All of this is to say that it is probably not a propitious time to immigrate to Europe in general and Mediterranean Europe in particular. Yet in Suzanne Ma’s absorbing book, Meet Me in Venice: A Chinese Immigrant’s Journey from the Far East to the Faraway West, that is exactly what the citizens of one small county in China have been doing ever since the 17th century when, according to local lore, some of the earliest globetrotters trekked across Siberia to get to Europe. As the locals say, “if you are born in Qingtian, you are destined to leave.”

Located almost 500 kilometres south of Shanghai and 60 kilometres from the coast, Qingtian—barren, mountainous and landlocked—has never been a place of prosperity. For hundreds of years, its biggest export has been people.

Ma is a professional journalist born and raised in Canada to parents who had emigrated from China. She was introduced to Qingtian by her husband. As they returned to his ancestral home after the death of his grandfather, she found the spirit money being burned at his grave was in the form of euros. “It was important for Grandfather to have foreign currency in the afterlife,” she says by way of explanation. “Even in death, the dream of making it rich overseas was still very much alive.”

How to explain a place where people are seemingly obsessed with the dream of a life in Europe? More interestingly, Ma wonders why people from Qingtian continue to leave, as China booms and Europe grapples with a debilitating debt crisis and high unemployment.

For proof of obsession, witness the jewellers who melt down 50-cent coins to make lucky pendants and bracelets, or listen to the townspeople discuss the latest unemployment figures in Spain “as if the news was just another tidbit of small-town gossip.”

Remittances from abroad have transformed the landscape. Emigrants have sent money home to help pave new roads and mountain paths, to renovate temples and set up new businesses such as hotels and coffee shops. In acts much more eccentric, they have erected statues of Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse, Johann Strauss wielding a gold violin and a not-so-accurate replica of Michelangelo’s David, whose genitals, on orders from government censors, have been covered with a copper leaf.

Sensing there is a fascinating and little-known story embedded in this remote Chinese county, Ma focuses her narrative on Ye Pei, a 16-year-old girl who is still in high school when they first meet. “Her face radiated innocence, she dressed like a hipster in a white T-shirt and black vest,” Ma observes. “And like all teenage girls around the world, she spoke fast. Like, very fast.”

Slowly Pei’s story, all too typical for someone born in Qingtian, emerges. Her mother had already been in Italy for five years, although she had absolutely no interest in going abroad. It was Pei’s father, working in a shoe factory, who had wanted to leave, but in the bureaucratic vagaries suffered by immigrants from time immemorial, only her mother had been given a visa to enter Italy. And so off she went. Where exactly? Pei does not know, but she suspected it might be Venice, which she refers to as shui cheng, “the water city.” Her idea of it, gleaned in part from a book, is not unlike that of any tourist bound for Venice on a cruise ship. She speaks to Ma dreamily of bridges shaped like crescent moons and a beautiful city of stone, floating atop a glittering lagoon. When Ye Pei, her father and brother eventually obtain their visas to emigrate to Italy, she discovers not only that her mother is far from Venice but that the family will not be living together.

Like those Venetian bridges of Pei’s imagination, one of the book’s greatest strengths is the way it elegantly spans the disparate worlds of China and Italy. After offering a portrait of Qingtian, Ma brings a telling eye and a writer’s skill to the at times heartbreaking, and often humorous, stories of those who make the crossing from one side to the other.

When we meet up next with Pei, the skin on her hands has started to peel, “flaked off like Parmesan cheese,” from all the hours spent washing cups and dishes at the bar where she works. Having dreamed of being reunited with her mother, Pei has flown halfway across the world to find herself alone in a strange, nondescript Italian town. As Pei sadly points out, “In China, our family was split in two. Now that we are abroad, my family is split in three.” This is because not only has she become separated from her mother and brother, but from her father too. He has had to find employment in a town other than the ones where his wife and son or daughter work.

For Pei, in retrospect life back in China was “easy.” As she tells Ma, “I am no longer in a country where everything is simple and straightforward.” This statement cuts against the common, perhaps easy assumptions about why immigrants leave their homeland; it also points to the changing dynamics of China itself, where the gross domestic product per capita has risen twenty-fold since 1990.

Pei and her family, along with other migrants from Qingtian whom Ma describes in her book, are part of a narrative shared by immigrants all around the world. One out of every 33 persons in the world today, she points out, is a migrant.

For Italy, the effects of immigration are becoming transformative. In 1990 just over a million foreigners lived in Italy, which represented a mere 2 percent of the country’s entire population. Today, there are over 4 million foreigners, a number that does not include children born to immigrants, who by Italian law are not given citizenship at birth.

In the past, these immigrants were to some extent invisible, many taking jobs in garment workshops that, for instance, sewed “Made in Italy” tags onto clothes produced and shipped from the country they had left behind, China. However, Pei’s job working at a bar, no matter how arduous, points to a new and more visible change in immigrant patterns and the Italian social landscape. Pei steps into the very heart of contemporary Italian civilization—a place where people come “not only to sip their cappuccinos and down their espressos but to share life’s news with old friends.”

With a weak Italian economy, many Chinese have placed a bet that no matter how bad things become, Italians will always shell out one euro for a cup of coffee. It also points to an answer for why people from Qingtian still leave China for Europe. Pei hopes that she will make enough money so that she and her parents can open up their own café or shop and become their own lao ban, their own boss.

Yet the broader question for them and for us, mentioned by Obama in his speech, remains. Do they wish to stay and become Italians? Will Italians let them become Italians? In an age of disposable SIM cards, cheap airfares and rising living standards in emerging economies such as China, will they send their children back for schooling or go back themselves when they have made enough money? Meet Me in Venice offers no easy answers, because many of those Ma follows, including Pei and her family, do not seem entirely sure themselves. Are they migrants in search of work or immigrants seeking to build a new life in a new country?

The number of ethnic Chinese who live outside of China is estimated to be at least 60 million. Collectively, ethnic Chinese who live outside of China make up the largest diaspora in the world. Alison R. Marshall’s Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada shifts our attention to a different continent and another time—in this case the Canadian prairie provinces beginning in the late 1870s. This allows us to see not only some differences but also some interesting similarities with present-day experiences and patterns of Chinese immigration.

Historically, Chinese immigrants gravitated to coastal communities, continuing occupations such as the laundry services and cooking they had learned while working aboard ships. Cultivating Connections examines the experiences of those who journeyed inland toward the heart of North America and offers us fascinating glimpses into a little known chapter of Canadian history.

Winnipeg became the geographical centre of prairie Chinese Canada. Torontonians who like to quote the United Nations statistic that half of the city’s inhabitants were born in another country might be surprised to learn that Winnipeg reached this proportion in 1921.

Winnipeg’s Chinese immigrants came not only from the more populous British Columbia but also from California, many crossing at the Montana border to escape the institutional racism in the United States, specifically the American 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in force until 1943, which prohibited citizenship and entry of most Chinese.

Canada’s own exclusionary legislation was not much better, epitomized by the notorious head tax imposed on every new Chinese immigrant entering the country. Yet in provinces such as Manitoba, Marshall points out the telling ways in which Chinese immigrants experienced fewer social and legal restrictions. They could vote in elections; they could study and practise medicine at the University of Manitoba; they could obtain a liquor licence if they operated a café. They could also hire “whites” to work for them, something denied to them in British Columbia or neighbouring Saskatchewan until 1969.

Marshall reconstructs a variety of personal stories from the historical record, based on letters, photos and insights from hundreds of interviews she conducted with offspring and local historians. As in Meet Me in Venice, the book is at its liveliest and most affecting when it allows us into the minds and hearts of her characters.

Take, for instance, Charles Yee who married Pauline, the young Ukrainian waitress he had hired at the café, bakery and grocery he owned in Roblin, Manitoba. His parents died when he was a year old. As a young teenager he weathered the voyage from China to Canada, which in Marshall’s words would “transform this lone orphan into a tough merchant Chinese nationalist, philanthropist, husband, and father.” These words are given extra emphasis if one considers that when he and Pauline met, Yee was already married and had a child with a woman back in China. It is unclear if Pauline knew of his past at the time of their wedding in 1929, but she and her three children were certainly made aware of it when Yee’s Chinese grandchild came to live with them years later in Winnipeg.

As for Charles’s wife back in China, Marshall points out that “she and most wives accepted a husband’s remarriage in Canada.” For Marshall, the emphasis is not on any moral or personal scandal but rather the way immigration served to both sever the past and yet offer a radically reshaped continuation.

What one learns very quickly in Cultivating Connections is the fact that when speaking about the history of Chinese immigration to Canada, one is essentially telling the story of Chinese male immigration. Due to legal, social and financial obstacles, the society Marshall portrays is essentially one of bachelorhood even for those who, like Yee, were already married back home. For instance, in 1920 eastern prairies Canada, out of 4,000 Chinese men fewer than 20 had wives.

Many, especially those few Chinese women who came to Canada and often did not speak English, suffered from isolation and loneliness, especially during the long and often brutal prairie winters.

And yet for all that, a fierce determination to succeed animates the stories in both books. Even before the era of air travel and cellphones, these men and a few women were constantly moving across the continent in search of better prospects, from west to east and back across the ocean. Some returned to their homeland but many others chose to stay, overcoming the racial prejudices and economic hardships that existed then and, to some extent, exist now. The harsh, overtly racial laws banning or limiting Chinese immigrants may have changed, but these two books offer a spotlight into the hidden worlds of the past and present that many of us ignore.