Invisible Canadians

How can you live decades with someone and know nothing about him?

With the exception of The Five Chinese Brothers, every book I read as a young child in small-town Ontario in the late 1950s and early 1960s was filled exclusively with characters who were white. When I was thirteen I encountered a non-white person in Gone with the Wind. I was in my early twenties when I finally met a Chinese person in Canadian literature in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. In life and in literature we Chinese, although considered a visible minority, were in fact invisible.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that writers like Sky Lee, Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, and Paul Yee began to share our stories in Canada. Those early stories were about life in Chinatowns in the big city, in shops, restaurants, and laundries, rarely about domestic help in the homes of white people. As a child, my image of the Chinese houseboy was formed by characters in U.S...