HomeInADistantLand-560by May Ip

The first Chinese came to Owen Sound in 1896. Lee Wing set up a hand laundry in part of Lot 8 on Poulett Street E (963 2nd Avenue East). Likely, his arrival was no great surprise to the town, since national sections of the local newspapers had been reporting Chinese railroad workers in B.C. and their eastward migration. Cautious sentiments began to develop as early as 1883; Melba Morris Croft wrote in Forth Entrance to Huronia "The question of Chinese immigration was of some concern 'now the CPR is pushing through. Our people will be out of work as the Chinese accept lower wages'". However, townsfolks soon realised that their concern was unfounded.

From 1896 through the 1920s, the Chinese settlers in Owen Sound either owned or worked in hand laundries or Chinese restaurants, except for a couple of them who were a domestic servant and a hired cook in a hotel. Having little or no English, they did not seek employment with local businesses. It is true that Chinese business owners only hired their fellow countrymen, however, even if given the option, the local labourers probably would not want to have worked in Chinese laundries and restaurants where Chinese, an alien language to them, was the medium of communication among workers. In both sectors of the population, language barriers determined the decision on who to hire and for whom to work.

For the most part, Owen Sound in the early 1900s had shown acceptance towards the Chinese immigrants. However, the anti-Chinese wind did blow east and at times manifested itself in hate crimes. One such incident was an unprovoked assault on Soon Lee in 1901. Social segregation was undoubtedly an aggravating factor of racial discrimination. The gap that existed between the two cultures was the breeding ground for fear, speculation and misunderstanding. The Chinese immigrants chose to keep to themselves because they did not have the tools to communicate with people outside of their own Cantonese speaking community. Some might have wanted to learn English but there were no opportunities, not until the 1910s. There is a record of an English class of seven Chinese people at Knox Presbyterian Church in 1912. Also, circa 1915, Soon Lee was among sixteen Chinese who received one-on-one tutoring in an English class at Division Street Church. His teacher was Ms Kate Andrew. The English classes provided opportunities for the Chinese students and their volunteer teachers to learn about, understand and appreciate one another.

Fast foreward to the recent 30 years, the second and third generations of the early Chinese settlers did not inherit the language barrier from their parents. Among the newcomers, some have already acquired the language proficiency needed to work and live in an English-speaking environment before arriving in Owen Sound. For new immigrants who want to learn or improve their English, resources such as ESL tutors and the Library's literacy program are available. Within the Chinese community, those who have better English help the others whenever needs arise. The existence of a common language allows the Chinese residents to make friends with others in the community and learn about their culture. A remarkable number of Owen Sound residents have visited Chinese communities in other parts of the world; some have even worked and lived in them. They return to Owen Sound with a better understanding of, and a heightened interest in Chinese culture. The undesirable elements of the gap between the two cultures are gradually being replaced with mutual acceptance and appreciation.

About this column:
This column is one of the three components of Home in a Distant Land, a Chinese heritage project made possible by the Community Fund for Canada 150th, a collaboration between Community Foundation Grey Bruce, the Government of Canada, and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast to coast. The project consists of an exhibit which travels to 12 communities in Grey Bruce, this column which is complementary to the exhibit, and presentations at elementary schools. From May 27 to June 8, the exhibit will be on display at Hanover Public Library, and there will be presentations at Dawnview Public School on June 6.



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