Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

"Of Habits Subversive" or "Capable and Compassionate": Perceptions of Transpacific Migrants, 1850s-1940s

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

"Of Habits Subversive" or "Capable and Compassionate": Perceptions of Transpacific Migrants, 1850s-1940s

Article excerpt


In this essay transpacific migrants are first contextualized in transatlantic and intra-imperial migration systems. Next, the life of one family is analyzed with respect to its transcontinental, transcultural, and transgenerational aspects under the impact of distant governmental policies, global economic change, and worldwide war. Third, the late nineteenth century official position that immigrants from Asia are "of habits subversive" is contrasted to many common Canadians' views of them as capable and compassionate neighbours and, fourth, to racialization in the context of imperial Britishness and Whiteness. Finally, the parliamentary debates over an end to exclusion and the beginning of a distinct Canadian citizenship serve to illustrate this complex change of attitudes at the state level.

Dans cet article, des migrants transpacifiques sont d'abord situes dans le contexte des systemes transatlantiques et intra-imperiaux de migration. Ensuite, l'auteur analyse l'impact de politiques gouvernementales distantes, du changement economique global et de la guerre mondiale sur la vie d'une famille, g travers ses aspects transcontinentaux, trans-culturels, et intergenerationnels. Troisiemement, la position officielle de la fin du dix-neuvieme siecle, selon laquelle les immigres asiatiques ont des << habitudes subversives >>, est contrastee a l'avis de beaucoup de Canadiens selon lesquels ils sont des voisins capables et compatissants et, quatriemement, a la racialisation dans le contexte de l'identite imperiale britannique et blanche. En conclusion, les discussions parlementaires au sujet de la fin de l'exclusion et le commencement d'une citoyennete canadienne distincte servent a illustrer le changement complexe des attitudes au niveau de l'etat.


North American research on migrants from Europe and Asia has long privileged the former. In this essay, I briefly contextualize migrants in a comparative "migration systems" and a longue duree approach to counter the small-numbers-and-short-duration "gold-rush to exclusion" version of nineteenth-century migration from Asia. (1) In the United States research fragmented, with few exceptions, into Eurocentric immigration history and Asian and Hispanic studies; the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association and the Metropolis Project, particularly, focused on comparative adjustment and the interaction of migrants in cities across the globe, thus keeping the field comparatively integrated Having placed migrants from all continents on a par, I approach transoceanic family economies, emphasizing gendered and intergenerational as well as political and institutional aspects. Next, widespread "anti-Oriental" racializations will be contrasted to some Euro-Canadians' descriptions of hard-working, supportive neighbours from Asia. While British Columbia officials historically commented that "the Chinese are inclined to habits subversive ... are not disposed to be governed by our laws [and] are dissimilar in habit and occupation from our people," common Canadians often depicted Chinese acquaintances as capable and compassionate. Neighbours seem to have judged each other by performance rather than through gatekeeper-propounded stereotypes. (2) Finally, I discuss both imperial British migrants' and Canadian provincial and federal institutions' ambivalent views of transpacific migrants. The essay's emphasis on Chinese and Chinese Canadians reflects principally the size of the group. The use of an intercultural approach reflects awareness that no historical development has only one beginning and only one possible outcome. The narratives of Canadians begin, and began, in many parts of the world, whether transatlantic, transpacific, or other, and end in many particular local spaces.

This perspective places individuals' and families' agency in hemispheric migration contexts that, in turn, emerge out of the sum of individual agency. …

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