Monday, 28 July 2014
“This graphic novel is dedicated to those early Chinese men and women who came across the Pacific and helped build our nations – America and Canada.”
– author David H.T. Wong.
Two Global Dragons are guest speakers at Auckland University’s Going Bananas International Conference and the first is David H.T. Wong, graphic novelist and activist from Vancouver; the other, Australian academic Daphne Kelly. They’re here to explain how they’re telling buried histories differently.
The first thing David H.T. Wong wants to know is what an “Iron Chink” is. Someone in the audience mumbles “salmon...?”
An iron chink, as we all find out, is a machine that can do the work of 50 Chinese in a salmon cannery. It’s a machine that put many indentured Chinese labourers out of work, so it bought more misery for an already tough life in Canada in the 1900s.
But who wants a history lecture?
All I want to do is read his comic book, in the shape of a 240 page graphic novel ...! Why the graphic novel? It’s a great way to capture students attention, especially any with short attention spans with competition from attention grabbing devices.
David’s graphic novel is a great way to tell Canada’s really dark history:
Chapter 1 – The Iron Chink ... June 22, 2006 (the day that the Canadian government issued its apology to the Chinese Canadians for the infamous Head Tax, levied only against Chinese to dissuade them from coming). Present day in a museum and some kids are exploring the Iron Chink among other relics. Their grandmother begins to tell them the real story of their family history.
Chapter 2 – China, the sick man of Asia: there’s the British crippling China in the 1830s by introducing opium’s illicit trade, parents selling their children for a taste, the Opium Wars where the Qing dynasty struggles to fight the foreign invasion of British and their devastating drug that wiped out millions of Chinese, and the plight of thousands of Cantonese in a global diaspora.
I’ve been hanging out to read David’s novel because it’s a fictionalised (but close to the bone) story about one Chinese family, the Wongs, in Gum Saan, depicting the world of Canada that the early forbears experienced. Gum Saan or New Gold Mountain to the Cantonese, is a phrase that described America and Canada for them; their ticket out of famine and war as they travelled across the seas to find fortune for their families back home.
What they didn’t anticipate was exactly how awful life was going to be on the other side of the globe.
Full of striking images this graphic novel is a page turner, sweeping across the world and over a hundred years of history literally through the eyes of the characters of the Wong family.
It’s also dark and gritty with just enough real life grimness to make it appealing to those teenage readers. David has not pulled any punches as far as depicting the realities of life for many early Chinese settlers.
Did you know David’s a renowned architect? That’s his bread and butter money because writing novels doesn’t make a lot. David says he has a new found respect for authors, not only is it not pecuniary, but after slaving at your masterpiece the publishers politely asked his to get rid of 10 chapters. “I know exactly what it’s like trying to murder your darlings” he says. “It was the hardest thing to do, that’s why the narrative suddenly gets a lots faster towards the end of the novel.”
“Lots of Emperors and not enough followers.”
– Daphne Lowe Kelly.
The second international guest speaker is actually a New Zealander originally. Judging from her accent she’s very much a settled Aussie now though.
We’re discussing how come the Australian government has not yet apologised to the Chinese for the Head Tax there. Our former Labour Government here in New Zealand led the way by apologising back in 2002, and then followed Canada.
That’s because New Zealand Chinese had a really strong and united voice. We were not going to lose our stories to a buried history, New Zealand Chinese are surprisingly feisty when you get them lobbying government.
“Australia is a much larger country, because of the distances the old Chinese immigrants and their organisations have never combined, they’re don’t have political clout.”
It seems the ones who are really the movers and shifters in Australian business and politics are the young Asians, the new immigrants. They’re the Mainland Chinese, the Chinese from Singapore and Malaysia that are coming across in aircraft instead of by slow boat.
It will be interesting to see what kind of mark these people make on Australian history, if one could peek ahead to a hundred years from now... a very different kind of graphic novel in the making!