Toronto archive to tell stories of city’s Chinese
If you’re a Chinese Canadian living in Toronto, the city’s public library wants you to dig into your parents’ and grandparents’ attics, their shoeboxes, their closets and their basements — anywhere they keep their memories.
The Toronto Public Library is asking the public to donate all types of ephemera to build the city’s first physical Chinese-Canadian archive. Items they are looking for include unpublished materials such as letters, photos, diaries, manuscripts, certificates, awards, paintings, scrapbooks, legal documents, maps, even audio and video files.
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Chinese Canadians are the second largest visible minority group in Toronto, making up 11 percent of the population.
The first registered Chinese in Toronto were found in the 1877-1878 city directory, indicating two laundry businesses owned by Sam Ching and Wo Kee, according to researcher Jeff Watson in his article An Early History of the Chinese in Toronto. Sam Ching and Co was located on Adelaide Street East, between Yonge Street and Victoria Street, while Wo Kee laundry was located at Yonge and Gerrard streets in today’s downtown Toronto.
Leading the project is Suk Yin Ng, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1973. Ng believes the project is a meaningful way to document and capture the community’s past.
“We want to see the activities these Chinese immigrants participated in, their lifestyle, and even how they dressed,” Ng said. “Earlier on, it was really difficult for the Chinese to be accepted and integrated in the mainstream society, let alone to interact with the local Canadian community.”
According to Statistics Canada’s Ethnic Diversity survey in 2002, more than 1 in 3 Chinese Canadians reported that they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment based on their ethnicity, race, language or accent in the past five years, especially at work or applying for a job.
“Without their blood, sweat, tears, loneliness, suffering, life won’t be as easy for us today,” Ng said.
Once the archive is built, the goal of the library is to maintain and preserve the collection, and ultimately provide access to the general public in an exhibit. She is currently reaching out to different Chinese communities in the city and is hoping to generate a positive reaction.
So far, Ng said the support from the community has been tremendous.
“People seem to think that this is an important and worthy project,” she said. “This is such an exciting, yet humbling experience.”
The library recently received a donation of a 4-foot-long panoramic black-and-white photo of the ninth annual picnic of the Chinese Christian youth group at Centre Island, taken in 1919.
Ng believes photographs like those are particularly important and sentimental to older Chinese-Canadian generations of Toronto, who mostly performed hard labour upon arriving in the country.
“I believe we create community connections through cultural experiences and exchanges like these,” she said. “Cultural diversity makes our society more interesting, and together as a community, we contribute and build it and make it a better society for everyone.”
The Toronto Public Library also will be hosting programs for the Chinese- Canadian community in September and October, called “Archive in Your Attic: Discovering Your Family Treasures” to promote the project and to encourage the public to start digging for the hidden treasures.
“We want the younger generation to learn about what their great-great-grandparents have sacrificed for them,” Ng said. “We accept anything from one single donation to boxes of donations — even your grandparents’ tickets to the Chinese opera.”