CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 2 . . . .September 15, 2006
In the Shadow of Gold Mountain.
Karen Cho (Writer & Director). Tamara Lynch (Producer). Sally Bochner (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2004.
43 min., 4 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9104 108.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
The video begins with a montage of quintessentially Canadian images: the RCAF Snowbirds flying in formation, tourists posing for photos beside Mounties dressed in red serge, the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, and the sound of O Canada sung reverentially by a massed choir. The voice-over is the film’s producer, Karen Cho:
To me, July 1st has always been a day to celebrate all that is great about this country. My ancestors came to Canada from both Britain and China to make a better life for themselves. And for me, Canada has always been home. But, not all my family was welcomed. I was shocked to discover that for my Chinese grandmother, and other Chinese-Canadians, Canada Day held a dark and humiliating secret.
On Dominion Day (as it was then known), July 1, 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, banning all Chinese immigrants. The wives and children of Chinese men who had willingly paid financially-prohibitive “head taxes,” in order to journey to “the Gold Mountain” – North American – were now stranded in China. For many, decades would pass before families were re-united, and some, whether through war, poverty, or death, never were. No wonder, then, that July 1 was not a day of celebration in Chinese-Canadian families.
In the Shadow of Gold Mountain is Karen Cho’s personal journey into the experience shared by other Canadians of Chinese heritage. It is also a shocking exploration of historical injustices. Through a series of ever-increasing levels of “head tax,” a fee paid by Chinese wishing to immigrate to Canada, by 1923, the federal government had collected approximately $23 million from 81,000 immigrants. Once in Canada, discriminatory laws kept these men (wives and children were brought over later, if at all) confined to life in “Chinatowns” which sprung up in major Canadian cities. In the words of James Wing, a 91-year-old payer of the Head Tax, it was a life in which “Everywhere is discrimination, every day is discrimination.” Decades after enduring a particularly horrible episode of school-yard bullying and abuse, 81-year-old Gim Wong could not
re-tell his story without tears.
The racism continued, culminating with the Exclusion Act of July 1, 1923. As a result, many families in China, waiting to be sponsored to Canada, were split up; letters written by men in Canada tell of their pain and loneliness. Then, in 1935, Japan invaded China, further dislocating families already divided by the Exclusion Act. The Chinese word for “crisis” is a combination of characters indicating “danger” and “opportunity”; World War II was a crisis offering young Chinese-Canadian men the opportunity to prove their loyalty to Canada through the danger of war-time combat. In 1947, as a result of their wartime service, the Exclusion Act was repealed and Chinese-Canadians regained full citizenship rights.
However, the scars of years of discrimination and dislocation are not easily healed by the passage of a law. Wives and children who finally came to Canada arrived to find that years – in some cases, decades – of absence made normal family relationships an impossibility. And within many families, the issue of the head tax and the impact on family life, is openly discussed, while understood to be “unfinished business.” As with the Japanese-Canadian community, there has been a movement to seek redress, apologies, and financial compensation. However, within the Chinese-Canadian community, opinion is divided as to the best course to pursue: repay the wrongs of the past, or look to the future to build a better society.
At the end of In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, the viewer is left with tough questions: how is Canadian society continuing to discriminate against those who look different? How do we define what it means to be a Canadian? How do Canadians of various ethnic backgrounds reconcile the past with both the present and the future? This is a powerful video. By turns, I was shocked, moved to tears, and inspired by strength of the subjects of the film who spoke of long-past events with remarkable forbearance. It is impossible to watch this video and not respond. I asked fellow teacher, Raymond Sokalski, to show the video to a Grade 9 class and gather student responses. Following is a sampling of some of their comments:
Jeannie: “Canada has a reputation of being a country that is very accepting, so I was surprised when it wanted the diminuation [sic] of Chinese immigration. I was appalled because some Canadian citizens thought that these Chinese immigrants were just like machines, strictly for carrying out work, when they are not. They are human beings.”
I found the video to be a powerful teaching tool, and it is obvious from the comments above that these students learned much from it. Whether for Canadian Studies and Canadian History classes, or for Sociology classes exploring the topic of systemic racism, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain is a powerful video, detailing a shameful chapter in Canada’s immigration story.
Mac: “I didn’t know that there was a $500.00 head tax. I thought that Asians were only discriminated against informally, not governmentally.”
Sheryl-Lyn: “There was not any significant respect for these people.”
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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