Prof. David Chuenyan Lai (黎全恩) passed away this June 15, 2018. Many memorials and dedications to this fine geography professor popped up all over the Internet and mainstream media. I first saw the front page coverage of his passing in a Chinese language newspaper a few weeks ago and felt sad at never having talked with him. We had exchanged a few emails on the Chinese in Victoria but we never met face to face. I felt a special connection to him through his writings on Chinese Canadian history. I let his fellow scholars and the media personalities offer up praises and homage to the scholar and to the man. Here in this blog, I share a few of my feelings about some of his published works.
Perhaps my most cherished piece of his writings is found in the scholarly journal BC Studies, under the title, “Home County and Clan Origins of Overseas Chinese in Canada in the Early 1880s”. Using documents from the Chinese Benevolent Association, interviews with Chinese old timers and data from Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration of 1885, he meticulously gathered and analysed the origins of early Chinese in Canada. He confirmed what I already knew from personal experience that the majority of the early Chinese in Canada were from the Sze Yap or Four Counties region in southern China, where my parents were born. Many new immigrants continue to think that what we Canadian born Chinese spoke was either bad Chinese or made up Chinese without realizing that a unique Chinese dialect was spoken in Canada, distinct and apart from the standard Cantonese or the national language of mandarin. Prof. Lai’s work proved our dialect in Canada went back to at least 1880s, the time frame of his study, and likely even earlier to 1858, the time of Canada’s first gold rush. Sadly, many of the Canadian born Chinese are now the “old timers” of today, possibly grandparents, who yet failed to keep up with their heritage language because they thought they can’t speak Chinese properly, because new comers tell them their spoken Chinese, like Chinese Canadian food, is not authentic. Prof. Lai’s research has given me another layer of confidence and pride in my spoken Chinese. (Most of the credit though for keeping my heritage language goes to my Mom, but Prof. Lai’s work certainly gave a scholarly foundation.)
Prof. Lai’s seminal work entitled Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada sits on my bedside as a ready reference text. It is one of those books that I do not read at long stretches but is extremely useful when I need to have a sense of place and architecture of the early Chinese in Victoria and to a lesser extent in other cities in Canada. Yes, this book makes for dry reading even though useful. It does contain the odd, memorable anecdote. I remember in particular about the interview he had with an old timer who recalled young Chinese men who called themselves members of the Sworn Oath Society, an organization of male students who were intent on over throwing the Qing Dynasty. They protested a meeting of Reformers, older businessmen who wanted gradual change from a dynastic government to a constitutional monarchy in China. The young protesters were fierce radicals in Victoria. According to the old timer interviewed, the police had to be called in to break up the potential fist fight. I give kudos to Prof. Lai for getting an interview with such an old timer. This particular interview by Prof. Lai of the witness who saw the Sworn Oath protest, illuminated the youthful but exuberantly radical side of three men who would become outstanding citizens in Canada and China. One became a local poet. Another rose to become an outstanding leader of Chinese community in Vancouver, who bridged the cultural gap between the East and West. (Mark Twain was wrong after all.) A third became a minister in the Nationalist government in Taiwan.
Although he was not the first scholar to interview local folks for local histories, Prof. Lai sure made effective use of interviews. Later, such interviews became the fad, young folks interviewing their relatives. I hear such interviews now have even become part of student projects, but they are not the same as Prof. Lai’s. Today, what we have interviews of are more of the post 1967 immigrants. Seldom have I read of interviewees who witnessed events at the turn of the early 20th century.
What I like about Prof. Lai’s published works are the many details and minutiae. An example of such a book is The Forbidden City within Victoria: Myth, Symbol and Streetscape of Canada’s Earliest Chinatown, where he devoted a section to the naming of Chinese businesses in Victoria’s Chinatown. In his Singapore published book Chinese Community Leadership: Case Study of Victoria in Canada, he included an appendix showing the English names of Chinese historical persons next to the Chinese names so that any historian, amateur or professional, can cross reference a person who might be mentioned in both English and Chinese language documents or archival material. This might even be useful for someone doing his or her genealogy.
In his later years, he co-authored two humongous histories of the Chinese in Canada. One was in Chinese with the translated title, History of Chinese Migration to Canada: 1858-1966 (加拿大華僑移民史： 1858－1966). This was the first comprehensive history of Chinese in Canada to be written in Chinese since David T.H. Lee’s A History of Chinese in Canada (加拿大華僑史), published in 1967. The other, co-authored with the journalist Ding Guo, was written in English, entitled Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966. It was published in 2016. The previous comprehensive history written in English about the Chinese in Canada was From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. That book was written by the late Prof. Edgar Wickberg along with four other authors and published in 1982. Yes, there were several other history books in English published during the intervening years that were purported to be history of Chinese in Canada but they were not as massive as those by professors Lai or Wickberg. Up to his final years, Prof. Lai published his two most massive books.