The Remains of a Journey: Individual Memory and Mass Migration

Article by Gu Xiong

Globalization has not only brought about a dramatic increase in migration, but also brought questions about migration to the fore of contemporary political discourse. An understanding of the implications of globalization requires an understanding of migration, and to fully understand the impact of migration, we must hear the stories of migrant people and their communities. 

The Remains of a Journey examines the way in which our understanding of contemporary migration issues is contingent on memories of historical migrations. Critical to this work is the idea that memory is not simply a record of the past, but also the framework based on which people interpret and respond to today’s world. The Remains of a Journey is about activating immigrant histories, first within the communities to which they belong, and then in the larger Canadian community.

The focus of the project is on five sites significant to the history of Chinese immigration to Canada. The D’Arcy Island Leper Colony was established by the government of British Columbia in 1891 for Chinese Leprosy Patients. The remains of Chinese immigrants were brought to the Bone House at Harling Point to be cleaned and wrapped before being sent back to China, until the practice was forced to end by the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The Cumberland Chinatown, once thriving, was abandoned in 1935 when a fire destroyed many buildings and the community, many of whom had been barred from their work in the nearby mine by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, were unable to rebuild. The Mountain View Cemetery’s Chinese Cemetery in Vancouver is where many Chinese immigrant pioneers were buried, such as businessman Yip Sang whose choice to be buried in Canada was a declaration of belonging. The original site of the New Westminster Chinese Cemetery, which belonged to a larger cemetery where Jewish, Japanese, First Nations and East Indian peoples were also buried, no longer exists today. Unprotected by the Provincial Cemeteries Act, Douglas Memorial Park was created on the same land in the 1930s, and now a secondary school built in the 1950s stands in its place. The last significant site is the “Canada Village” in Kaiping, Guandong, China. The architecture and history of this village tells the story of Chinese immigrants returning home to build their ideal society, a fusion between Western and Chinese culture, and the tragic failure of this dream at the time.

Each of these sites tells a story about how Chinese immigrants to Canada felt about their new home and their homeland. These are stories which resonate strongly with current issues, but are slipping away with time. Although these places are now empty and abandoned, their stories persist in cultural memory, meaning that the history of these sites is not just that of the places themselves, but also a history of memory and memory keeping. What’s further observed in each place are the signs of new life, previously unimagined and yet stemming directly from the conflict-ridden histories of the land. Despite the destruction of property and dreams, what persists is the growth of new knowledge and states of being. It is imperative that Canadians are reminded of these histories while navigating layers of newly formed meaning. The issues of globalization, migration, and their connections to memory are of immediate importance. This is especially true for us in Canada, a nation largely formed by immigrants and their memories. Just as Canada’s last century was defined by its response to the political and ethical issues of colonialism and international conflict, this century will in large part be defined by our response to the new questions posed by globalization and the rapidly shifting dynamic forces of global migration.

Isolation and MemoryD’Arcy Island
D’Arcy Island was once the site of a leper colony for Chinese leprosy patients built by the provincial government from 1891-1924. Forty-three Chinese male patients were sent to the island. The BC government sent basic supplies to them every three months. With no fresh water source on the island, the men dug a well to collect rain water. They also grew vegetables and cared for each other. Everyday, they could see Vancouver Island, but could never reach it. They waited for deportation or death, whichever came first. They buried each other in the forest or released bodies into the ocean. Now, D’Arcy Island is a National Park. Its history continues to evolve through new visitors’ acts of remembering and interacting with the place. The island is also a sacred site for the Coast Salish peoples, it’s part of a larger continuation of memory, not only of Chinese immigration but also of humanity’s complex connection to land.

Vanished – Cumberland Chinatown
Cumberland had one of the largest Chinatowns on Vancouver Island. From 1888 – 1968 there were over 3000 Chinese mining workers that lived and worked there. Chinese labourers worked hard and their wages were cheap. They were paid one dollar a day, which was half a white worker’s wages. Chinatown had a self-organized business centre, grocers sold vegetables and fruits, there were laundries, bakeries, theatres, a library, a school and Buddhist temples. It was a vibrant part of the Cumberland community. After a destructive citywide fire in 1935 and the closure of the mine in the early 1960s, people left Cumberland and moved to Nanaimo, Victoria and Vancouver. Cumberland Chinatown was unable to rebuild. The Cumberland Chinese Cemetery is one of the only remaining signs of the history of Chinese immigrants.

Facing Home – A Bone House at Harling Point Chinese Cemetery
There was a bone house at Harling Point in Victoria, Canada in 1903, where the remains of deceased Chinese immigrants were cleaned and prepared for burial. After being buried for seven years, the remains of early Chinese immigrants were re-excavated, cleaned and dried, wrapped in a white cloth and shipped back to their hometowns in China for a final burial. This tradition was practiced by Chinese immigrants in Canada until 1937, when Sino-Japanese war broke out in China. Following the closure of this bone house, around 900 stored remains were buried at the cemetery, which replaced the bone house. Their tombstones face the Pacific ocean, their birthplace at the other end.

Home is no longer the place where someone was born. The concept of home has shifted to where we have been as well as places that make us feel comfortable and secure. Home can be everywhere. In Harling Point during the early 20th C, 900 bodies could not return home; these immigrants learned that when they left their home in China, their old idea of home was lost in the process. The concept of home is constantly changing. It has transformed through the processes of globalization, migration and new generations adapting to foreign cultures.

To Belong – Mountain View Chinese Cemetery
The Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver is located west of Fraser Street, between 31st Avenue and 43rd Avenue. It was owned and operated by the City of Vancouver since 1886. The Chinese Cemetery was part of its inception. Chinese immigrants worked very hard to build Chinatown as a thriving community. Many Chinese immigrants chose to be buried in this cemetery including Yip Sang, the prominent Chinese businessman who worked and lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The choice to be buried in Vancouver was a declaration of belonging and presence in Canada, despite discrimination and exclusion.

Erasure – New Westminster Chinese Cemetery     
New Westminster Chinese Cemetery was built in 1892, which belonged to a larger cemetery where Jewish, Japanese, First Nations and East Indian peoples were also buried. After Victoria, New Westminster was the second port for Chinese immigrant pioneers arriving from China, and they build up Chinatown.  The cemetery no longer exists today. When the New Westminster Secondary School and the Massey Theatre was built on top of the cemetery in 1950s, all tombstones were removed, and the provincial Cemeteries Act did not protect it. The obliterated Chinese Cemetery reminds us of the historical traumas of discrimination, a painful past which can not be completely erased.

Dream Homes – Canada Village
The real name of the Canada Village is Yaohua Fang, Kaiping, Guandong, China. It means “Glorify

China” and has a history of over 900 years. Because of Chinese exclusion in Canada in the 1920s and 30s, many Chinese immigrants returned to their village. The architectural style of Canada village combines Chinese and European styles. They built libraries, schools and bookstores first, because they believed culture is very important for society. Then they built houses for each family. They formed a close-knit society and managed it themselves. The structures of Canada Village is a symbol of the Chinese migrants’ dream to create self-sufficient future for themselves, a way of life that combines both western and Chinese cultures. Although Canada Village is abandoned, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.