Interview with William Ging Wee Dere: Being Chinese in Canada, Past & Present

February 23rd, 2022

William Ging Wee Dere (he/him/il): “William Ging Wee Dere has been an activist over his lifetime fighting for equality and justice, including the 22-year movement to redress the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. He has published in numerous Canadian magazines and journals, including Ricepaper Magazine, and He co-directed the documentary Être Chinois au Québec (2013) and co-directed and wrote Moving the Mountain (1993) and Gens du Pays: The Chinese of Québec (1993). His works reflect the history, life and struggles of the Chinese Canadian community in Canada and Québec. William’s latest work is the 2019 non-fiction book published by Douglas & McIntyre, Being Chinese in Canada, The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging, which won the 2020 Blue Met/Conseil des arts de Montréal Diversity Prize.”

1. A few weeks ago, we hosted a panel composed of 3 young activists from the East Asian diaspora. You have been involved in many different Chinese-Canadian and other activist movements over the past several decades. In your view, how has the role of activism changed? What has stayed the same? 

Well, when I first started getting involved in the Chinese Canadian community, I guess that was probably in the 1980s. The legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act was still quite evident. Many of the old-timers, the lower killed, the old overseas Chinese, [they] were conditioned by decades of being a non-citizen, so they did not have the confidence [or] the ability to fight against the depression that they were facing. My father felt that there was nothing he could have done. So I guess it was really up to the children and the grandchildren of these early Chinese pioneers like myself, who started integrating into the larger society, who started going to the schools and their universities with their White counterparts, [where] they were able to learn and understand what was happening and understand oppression and the history of the Chinese Canadian community. It was people of that generation that started articulating our demands, our needs, and our rightful place in Canadian history. So I think Chinese activists today [are] a lot more aware of their identity than we were at the beginning. This identity awareness gives them the confidence of challenging the status quo and integrating into the larger Canadian society. But at the basis of all this, it’s always the struggle against discrimination against inequality, against racism. And I think this is where a lot of the younger Chinese would be looking at what they will be looking at today. Because we still face many issues of inequality and finding our rightful place in Canadian society.

2. In your book Being Chinese in Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging, you discuss how your family history shaped your views, activism, and writing. Can you briefly explain how your background has influenced your work for those who have not read your book?

I grew up in my father’s hand laundry. I came to Canada when I was seven years old. My father had a hand laundry in Verdun. A hand laundry is [a place] where the person does all the work manually. It’s not like the industrial laundries of today or the dry cleaning laundry. That [upbringing] gave me a unique perspective on how people were oppressed by racism and how generations of racism have impacted their livelihood and their social and economic development. I grew up in my father’s laundry and [saw] how he dealt with the situation and the particular oppression and discrimination towards his identity. He was very much aware of his identity, not necessarily by his own accord, but because it was imposed on him by the larger society. So whenever anything [went wrong], he would just be resigned to it and say, well, it’s because we’re Chinese. That’s why, you know, that’s the way society treats us. That was his first step in fighting against the discrimination that he faced. So I grew up, you know, having that kind of, I guess, understanding. But I didn’t understand because knowing the oppression and feeling of depression doesn’t make you understand why and where [it] came from and comes from today. So, in high school, and later in, when I entered Mcgill, I became politically conscious. I was able to understand that the discrimination and exploitation that we face were not because we were Chinese but [were] due to the unequal system. This discrimination was due to the ruling class’ use of racism, division, and unequal distribution of wealth to keep minorities like Chinese Canadians away from the structures of power. I began to see the world outside of my surroundings. The Cuban and the Chinese revolutions also had profound effects on me. Basically, it comes to having an understanding of the political-economic and social factors at play within society. When you understand that, I think you have a better appreciation of where you are at and where your consciousness is. 

3. One passage in your book that moved us was the poem on page 74 by an unknown author who said, “don’t ever marry a young man going overseas.” We felt that this provided a poignant perspective on the hardship of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act and its impact on Chinese families, not only in Canada but also in China. Could you go into more detail about how you chose to include this poem in the book and how the Chinese Exclusion Act impacted your own family (in concert with the previous question)?

Right after we were wed 

Husband, you sit out on a journey.

How was I to tell you how I felt wandering around a foreign country? 

When will you ever come home?

Who is wasting many joys, years of our precious youth.

My spring heart has turned to action. 

Poverty does not allow me the luxury of a choice. 

But let it be known to all my sisters.

Don’t ever marry a young man going overseas. 

Songs of Gold Mountain, Marlon K. Hom

This poem talks about the people who came to Canada during the Chinese Exclusion Act. We felt that this represented the heart of the hardship of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act and its impact on Chinese families, not only in Kansas but also in China. This poem came from a collection of Cantonese poetry published in a book called Songs of Go Mountain by Marlon. I believe, from an American university, I think the University of Washington, if I’m not mistaken. So I was very much touched and moved by the poetry, and I concentrated on the poetry from the woman’s perspective, because we have some knowledge about the hardships that the Chinese immigrant men went through when they first came to Canada, but there’s very little information on the Chinese women who suffered and had been left behind in the villages. They knew they knew that their husbands were going overseas to earn a living for themselves and their families, but they didn’t know where it was, and the only expectation was that their husbands would hopefully come home. The husband would send back some money to keep the different families alive. That’s pretty much what happened to my parents. My father and my mother were married right after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It was passed in 1923, and my parents married in 1925. So, my father [couldn’t] bring my mother back to Canada with him because of the law. So that’s the cruelty of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It kept the families apart. It separated husbands and wives. My parents were separated by the Exclusion Act for three decades after they got married. And so this poem, this lamentation of a young pride after her husband left for go Mountain. It’s a good representation of my mother’s experience, and that’s why I featured this poem in the chapter about her. I wanted to give a voice to my mother and all the women who suffered and were left behind in the villages. I think I was able to do that through this poetry, and I’m very glad that you brought that up.

4. You also discuss in the book your involvement with the Marxist movement in Canada, especially with the Workers Communist Party (WCP), and how you eventually became disillusioned with this movement. Could you explain how your view of Marxism and Communism has changed over the years and what impact those years still have on you today? 

Well, I began that chapter on getting organized with this quote from Marx, so I’ll just read it here. “It’s not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” That really spoke to me, because my social existence determines my consciousness, my political consciousness, my social consciousness, and my identity consciousness. I guess those were the glory days of the new Communist movement, the so-called International Marxist Leninist movements because Mao Ze Dong and the Chinese and the Communist Party of China were beacons for many young people … [that] were looking for a model. They were looking for a path to get out of their alienation. The slogans of the Chinese, the various Chinese social movements and revolutionary movements, especially the Cultural Revolution, were very enticing, … like “Let 100 flowers blossom, like 1000 schools of thought contend.” They were very appealing to disaffected young people in the West and other parts of the world, especially in countries where national liberation struggles were underway. We were just coming out of the quiet Revolution with a strong Nationalist movement in Quebec. We’re starting to gain self-confidence as a nation. And a Nationalist consciousness as well. There was a current of nationalism versus internationalism at that time, and so that’s what happened when I was a McGill, the McGill Français movement people were working to turn McGill into a French university, but that turned into a dead end. The young people started studying Marxism and Leninism. So, they turned towards an international and internationalist perspective. I think the 1970s was the height of the Marxist-Leninist movement here in Canada. My disillusionment in the early 1980s was not with Marxist ideology but with the political positions taken by my organization. The Workers Communist Party denounced China because it was undergoing profound changes and began [reforming] the economy, which was devastated by a decade of the Cultural Revolution, and other erroneous policies applied by the Communist Party of China before that. Deng Xiao Ping undertook a huge rectification movement to open up and reform the economy. So groups in the West started criticizing China because they felt that the Communist party was turning away from the true revolutionary path. They believed so dogmatically that they had to criticize tried and true revolutionaries like China. That’s what I was disillusioned with, and I was very uneasy about this train of thought. What right did they have to criticize Communists in China? So my ideological views on Marxism and Communism have not really changed. Maybe just my articulation of these fields, as I have studied the real reality and the concrete practice of building Socialism in the few countries led by a Communist party like China, Chilba in Vietnam. Having said that, most of us don’t really know what Socialism is. I mean, you know that the word Socialism gets banded about by so-called progressive people. Marx never gave us a blueprint on how to build Socialism. So I had to study modern analysis from people who actually experienced building Socialism by putting Marxist theories into practice. And I don’t mean the Western eurocentric Marxist intellectuals who spend their lifetime reading Marxist text, you know, and these are not the people I could learn from. I don’t think anybody else could learn from them although they did make a career out of criticism in China. But, as I said in the book, the building of socialism is a new phenomenon in human history, and each country must lay down its own path towards socialism. It began with the Soviet Union with the great Octopus Socialist revolution in 1917. But the Chinese Communists realized soon in the 1950s that the building of Socialism in China was not the same as the building of socialism in the Soviet Union because China was an agrarian, semi-feudal, semi-colonial society and … that they had to build their own path towards Chinese socialism. At that time, I was looking for explanations as to what was happening in China. I saw these comrades were saying or telling me arguing again for me against China. Then I’d read this book by Zhu Lu Chow, called China’s Socialist Economy, and began to understand how to apply Marxism to modern-day China because he explained very clearly the Socialist market economy and the need to develop the productive forces in China how to use the loss of value to determine price and wages and what it really means by this Marxist slogan to each according to his work. So that gave me a clear understanding of this opening up and reform of the economy. This is what China is carrying out today, and I believe it has shown a way in building a multi-polar world order of equality, justice, and peace.

5. One thing you mention a lot in interviews and your book (especially in the closing chapters) is the idea that diversity alone will not end racism. Can you expand on that idea?

Diversity today is very much touted. Policy-making by corporations, institutions, governmental agencies, and different governments [are] to show that something is being done against racism. But racism is an ideology that is built into the capitalist system. It is a social and economic construct to perpetuate the products of colonialism, slavery, and settler genocide. So, diversity is much talked about these days. But what do you do? What do we do after diversity? The fight against racism requires some fundamental changes, and I would say one, We need to recognize racism as systemic because it is built into the system. The Quebec government does not recognize systemic racism, although it’s hidden and right in the face of law which is so obviously systemic because it picks on a small group of minority people to apply the tyranny of the majority. I know from my involvement in the head tax retrospect movement that if the government applies legislation against one minority group, then it makes the entire society less tolerant. The Chinese community faced 62 years of legislated racism in the form of the head tax in the Chinese Exclusion Act. I think [this kind of legislation is] quite obvious to us and we can understand why the government continues to legislate against minorities in the way that it has against Muslims, Sikhs, and others by preventing them from taking their full part in the Quebec Civil Service because they happen to wear a hijab or dastar. The first step to making fundamental changes is recognizing that racism is built into the system. The second step is recognizing that there is such a thing as White privilege and that [White people] benefit from economic interests that stem from racism, which produces economic benefits for those who control power. And the last time I checked, Canada is a White society, so the ruling class is mainly White. The third point is that black, indigenous, and people of color need to enter into the decision-making structures of society. This is how they can change the policies of the ruling class for minorities to move into the ruling class. They need to be able to be there, to change policies, to make decisions that not only benefit the White ruling class but also BIPOC people as a whole.

6. On page 316 of the book Being Chinese in Canada, you talk about your arranged marriage. At the time, you were “still conflicted” in your “mind, heart, and soul” and not ready to “let go of that Western mentality” of romantic love. Can you discuss how your identity as a Chinese-Canadian has shaped your personal life?

​​We’ve all seen romance movies and read romantic books on idealized love, but I tried romantic love, but it didn’t work for me. So there’s always the issue of cultural baggage. I was conflicted because my parents supported each other throughout their entire lives, even when they were separated for 30 years due to the social circumstances of exclusion and racism. They got to know each other all over again [once they met up again]. So imagine the last entire use of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I learned that marriage is a commitment. I’ve been married now for 32 years with [my wife]. Apart from the romantic and sexual attraction, I believe that cultural compatibility is so much more important for my wife and me. So, I can say that my identity as a Chinese Canadian has affected me more profoundly than I realized, and I think that’s the conclusion that I drew towards the end of the book.

7. You talk in the book about making the film Être chinois au Québec and ultimately being dissatisfied with the process and the final result because many of the people whom you worked with on the film were not comfortable with challenging the model minority myth and pushing the limits, so to speak, of Asian representation in media. You also discussed how filmmaking helped you understand the faults within your community. Can you expand on that? 

The main issue with the many education systems in Quebec is how they deal with racism. I didn’t just have an issue with the model minority myth although it was part of it, because being a model minority means that you do not challenge the dominant narrative on issues that affect you. You are set up as a model of a people who can assimilate into the dominant culture. I felt that we lost an opportunity to expose racism in Quebec society. We were making that film at the time during which the Portuguese Baqua was putting out their charter of Quebec values, which was a precursor to Bill 21. In the process of making that film, I realized that [some faults] were very difficult to overcome. The forces of assimilation are everywhere and I suppose some of the young people who worked on this film felt it was a lot easier being assimilated than going against the current. How to deal with racism and Quebec society was really the issue. The role of a filmmaker, especially a minority film worker, is to state a point of view and to challenge social narratives. He is responsible to his community and cannot walk away once the project’s finished. He cannot make a film to meet society’s expectations because I wanted to make the film to provoke and challenge the status quo. I had hoped to influence the film, but the film crew perceived it as an example of Chinese narrow nationalism because to them, the Chinese person stands up for identity for themselves. They call it narrow nationalism. But here in Quebec, there are such things as narrow nationalism, when you play identity politics, and language politics, which the CAQ is doing today. I think the criticism of Quebec nationalism is valid, but I don’t think criticizing minorities for standing up for their identity is valid at all. Continuing, minority filmmakers must answer for what they produce because what they do is a reflection of their community, so they must take responsibility for the end product and be counter-attackable by that community. and I went on, went on to say that primarily we must tell and show the truth. Do it honestly and passionately. We must tell the stories that the mainstream ignores or refuses to acknowledge as important. Furthermore, we must tell it in such a way that is not tripe, cliche, stereotypical, or fitting certain mainstream expectations.

8. Given that we are a McGill student journal, we want to ask you about the role that your time at McGill played in your development as an activist and a person. Can you tell us any interesting stories or things that you noticed have changed about McGill and its role in the Greater Montreal community?

I was a student at the time just before the citizenship system came in. So I went straight to university from high school. As I said earlier, it was an exciting time. Quebec was rapidly changing with the quiet revolution. Internationally, Vietnam was fighting against American aggression, and there was an international movement to support Vietnam to defeat the Americans and the Third World. The National Liberation struggle against colonialism and imperialism was breaking out all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It was a very exciting time, [during which] I was able to put my principles into practice by organizing solidarity movements in support of numerous people, [such as]  the Palestinian people and the South African people in the fight against apartheid. We organized study groups, marched, and demonstrated. I think of student representation at the University’s Board of governors today as a result of some of these actions. Furthermore, as an engineering student, along with some other progressive engineering students, I took over the Plumber’s Pot, which was a racist misogynist paper, and filled it with progressive content and talk about women’s liberation and support for third-world struggles and so on I don’t know if diplomatic plumber spots still exist today, but I don’t know whether it’s it has any progressive content to it. I also knew Paul Lynn when he was young. I believe he was the first director of the East Asian Studies Department, and we used to meet in that department. Paul supported our work in the Canada China Friendship Association. It was a good time, an exciting time when I was only a student. 

9. What is one story, idea, or thought that you did not end up including in the book that you would like to share with us? 

I finished my book in 2016 and finished editing it throughout 2017. It was at the publisher’s for about a year until it was finally released in March 2019. It was too early for the issue that I am spending a lot of time studying and writing about today, that is, today’s anti-Asian racism and how it is directly linked to sinophobia and anti-China hate. Anti-China hate has always been a powerful psychological factor to condition people to support the colonial and imperialist designs on China. You had the Yellow Peril to justify the opium wars. Other European and American occupations of China which the Chinese called a century of humiliation. Here in Canada was the 62 years of racist legislation from the head tax in the Chinese Exclusion Act because [the government] knew they could use the Yellow Peril to get popular support and also knew that China was so weak and subjugated that the Chinese government was in no shape to object to the treatment that Canada was giving to its minority citizens. Today, the Yellow Peril has resurfaced, along with McCarthyism. So we have a toxic mix: the red scare combined with the Yellow Peril to condition people to fear China. So that would have been one theme that I would have included in the book if I had kept writing it until today.

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