Parker Mah is a Montreal-based musician, and co-host of the documentary film « Être Chinois au Québec » (Being Chinese in Quebec). In the film, Mah and Bethany Or take a road trip across Quebec to meet various Chinese Quebeckers to answer the question: What does it mean to be Chinese in Quebec? What are the impacts of the Canadian government’s actions, such as the implementation of the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act on young Chinese Quebeckers?
I met with Mah in Montreal to discuss the film in anticipation of its Ottawa premier on May 22 and its Montreal theatrical run at Cinéma du Parc starting May 24.
You’re from Vancouver. Is there a difference between being Chinese in Vancouver and being Chinese in Quebec?
Yes, of course there’s a difference. And it’s not necessarily a bad or a good difference.
When I was in Vancouver, I wasn’t forced to confront my identity as much as I am here. Even though in elementary school, I was one of three Asian kids, it never came to my mind that I had to assert myself as Chinese Canadian, or someone of Chinese cultural heritage.
It’s just the cultural context of Vancouver I suppose, in which people from ethnic backgrounds are generally not singled out as such. It’s a good thing in that you’re not confronted with having to define your cultural identity at each opportunity. But at the same time, it meant my awareness of my cultural identity was underdeveloped.
Then I came to Montreal, and I was confronted with questions of “where are you from?” and “why do you speak French instead of Chinese?” These types of questions forced me to really define myself in terms relative to Québécois culture.
Being Chinese in Quebec is much different than being Chinese elsewhere in Canada. That is one of the big reasons we wanted to focus on Quebec in this documentary. [This is] one of the only documentary film projects that deals with young Chinese people in Quebec.
How did you get involved in the film?
It started with an interest in my family history. My family has roots in this country going back four generations. I became interested in my university years in researching the details of my family. I interviewed my grandmother to get the whole story.
That was also the beginning of my participation in the New Voices Project, a project that aimed to expose and promote the distinct cultural and creative identity of the new generation of young Asian Canadians. It started as a book project in Vancouver and became a series of oral history interviews in Montreal. Around the same time [in 2010], Malcolm Guy and William Ging Wee Dere, the co-directors of the film, approached me. They knew about me through my involvement with the New Voices Project and asked me if I’d like to be in the film.
I should mention that Malcolm and William had already collaborated previously on a documentary called Moving the Mountain, which was about the history of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act and the direct impact it had on Chinese Canadian families. Originally our film was going to be about the legacy of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act and its influence on the new generation. Long story short, the idea of the film evolved. It became an extension of what we had started in the New Voices Project: an exploration of the construction of identity of the young generation of Chinese Quebeckers, on a much larger scale.
What was a surprising discovery for you when you started your road trip?
What was surprising to me was the diversity of the Chinese community. There is no one Chinese community.
We interviewed this family who has been running the Wok ‘n’ Roll on [Boulevard] Charest in Quebec City for three generations. There are students who have just only been here a few months. We interviewed a young woman who’s majoring in French literature. She’s a huge Francophile, so she came specifically to Quebec to study in French. She came with her husband because she felt that Canada was a paradise for children.
We met people who are living in Gaspé—a family who’s running a restaurant. They’ve been there for 20 years and they have a son, and he speaks perfect Gaspésien. We met a Chinese woman who got married to a Québécois from Rimouski and came over here to start a new life.
Then of course we have the whole subsection of urban Chinese Quebeckers who are born here, and speak French—who might not even speak English or Chinese. We have the generation of Vietnamese of Chinese origin who came here in the ‘70s after the war, and then there are many who are adopted, mainly girls. All these people – we are sort of grouping into the ‘Chinese community,’ even though they might not themselves consider themselves Chinese.
What we’re showing in the film is the different types of Chinese that can exist. We want to portray them in all their variety, because one of the themes in the film is to break out of the stereotypical views that people have of the Chinese community.
What do you hope that people get out of the film?
What I would hope is that people come out of the film with a better understanding of the following themes:
The first involves the representation of Chinese in the media in Quebec and in the public sphere in general. Why are so few Chinese politically engaged? Why aren’t more Chinese involved in the cultural or arts scenes and telling their own stories?
The second is the awareness of cultural identity, vis-à-vis the Québécois context. How do Chinese Quebecker youth identify themselves? Do they feel connected to their history in the place where they live? These are important questions that go beyond inclusion, that have to do with reclaiming a cultural space that is proper to us.
The third thing we want to show is the struggle for equality. As you know, the Chinese Head Tax and the [Chinese] Exclusion Act [in 1923] had a direct impact: it separated families for generations. Although systemic racism doesn’t exist anymore in the form of a head tax, there are still barriers for not only the Chinese, but people of ethnic background in general. Certain things like access to workers’ rights and health rights are not even across the board. What we’re trying to do is make the link between these struggles in the present to the struggles of the past.
How do you think the new Parti Québécois government will affect on the Chinese community?
I feel like the definition of what a Québécois can or can’t be is restrictive. For instance, Bethany’s grandmother has been here since the ‘60s, but she doesn’t speak French—because she was working in a factory to support herself and her kids, and she didn’t have the time and the energy. But does that mean she wasn’t a contributing member of society? She paid taxes and she voted. Yet, she’s not considered Québécois because she doesn’t speak French.
At the same time, it’s a very hairy issue, because some of the people I’m speaking about may not want to consider themselves Québécois. So it becomes much more complex than [just asking] “do we include them or not?”
How do you identify yourself?
I’m a Montrealer above all, and then a Canadian Quebecker of Chinese origin. I’m saying that because I don’t think I need to leave behind my Chinese culture to be Québécois. I can be Chinese; I can be Canadian; I can also be Québécois, and those three can overlap, and for me, that’s not a problem.
“Être Chinois au Québec” will have its Ottawa premier on May 22 at University of Ottawa, MRT 212 (Morrisset Hall) at 6:30pm. After the screening, a panel discussion on Asian Canadians will follow, featuring Parker Mah, Bethany Or, (Schema’s own) Robert Parungao, and Professor Timothy Stanley from University of Ottawa.
“Être Chinois au Québéc” will be showing in Montreal at Cinéma du Parc (3575 ave du Parc) from May 24, with special guests present at each screening.