Voices from the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project

Oral history provides the opportunity to explore intersubjectivity and positionality. Here, Daniel Clarkson Fisher shares his work with the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project centered in Toronto. The moving video excerpts from interviews below demonstrate shared authority in practice.

By Daniel Clarkson Fisher

During the 1970s, North America became home to thousands of new immigrants in the Chinese Jamaican community—the descendants of the (almost exclusively) Hakka Chinese brought to Jamaica in the nineteenth century as indentured laborers, those who freely joined them, and the racially-mixed families created on the island. Some were fleeing flare-ups in ethnic and political violence, while others felt uncertain about their future under then-Prime Minister Michael Manley’s democratic socialist government. Others still were simply taking advantage of new opportunities abroad. The largest group came to the Greater Toronto Area, and the community has had a marked effect on the city since arriving.

When I am asked how I as a White settler came to create the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), I usually explain, with tongue in cheek, that I “married into it”: my partner Stephanie is Chinese Jamaican, and so I had an interest in the community simply by virtue of being married to her. But that interest also deepened as I got to know her family better, made Chinese Jamaican friends, and read. So much so that when it came time to apply to the M.F.A. program in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, it made perfect sense to propose exploring it further in a Major Research Project (M.R.P.).

In my application, I suggested something along the lines of what Michael Renov refers to as “domestic ethnography,” or Timothy Corrigan calls “a portrait essay film”: a purposely “autobiographical” work that would push against outdated ideas about “objective” research by accentuating my positionality as someone in the Chinese Jamaican community but not of it. By the time I matriculated, though, this approach had become discomfiting: while I wanted to be sure to underscore the inherently subjective nature of documentary work, centering my own experience in this way reduced the community to little more than a backdrop for conceptual navel-gazing. This felt unseemly and exploitative, not to mention oblivious to the realities that should inform a positive White racial identity.

At the same time, it was becoming clear that there might be an opportunity to support a documentary aspiration coming from within the Chinese Jamaican community. In 2015, Stephanie was invited to join a group assembled by the late photographer Ray Chen to discuss the possibility of undertaking a community oral history project. Given my interests, she brought me into their conversations and I enthusiastically volunteered to help. But between Ray’s untimely death and a lack of necessary resources, the effort fizzled out. Though I was eager for everyone to regroup and forge ahead somehow, this became less and less likely as time went on; Stephanie and others eventually encouraged me to just start doing something myself if I was so inclined. Thus my M.R.P. became turning the digital-first project that the group had been imagining into a reality.

As it turns out, oral history suits me very well as a mode of documentary practice, especially given its foundational understanding of intersubjectivity and ideal of shared authority. Indeed, I can completely relate to literary oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, who has spoken about “[choosing] a genre where human voices speak for themselves” after much struggling to find one “that would be most adequate to my vision of the world, to convey how my ear hears and my eyes see life.” The discovery of my own personal affinity for oral history aside, though, I also found it to be an optimal method for documenting Chinese Jamaican history in particular.

For one thing, certain important experiences are perhaps most fully captured in memories and stories (These include, but are certainly not limited to, indenture, creolization, and diaspora). In my interview with Dr. Keith D. Lowe, multicultural studies scholar and co-chair of the Toronto Hakka Conference, for example, something remarkable happens when I ask about his family today. Rather than list immediate family members, Keith discusses the kinship he feels with all those who share his surname. This leads to a story that offers an arresting and affecting peek across time to a generation otherwise far out of reach today:

And even in cases where the specific time or place under discussion are comparatively well documented, the narrators provide indelible details and bring to light special significance with their reminiscences. For instance, Carol Williams-Wong, an author and past president of the Tsung Tsin (Hakka) Association of Ontario, vividly describes a fairly representative childhood spent working at her family’s store (Chinese Jamaicans dominated retail business in Jamaica for much of the twentieth century). She also reveals how watching the films of Hollywood star Nancy Kwan in the store’s makeshift movie theater stoked a lifelong interest in her Chinese roots:

Additionally, the interviews that comprise CJOHP.org are essential examples of what Alistair Thomson calls “moving stories”—or, oral histories “[centered] on the physical experience of movement between places.” Even for those narrators who have not personally experienced such a movement, their families’ migration(s) invariably loom very large in both their interviews and lives. One especially strong “moving story” is the interview with Tony Wong, television critic for the Toronto Star. As a pre-teen, Tony was sent to Toronto to live with extended family years ahead of his parents’ migration to Canada. He remembers this difficult transition with a lively sense of humor, and also underscores the dramatic effect it had in terms of his later professional life:

Obviously, there are necessarily complicated issues of and diverse opinions about identity/-ies within the (Canadian) Chinese Jamaican community as well; an ongoing oral history project, then, allows a diverse and ever-expanding collection of narrators to speak about matters of identity in their own way and in their own time. This also goes a long way toward averting such documentary pitfalls as generalization, reductionism, and/or marginalization. I am particularly pleased, for example, that the project includes the voices of queer Chinese Jamaicans, as their experiences and stories have not always been part of narratives about the community. One such narrator, Brian Chang, who recently ran for office as the New Democratic Party candidate for Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre, speaks with both striking candor and tremendous perspective about being “an out and proud gay man” in the community:

[WARNING: This clip includes discussion of a hate crime.]

I am very proud of what CJOHP.org has accomplished so far. At the same time, seeing as I am the only interviewer and de facto manager, it is, at the moment, more of a cross-cultural oral history project than a community oral history project. Hopefully, though, now that the website is live—with twelve interviews, portraits, an interactive timeline, and other features—it will be easier to drum up interest in the kind of robustly collaborative effort that Ray and the group originally envisioned. It has been my honor and privilege to help get the ball rolling, but the next step needs to be finding my own replacements from within the community. This will ensure that proper ownership of the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project returns to and stays where it ultimately belongs.

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based writer and educator. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, where his major research project (M.R.P.) was the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org). During his studies, Danny also presented about CJOHP.org as a work-in-progress at the 6th Emerging Scholars Symposium on Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Creative Practice at Concordia University’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. He is currently a contract lecturer in the M.F.A. Documentary Media program at Ryerson, and blogs about oral history as a mode within the documentary arts at his personal website (danielclarksonfisher.com).

Bits and pieces of this essay are adapted from the author’s M.R.P. support paper, which will soon be available to read online at the Ryerson University Library Digital Repository.

Images, audio, and video courtesy of Daniel Clarkson Fisher / The Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project.