by Miriam Wright
I first became interested in Chinese immigrants and public spaces through a public history project on the Chinese in Newfoundland my partner, Bob Hong, and I were part of a few years ago. In doing the research for the project, we were struck by the disjuncture between the historical presence and impact of the Chinese immigrants, and their near absence in both the academic literature and the popular images of Newfoundland and St. John’s. Rather than being an invisible minority, Chinese immigrants were relatively numerous and had a highly visible presence in the city, with over 500 individuals (almost all men) arriving in the first half of the 20th century. Considering the population of St. John’s was about 20-30,000 in this period, those numbers are significant. Chinese immigrants also opened dozens of businesses including laundries, cafés, and restaurants throughout the commercial and downtown residential areas of St. John’s.
The more recent literature on Chinese immigrants in North America emphasizes that the Chinese were never isolated but were part of diverse urban neighbourhoods. In exploring the ways Chinese immigrants interacted with their neighbours, this research provides a richer view of urban life and the social and economic relationships that shaped it. Patrick Dunae et al. in their study of race and space in Victoria’s Chinatown, draw on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre who said space is “not only supported by social relations but is also producing and produced by social relations.” This allows us to think about how the dynamics of race, class and gender get played out in public spaces in the city. I would argue that taking this approach, and looking at the encounters and relationships between people – Chinese immigrants, non-Chinese men, women and youth – in the streets and commercial establishments of St. John’s should help us start to think about the history of this city differently.