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Folktales and Social Structure: The Case of the Chinese in Montreal

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Ban Seng Hoe

Curator, East and South-East Asia Programme
Cultural Studies
Canadian Museum of Civilization

This paper was originally read at the 1977 Annual Meeting of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton; a revised version was issued as an offprint in Canadian Folklore: Folktales in Canada / Folklore canadien : Le conte populaire au Canada, vol.1, nos.1-2 (1979).

Any folk tradition when transplanted will have to undergo a period of stresses and changes in the new social environment. A general survey of folk culture among the Chinese in Montreal in the summer of 1976-77 indicated that the transmission and maintenance of an ethnic tradition are affected by the political, social, economic and cultural conditions of the larger society, for these conditions affected both the family and community structures which are the bases on which a folk tradition survives. In other words, without a community, there will be no support for the communal traditions; and without a family, there will be no ground for the transmission of traditions from parents to children. This is especially so for folktales, the transmission of which needs a tale-telling tradition at both the community and family levels. The present paper will examine broadly the maintenance and transmission of folktales as affected both by the community and by the wider social order.

The Chinese in Montreal: An Overview

The Chinese came to Montreal before the 1880s and settled around the harbour and the railway station. The location gradually developed into the present Chinatown, an area between Jeanne Manne to the west and St. Laurent to the east, and between Dorchester to the north and St. Vitre to the south.

According to newspaper accounts, the earlier “Chinese colony” was said to have only 30 inhabitants (Montreal Star, July 1, 1888). The numbers in the city increased to 500 in 1894 (Montreal Gazette, October 29, 1894; and December 21,1894), 700 in 1902 (Montreal Gazette, February 24, 1902) and 800 in 1904 (Montreal Gazette, February 12, 1904).

Many Chinese came after the completion of Canadian Pacific railway construction in British Columbia. Montreal also served as a crucial transit point for the Chinese who wanted to go to the West Indies, Mexico and the Eastern United States. The Montreal Gazette reported that there were 125 Chinese travellers who passed through Montreal on July 4, 1900, and 250 on May 21, 1902.

The Canadian Census records the numbers of Chinese in Montreal to be 1,608 in 1921, 1,705 in 1931, 1,884 in 1941, 1,272 in 1951, 3,998 in 1961, and 10,655 in 1971. However, according to an estimate by the Chinese themselves, the number of Chinese in Montreal in 1976-77 was said to be around 25,000 with more than 3,000 families.

The earlier Chinese settlement was a close-knit community, the members of which were predominantly male, as immigration laws restricted the entry of their wives and children. Living together necessitated a social structure that could regulate their communal life and internal problems. Associations were formed, based on the traditional criteria of kinship, clanship, shared dialect and common geographical origins. These associations usually provided mutual protection, common benefits and social security. Some of the earlier clan associations are the Huang, Lee, Yee, and Tan. Today, there are more than ten clan associations in the city.

Protestant missionaries began work among the Chinese before 1895. A Montreal Chinese Mission (Montreal Gazette, January 24, 1898) and a Chinese Christian Endeavour Society were founded in order to facilitate work among the “natives of the Flowery Kingdom” (Montreal Star, October 23, 1900). A Chinese Young Men’s Christian Institute was started in 1910 to provide educational and recreational needs to the younger Chinese.

Catholics worked among the Chinese before 1904 (Montreal Gazette, November 25, 1904), and a Chinese Catholic Mission was officially established in 1922. With the help of the sisters attached to this mission, the Chinese community started its own hospital which has developed into a modern facility in recent years.

Life among the earlier Chinese was said to be difficult and strenuous. Most of them worked long hours in the hand laundries, and some in the chop suey houses. The Montreal Star reported that there were twelve hand laundries in 1888 (August 19, 1888), but the number increased to seventy in 1894 (Montreal Gazette, June 13, 1894). There were “lots of unlicensed Chinese laundries” in 1901 (Montreal Gazette, January 11, 1901). According t o Jack Wong (interview, 1976), there were about 60 laundries from 1910-20, and about 800 in 1920. Over 80% of the Chinese were said to rely on this “starch and iron business” (Montreal Gazette, April 24,1900) for a living.

The Chinese Benevolent Association was established in 1918. Its aims were to provide mutual protection and common welfare to all the city’s Chinese, irrespective of surnames or political and religious affiliations. It claimed to be an umbrella organization, representing all the persons of Chinese origin.

The earliest Chinese political party formed in Montreal was the Reformist party; its aims were to preserve the Manchu monarchy and to reform the political, economic and social systems of the home country. It was organized before 1896 (Montreal Gazette, August 29, 1896), and, at one time, collected donations of $20,000 in Canada (Montreal Gazette, March 6, 1902). The party was opposed by the Chih Kung Tang (later known as Chinese Freemasons), formed in 1903. The objectives of the Chih Kung Tang were to oppose the Manchu and to restore the Ming. These differences in political objectives led to internal community conflict around the turn of the century. The Reformist party became powerless when the Manchu was overthrown in 1911. A branch of the National League was established in Montreal during that year. Later, political differences developed between the Nationalist Party and the Freemasons which have fostered divisions in the community.

During the period from the Second World War until the recognition of Peking by the Canadian Government in 1970, the Nationalist Party (also known as Kuomintang) was said to have controlled the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA). This was resented by the Freemasons and other organizations which were sympathetic to the Peking regime. A Montreal Chinese Community Council (MCCC) was thus formed in 1973, consisting of Freemasons and about thirteen other organizations. Both the CBA and MCCC claimed to represent the Chinese community and applied for grants and projects on behalf of the community. The three levels of governments then requested the Chinese to reorganize themselves and to speak with a united voice. A Montreal Chinese United Centre was formed in 1976, consisting, at one time, of more than fifty-six organizations, including the Montreal Chinese Community Council. The United Centre follows to a large extent the traditional pattern of organization. Though it claims to be nonpolitical and nonreligious, its component members include the Kuomintang, Freemasons, supposedly leftist organizations and all the Chinese churches. Moreover, five chief executive positions are equally divided by members supposedly to be neutral, right and left. It has been said that the association, because of its complexity in structure, has provoked more dissensions than solutions to problems. However, it managed to organize an Autumn Moon Festival in 1978.

With changes in the immigration laws in the 1950s and 1960s, the structure of the community was also being affected. Members of families, long separated, became united, and more educated and professional Chinese entered Canada. Many organizations based on Western models such as the Montreal Chinese Cultural Society, Chinese Medical Society, and Chinese Arts Association were formed to cater to diverse cultural needs. More churches such as the Chinese Baptist Church, Gospel Church, Alliance Church, and Pentecostal Church were also started to keep pace with the increase in population.

The Chinese associations provide the Chinese with a network of social relations in which to operate their cultural life together. The Chinese in Montreal today are scattered all over the city, and engage in almost all kinds of occupations. Their life styles are no longer the traditional stereotypes of laundrymen and restaurant workers. With accessibility of socioeconomic opportunities in the wider society, the Chinese are participating in all forms of sociocultural life. This will certainly bring changes in the kind of folk culture that they maintain and preserve.


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