UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"East" as "West" : place, state and the institutionalization of myth in Vancouver's Chinatown, 1880-1980 Anderson, Kay


Over the century 1880-1980, settlers of Chinese origin in Vancouver, British Columbia have been perceived primarily through the nexus of a racial category that defines them as pre-eminently "Chinese" or "Oriental." Similarly, their place in the urban landscape, "Chinatown," has in one sense been a product of host-society categories and institutional practices that have acted to single Chinatown out, and to render it continuously a place apart. The point of departure for this thesis is the view that "race" is not an objectively given biological trait, but an idea, defined by the significance people attach to it. It is an idiom around which have been erected epistemological distinctions of insider and outsider, "we" and "they." In view of the problematic nature of race, it is argued that one of the tasks of the social science of race relations is to uncover the socio-historical process by which racial categories are themselves constructed and institutionalized over time and in certain contexts. In developing this argument, the thesis demonstrates the role played by place and the state in the continuous making of a racial category, the "Chinese." The significance of place is identified for its role as the historically evolving nexus through which the racial category is structured. It is argued that "Chinatown" - like race - is an idea, a representation that belongs to the white European cultural tradition and the intention of the thesis is to trace the career of its social definition over the course of a century. In so doing, the claim is made that Chinatown reveals as much of the "West" as it does of the "East." Ideas of place and identity would not be so enduring or effective, however, but for the fact that they have been repeatedly inscribed in the practices of those with the power of definition. It is argued that the three levels of the Canadian state, as the legislative arms of a hegemonic "white" European historical bloc, have granted legitimacy to, and reproduced the race definition process through their national, provincial and neighbourhood practices. This process continues through the long period when "Chinatown" was reviled as a public nuisance, promoted as a "Little Corner of the Far East," reconstructed as a "slum" and finally under the aegis of multiculturalism, courted in the 1970s by the Canadian state precisely for its perceived "Chineseness." Underlying these changing definitions of Chinatown, it is argued, is a deeper racial frame of reference that has been continuously re-created through discriminatory and more subtle ways as part of the exercise of white European cultural domination. Lying behind the career of the racial category, therefore, is the history of the relationship between place, racial discourse, power and institutional practice in a British settler society. The study is undertaken with a view to uncovering those relationships and by way of a contribution to the recent rediscovery of place in human geography.

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