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The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba (review)
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Alison Marshall’s The Way of the Bachelor provides the richest and most well researched study of Chinese settlement in Manitoba to date. Marshall’s work moves beyond traditional approaches to studying the Chinese in Canada, which have tended to focus solely on the Chinese experience in British Columbia or in large urban areas. It also moves beyond exploring labour patterns in restaurants and laundries and the development of Chinatowns to explore the private lives of early Chinese settlers. To do this, Marshall explores the everyday practices and rituals that these “bachelor” immigrants used to shape their relationships with each other and with non-Chinese. These practices and rituals were also crucial to identity formation. Marshall maintains that the influence of the Chinese Nationalist League or Kuomintang (kmt ) and the spaces provided by Chinese laundries and restaurants were instrumental in shaping and redefining Chinese religious practices and identities. The result of a multi-year study that relied on personal interviews, archival research, and personal participation in community events and rituals, The Way of the Bachelor is profoundly insightful.

In her ethnographic and historical study, Marshall suggests that kmt leaders such as Sun Yatsen became Chinese Canadian gods in a new form of religious practice that linked religiosity to Chinese and Canadian patriotism, morality, and citizenship. Marshall is quick to point out, however, that these new practices did not displace or reject other Chinese religions. Rather, with few public places of worship, other forms of Chinese religious practices moved into the private sphere. The worship of Chinese gods such as Guanggong or the Guanyin Pusa took place in private in the back rooms of cafés, restaurants, and boarding houses. In Manitoba the Chinese did not become less religious as they managed to eke out an existence. Rather, their religiosity shifted and changed as the circumstances they found themselves in changed. This denotes agency on the part of Manitoba’s early Chinese settlers and works to dismantle the stereotype that early settlers were victims of circumstance rather than active participants in the new communities they settled in.

Marshall explains this change through her use of efficacy as a lens of analysis. She asserts that ritual actions performed sincerely and according to established patterns by both human and divine agents have efficacious results. These rituals, however, can be adjusted and changed when they no longer meet human needs. This is important in understanding the religious practices of early Chinese immigrants. Without temples or other public places of worship and without women, who often maintained and practiced religious traditions, early male Chinese settlers to Manitoba were left struggling to make their religious practices fit their everyday needs in a new land. Traditional deities could do little for Chinese settlers in Canada. To fill this gap, men like Sun Yatsen and early Chinese immigrants to Manitoba were transformed into godlike figures that could be worshipped by Chinese settlers. Gradually, kmt offices came to function as Chinese religious institutions. Marshall’s work is the first of its kind to make such a connection in the Canadian context.

Marshall’s exploration of Sun Yatsen as a deity is particularly interesting. According to Marshall, Sun became an important figure in the lives of early Chinese settlers in Manitoba because his life patterns were similar to those of Manitoba’s early Chinese. While scholars have explored the importance of the kmt in early Canadian Chinese communities, few have gone as far as Marshall in examining the relationship between Sun and the religious practices of Chinese immigrants in Canada. Sun, argues Marshall, appealed to many Chinese men in Manitoba because he had also lived outside of China and away from his family. He also came from a small southern village, as did the vast majority of Manitoba’s Chinese community. Additionally, Sun was also baptized and could identify himself as a nominal Christian, as would many of the research participants in Marshall’s study. Sun’s ability to function as a Christian and as a non-Christian, as the situation depended, was copied by Chinese settlers in Manitoba. As nominal Christians, many Chinese men were able to gain limited entrée into white society and enhance their...


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