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  • Building the Chinese Diaspora across Canada:Chinese Diasporic Discourse and the Case of Peterborough, Ontario
  • Zhongping Chen (bio)

It has become a vogue for scholars to describe and analyze Chinese migration and migrants under the term "diaspora." However, most previous studies have focused on the Chinese diaspora in a global, national, or metropolitan context and neglected the diasporic phenomenon as manifested in towns and small cities. A major purpose of this essay, therefore, is to fill the gap in the diasporic scholarship concerning small, localized communities by examining Chinese migration and networks around Peterborough, Ontario, which is about 110km to the northeast of Toronto. Peterborough developed as an incorporated town from 1850 and then as an incorporated city from 1905, and it has long attracted migrants from China. It is typical of the many small urban communities of eastern Canada whose Chinese communities have rarely received scholarly attention. While this essay mainly reports the results of empirical research on the Peterborough case, it also offers a theoretical critique of cultural, ethnic, and especially diasporic studies of the Chinese overseas.

Research on Chinese migration and migrants in the West has long been conducted under the influence of two major lines of scholarship: cultural and ethnic studies. The dominant approach of cultural studies usually discusses Chinese migrants and their descendants in the context of cultural traditions originating in China. It focuses on the continuity, transmission, and influence of Chinese cultural traditions and institutions among Chinese migrants and their descendants. In contrast, ethnic studies emerged from sociological research on races and racial relations, and this school naturally emphasizes Chinese migrants and their posterity as an ethnic minority of the receiving country and spotlights their relations with the state and majority group of the latter.2 Both cultural and ethnic studies have provided valuable but still limited insights into the experience of Chinese migrants, whether within the cultural boundary of China or within [End Page 185] the national border of receiving countries such as Canada. Such limitations have necessitated the development of diasporic scholarship, whose transnational and global approach cuts across cultural and national boundaries.

The concept of diaspora has conventionally been associated with the bleak experience of the Jewish people, who preserved their collective identity and kept alive the dream of returning to a homeland in spite of forced scattering and communal suffering in foreign lands. This diaspora concept has been used in previous studies of early migrants from China to North America, even though the Jewish and Chinese experiences are very different. In contrast, one trend in recent diasporic scholarship has highlighted a bright picture of global (and usually voluntarily chosen) mobility, cultural hybridity, and transnational networks that disperse people throughout the world while also enabling the scattered and diversified people to remain a coherent group. Especially with respect to the Chinese diaspora, this new trend has led to an emphasis on voluntary migration, flexible citizenship, creative experience, and cultural diversity (Cohen; Lee; Ong; McKeown, "Conceptualizing").

Peterborough's Chinese diaspora has, from its beginning to the present, instantiated both the bleak experience and the bright picture stressed by previous and recent studies respectively. These mutually contradictory phenomena have simultaneously existed because a diaspora, as the Greek term diaspeirein ("to sow over") and its usage in Greek classics imply, starts with the dispersion of migrants from their homeland and spreads as these people scatter in foreign lands but still maintain homeland connections and sustain distinct collective identities (Kamperidis; "Diaspora"). Such dispersion would inevitably cause migrants to endure physical ordeals as they cross the borders between their homeland and foreign lands and lead to psychological pain, such as a nostalgia for home that cannot be regained. Dispersion also poses challenges and creates opportunities for the migrants to grow and thrive in new environments beyond the boundaries of their homeland and their own culture.

Migrants from China to Canada have faced both difficulties and opportunities in their attempts to surmount the national and cultural boundaries between the two countries. However, such boundaries have been significantly eroded since the mid-twentieth century by the accelerated circulation of goods, people, and information globally and by more encouraging policies toward Asian immigration in Canada. Thus, the Chinese diaspora...


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