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Reviewed by:
  • Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885–1945
  • Christopher Chen (bio)
Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885–1945, by Lisa Rose Mar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. vii + 230 pp. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 978-0-19-973314-9.

Add Lisa Rose Mar’s Brokering Belonging to the growing list of monographs depicting the lives of middle-class Chinese in North America. Fascinating, incisive, and innovative, Brokering Belonging is an excellent overview of how this [End Page 349] “brokering class” in exclusion-era Canada (1885–1945) mediated relationships between Chinese and Anglo-Canadians, serving as spokespeople and integral components of Canadian society. Arguing against a parochial history of Canada, Mar shows how Chinese Canadian brokers such as David Lew and Thomas Moore Whaun brought transnational considerations into local discussions involving immigration, education, and identity politics. Mar depicts how Chinese Canadians are indispensable in the telling of not only Chinese Canadian history but also Canadian history overall.

Mar begins with the ways brokers navigated both the political and legal worlds in Canada. Looking at immigration policy, Mar describes the saga of David Lew and Yip On and their battle over the political spoils of the coveted government post of Chinese interpreter. Finding ways to balance the desires of both Chinese and Anglo communities, Lew and On helped thousands of Chinese nationals slip into the country. In exchange, the men appeased the Canadian government with raises in head taxes, demonstrating the delicate but vital role of Chinese Canadian brokers in exclusion-era immigration policy. Mar is quick to acknowledge, though, how Lew’s and On’s political pull had its limits. While seeking to balance the interests of the anti-Chinese Canadian royal government and their Chinese Canadian community, Lew and On “traded dollars for modest influence, but they could not buy respect for their race” (47). Chinese brokers also navigated the legal system at a time when laws prohibited Chinese from joining the legal profession. Unofficial “lawyers” like Won Alexander Cumyow offered legal advice to Chinese, East Indians, and First Nations people. Within the Chinese Canadian community, legal interpreters served as “daily negotiators in contests between Chinese and Anglo institutions over determining a tolerable level of anti-Chinese law enforcement” (54). Whether through softening the blow of British Canadian policy toward immigration or helping reverse a breach of contract from an Anglo employer, brokers like Lew and Cumyow ensured that at the very least their community members would have some protection against British Canada’s more oppressive laws.

Mar also describes how Chinese Canadian brokers influenced national education policy. Between 1922 and 1923, anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese in British Columbia mobilized to combat the government’s decision to segregate Chinese and Anglo public school children. Mar traces the role of power brokers in handling the situation, with one Joe Hope declaring, “When our people’s roots are cut off, we have no choice but to resist” (69). While the protest split the Chinese Canadian community—some wealthy merchants feared an Anglo backlash— power brokers in Victoria successfully lobbied to roll back segregation to only [End Page 350] four elementary school grades (as compared to the original decision to segregate through seventh grade), in Mar’s words, a “remarkable” achievement considering the circumstances. Mar brings in the transnational dimension as well. Coinciding with events such as the May Fourth Movement and the Nationalist Revolution in China, the school protests borrowed nationalistic and revolutionary language. A meeting of the Anti-Segregation Association ended with the shout, “Long live China’s great Republic!” (80). This section may have benefited, though, from a closer look at the role of women in the movement. In Mae Ngai’s The Lucky Ones, Mary Tape—a member of the Chinese American “brokerage” class—played a vital role in fighting for her daughter’s inclusion in San Francisco’s public schools. Did women of Mary Tape’s stature in Canada do the same?

Chinese Canadian brokers also sought to control societal images of themselves through the manipulation of the University of Chicago’s famous project on the “Oriental Problem” in the 1920s. Arguing that Chinese Canadian brokers...


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pp. 349-352
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