- Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada by Alison R. Marshall
Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada is a book about an important historical topic, researched and written by a scholar who is not a historian. Alison R. Marshall teaches in the Department of Religion at Brandon University and also focuses on gender and women’s studies. Her historical archival work for Cultivating Connections is eclipsed by ethnographic research, a heavy reliance on oral interviews, and the use of first person in her writing. The result is a history that reads like sociology. Marshall’s work is admirable in many ways, and makes a decided contribution to Great Plains, Chinese, and Canadian history, but she uses (and openly acknowledges) a biased research and writing style, “shaping stories” (19) with the participants’ input, and even removing negative comments from her research notes when interviewees asked her to do so (120). Given this, historians may find her contribution less reliable than desired.
This book, however, should not go unread. The author examines the migration and settlement of Chinese immigrants into Prairie Canada and, most importantly, studies the relationships that they form through friendships, [End Page 152] religion, and other emotionally based connections. These affect-sentiments sustained the immigrants and allowed them to combat and withstand the prevalent racism, inequality, and loneliness that they experienced in their new home. Friendship networks were particularly important for Chinese immigrants, as traditional family life was often not possible under restrictive immigration laws such as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which prevented most wives and children from coming to Canada until the late 1940s. “Friendship,” in the absence of family, Marshall noted, “replaced the household unit of interaction” (29) and also influenced politics and religion.
The author’s emphasis on emotion—a subject missing in too many histories—is admirable, as is her attention to Chinese women, a group small in numbers in Prairie Canada but not small in influence. Cultivating Connections is full of people too—individuals who add personality and intimacy to the larger story that Marshall is trying to tell. Men and women such as Reverend Ma Seung, Frank Chan, Charlie Foo, Jessie Lee, and Yeung Hong Lin provide an anchor for the reader—real human beings who illustrate Marshall’s arguments well.
At times the book suffers from lack of explanation. In the introduction, for example, Marshall introduces the concept of “affect” (a term commonly used in psychology in reference to emotion) but does not even give a simple definition of the term, let alone discuss its nuanced applications. Also, the author repeatedly states that Manitoba, among the Prairie Provinces, has better policies toward the Chinese. Immigrants had more freedoms there than in Saskatchewan, but why? The author never adequately explains.
Cultivating Connections is a better story and ethnography than it is a history. It alters the standard research methods that historians utilize. Still, its illumination of friendship networks and use of emotion as a key historical factor is intriguing. Marshall should be commended for bringing an understudied aspect of Great Plains’ culture to light.