- Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada by Alison Marshall
Cultivating Connections, Alison Marshall’s follow-up study to The Way of the Bachelor (2011), examines the webs of relationships that built the Chinese community on the Canadian prairies, as well as the “structures, processes, and cultural adaptations” that created inclusiveness, as well as exclusiveness, in Exclusion Era Canada (1880s–1947).2 As a researcher of Filipino immigration to Manitoba, I found this text and its method to be a timely contribution to the literature on Prairie immigration and, more precisely, Asian immigration. This text will be of use to those interested in Canadian immigration, the Chinese diaspora, the Canadian prairies, and Exclusion Era Canada.
The purpose of Cultivating Connections is to understand “the structures, processes, and cultural adaptations that create inclusion and exclusion” in Chinese communities on the Canadian prairies through the study of “affect-sentiments, connections, and networks.” The book’s nine chapters focus on specific aspects of Chinese life on the prairies, including gender, religion, nationalism, sport, and racism. Some chapters focus on one or two individuals, while others are more general in their approach. Constant throughout is the theme of adaptation. Marshall is particularly concerned with presenting the lives of Chinese women; she offers four chapters on them.
Marshall’s major methodological approach is a combination of embodied ethnography and archival research methods. As Marshall notes, the ethnographic fieldwork and oral history collection of around 300 interviews was necessary owing to the lack of (public) archival sources. This strong oral history approach is, I feel, one of Marshall’s strongest points; her personal connections to the Chinese community gave her access not only to participants but also to the personal archives of community members. Marshall’s methods embrace collaboration with and empowerment of community members, a key component of oral history. The grandson of one of the book’s subjects wrote the preface, and participants were allowed to read over draft materials that related to them or their family.
Cultivating Connections offers a corrective lens on Asian immigrants’ experiences of racism during Canada’s Exclusion Era. Much of Asian-Canadian historiography, such as the works of Patricia Roy and Timothy Stanley, deals with British Columbia, where racism was particularly rife in this period. These impressions might be expanded to characterize Canada in general, but Marshall’s text offers a geographical corrective, [End Page 343] emphasizing the different contexts of the prairies that resulted in less racism, such as a smaller Chinese population, less competition with “white” businesses, and Winnipeg’s relative cosmopolitanism and receptiveness to hard-working immigrants.
Similarly to Lisa Mar in Brokering Belonging (2010), Marshall highlights the important role that networks and personal connections had in Chinese life on the prairies. Marshall maps them out along different lines, including religion, clan, and nationalism. After the 1911 revolution that toppled the last dynasty in China, leading to the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang nationalist party, refusing to affiliate oneself with the latter was in effect to expel oneself from the Chinese community. Thus, these networks in the Chinese community not only assisted in adapting to life on the Canadian prairies but also served as a means of exclusion for many.
For all the positive contributions of this text, I am left with a few questions. Marshall indicates that she conducted over 300 interviews, but it was unclear whether she also accessed previous oral history projects, such as that of the Manitoba Chinese Historical Society, deposited in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. In terms of an oral history methodology, I would have liked to see more on her decision to step back from the networks she had joined after the manuscript for Cultivating Connections had been completed. Marshall states that she “wanted to preserve participant perspectives and voices and to ensure that the book was completed.” While the second clause is relatively clear, I am uncertain how stepping away would preserve perspectives and voices. She may have been referencing the comments and opinions of community members...