Monday, December 5, 2011

A cultural awakening

A tattered family snapshot of Charlayne Thornton-Joe as a toddler in the living room of the family's modest home on Quadra Street. It is now a coffee shop.

By Tom Hawthorn
Torch Magazine
Autumn, 2011

By Tom Hawthorn

The Knotty Bean Cafe has a homey feel. A display case offers a selection of cookies and baked goods. Boxes of tea are displayed on tidy shelves. A chalk board on the far wall lists the day’s specials. It even has a fireplace.

Soon after it opened, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the city councillor, dropped by the cafe at 1921 Quadra St., a wee house located on an alleyway across the street from the curling rink. She brought along an older sister and her parents. She also had with her some old photographs.

The cafe’s tables are placed in what had once been the Joe family’s living room. A half-century ago, aunts squeezed into a cramped kitchen to claim one of four spots at a formica table for spirited games of mahjong.

This was the home in which Charlayne spent her first four years, a safe place in which she has only happy memories. Her family left the neighbourhood for a larger home on a more prosperous suburban crescent. The change brought misery to the youngest of four children.
Charlayne Thornton-Joe

Thornton-Joe (BA, ’83) told the story about her family’s move earlier this year at a ceremony at the University Club. The Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to 11 graduates, among them a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, a tuba player, scientists, and a young entrepreneur. The politician was the humanities honoree. A sister and her father were in the audience. Her ailing mother could not attend. As she told her story, Thornton-Joe wiped tears from the corner of her eye.

In offering a brief outline of her life story, she acknowledged the role the university played in her struggle to find an identity as the second generation of her family to be born in Canada. Early in her academic career, a friend suggested she take a Chinese history class as an elective. “Being Chinese,” Thornton-Joe recounted, “I thought it’d be an easy course.” Instead, it changed her life.

She had gone to UVic to get an education. The great lesson she learned was to accept the culture that was her birthright. She found herself.

It was not a smooth journey.

One of her earliest memories is of peering out the front window of the tiny house on Quadra Street from which she could see the bright lights of a ferris wheel from a traveling carnival. The surrounding streets included families who traced their ancestries around the globe.

Her paternal grandfather, Chow Shon Wing, a merchant, paid the hated Head Tax to enter this country. Her father, Jon Joe, grew up in a city in which he was barred from enjoying the waters of the Crystal Gardens pool. He enlisted in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, training to defend a country that refused him the full rights of citizenship because of his race. By the time Charlayne was born in 1960, only 13 years had passed since Chinese-Canadians had been granted the franchise.

Life for the Joe family centered around Chinatown, where the family shoe store, the euphonious Toy Sing, at 1710 Government St., outfitted generations of millworkers and loggers who worked the woods of Sooke and Metchosin. (Today, the store houses a tattoo parlour.)

Her family moved to Gordon Head in the mid-1960s, a time when few non-white families lived in the neighbourhood. Young Charlayne had a difficult time.

“I hated going to school,” she said. “I used to come home crying. That is why I rebelled against my culture at a young age.

“I was called names. I can’t say the word, even now. The C-word. The rhyme that people used. That’s what people would call out, or sing the song. I hated that word. It’s to the point that it upsets me so much that in common language if someone says ‘a chink in the armour,’ it brings tears to my eyes.”

A school chum invited her for supper. While the girls played in the bedroom, she overheard the parents talking: “I remember the mother saying to the father to wash my dish twice.” Charlayne ran home in tears.

In high school, the typical teenage difficulties were magnified by being one of the few ethnic Chinese in her school.

All three of her siblings learned Cantonese, but Charlayne, four years younger than her next oldest sibling, didn’t learn the language. She wasn’t interested in the culture, other than enjoying the red envelopes filled with cash on Chinese New Year.

“The way I looked, the way I dressed, I just wanted to assimilate,” she said.
“I wanted to blend in.”

That attitude changed during her time on campus. The elective on Chinese history led her to ask for father to share his extensive knowledge of China. Daughter and father found a rapport in her new-found intellectual pursuit.

She immersed in Asian studies by her second year on campus. She took a language course. Her father was proud his youngest daughter was learning Chinese, even if it was Mandarin. In 1982, she went overseas for two months as part of an exchange program with East China Normal University in Shanghai. She was the first in her family to return to the ancestral homeland, a journey all the more poignant when her last surviving grandparent, Annie Chow, died shortly before her departure. On her arrival, a professor escorted her to a lake on which she placed a flower in memory of her grandmother.

Many Chinese still wore green Red Army jackets. Yet again, she stuck out. “The way I dressed, my jewelry, the way I wore my hair” made her an obvious Westerner at a glance.

One memory she has is of writing a letter to her parents entirely in Chinese, a painstaking task that took her hours.

After graduating with a degree in Pacific and Asian studies, she became active with the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club, for which she created and conducted tours of Chinatown. She became president of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, developing a reputation as a tireless opponent of discrimination in any of its many forms. For the past two decades, she has promoted Chinese and Chinese-Canadian culture by bringing to the city such speakers as the author Lisa See, the actress Nancy Kwan, and the journalists Jan Wong and Denise Chong. In 2002, Thornton-Joe was elected to city council, gaining re-election in 2005 and 2008, when she topped the polls among all candidates contesting the eight seats on council. She is up for re-election in November.

Today, the home she shares with her husband Phil is filled with Chinese art. She makes an effort to stay current on Chinese literature and cinema. She is at peace with her identity as a Canadian of Chinese ancestry.

Her mother, the former Verna Wong, died in February, just days after Charlayne received the Distinguished Alumni Award. While going through family papers, her father handed her an envelope she had not seen in many years. Her parents had carefully saved the letter their youngest daughter had so laboriously written in Chinese characters while studying overseas.

A future Victoria city councillor rides a hobby-horse in her family's living room in the early 1960s. She is being supervised by an older sister.

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