Community News & Events

Just What Is Our Heritage, Anyway?

The below piece was written by Valerie Sing Turner. Valerie is a multidisciplinary artist, founding Artistic Producer of Visceral Visions, and Creative Director of CultureBrew.Art. She is currently working on the animated film adaptation of Did I Just Say That?, co-directing the project with Debi Wong.

I’m an artist and a member of the westcoast Chinese diaspora that in 2008, celebrated 150 years of our presence and achievements on Turtle Island with the Gold Mountain Awards – nearly a decade before Canada marked the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

A lot has happened since 1858, especially in British Columbia, when the first major wave of Asians arrived for the gold rush. (Hence the Chinese community’s nickname for Canada: gum san or Gold Mountain.) A $50 head tax levied only on Chinese immigrants was enacted in 1885; by the time Chinese immigration was completely banned with the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the head tax had been raised to a whopping $500. People desperate to escape grinding poverty contributed nearly $23 million to Canadian government coffers; most never lived to receive the apology and redress offered belatedly in 2006.

And that’s not all. Anti-Asian riots in 1907. A White Lunch restaurant chain, launched in 1913, which only served white patrons. (But the owners’ racist beliefs apparently didn’t extend to the kitchen, where underpaid Chinese workers cooked and washed dishes.) The Komagata Maru incident in 1914. The Ku Klux Klan’s establishment of a Vancouver chapter in 1925. More than 22,000 Japanese men, women, and children intentionally impoverished and interned in 1942. 

Systemic disenfranchisement further marginalized our voices. The 1920 Dominion Elections Act meant that Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians lost the right to vote in national elections in order to be consistent with BC’s white supremacist ideals. Chinese WWII veterans lobbied for and regained the vote in 1947, after risking their lives fighting in Europe and Asia; Japanese and South Asians had to wait another two years before being able to exercise basic democratic rights. In contrast, white women got the federal vote in 1918, while Indigenous peoples had to wait until 1960 to be able to vote without losing their status. 

My father encouraged me to vote as soon as I turned 18, and I’ve never missed voting in any election since. Too many people fought too hard to ensure I had a voice in Canadian society.

All of my grandparents paid the head tax; none of them lived to receive redress. (Redress payments were only offered to head tax survivors, not their descendents who also suffered intergenerational poverty and injustice.) Five hundred dollars is a lot of money even in 2022, so I have no idea how poor peasant farmers from southern China managed it. I often think about how they would not be accepted as immigrants today, with perhaps their only option being Canada’s racist and long-running Temporary Foreign Workers program, which denies predominantly people of colour the right to build their lives here, while fostering egregious economic exploitation, and sexual and physical abuse. I wasn’t the first to notice that Ukrainian refugees are being offered far more favourable treatment than Afghan and other racialized refugees. To be clear, I’m not advocating for Ukrainian refugees to be treated like POC refugees, but for POC to be offered the same opportunities, dignity, and respect afforded to Ukrainians.

Canadians tend to talk about these things as singular unrelated events. But the impact is cumulative, and reflects the systemic bias baked into our colonial and white supremacist systems that treats Asians as perpetual foreigners – hence the exponential 700% rise in anti-Asian attacks and harassment reported to the Vancouver Police during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is our heritage.

But a number of Asian-led arts groups, like Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, are working hard to show that our heritage is more than enduring a century-and-a-half of hardship and discrimination. Local theatre company Boco del Lupo, headed by Artistic Director Sherry Yoon, is Celebrating Asian Excellence this month with a national campaign involving more than 200 Asians working in the Canadian performing arts sector, demonstrating the breadth of our talents and influence. Born out of last year’s #StopAsianHate initiative, Sherry recalls that “on March 21, 2021, when eight people were shot in Atlanta, most of them were Asian women. I knew that I had to do something to address the dramatic rise in Asian Hate laid bare by these racially motivated killings.” 

Another Vancouver-based company taking a different tack is re:Naissance Opera, who is #CelebratingAsianJoy with their Dare to Dream campaign. Founded by Artistic Director Debi Wong, the company kicked off their campaign with the Mother’s Day release of the fabulous Dare to Dream music video, featuring an aria from the comedic chamber operetta, Did I Just Say That?, which was co-commissioned by re:Naissance and Visceral Visions. The video pays tribute to the mothers, grandmothers, matriarchs, and the ancestors who sacrificed so much, and features the talents of a slew of Asian artists. (Full disclosure: I wrote the operetta’s libretto.)

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention CultureBrew.Art, a digital platform developed by the company I founded, Visceral Visions. With its central tool of a national searchable database of Indigenous and racialized artists working in the performing, literary, and media arts, CultureBrew.Art aims to disrupt systemic racism by building connection, collaboration, and community among BIPOC artists – which should result in more Asian excellence and Asian joy for everyone to celebrate in the years to come.

Because this is also our heritage: leadership, excellence, and joy.

Bio of Valerie Sing Turner

Valerie is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist who performs, writes, directs, dramaturges, and produces. A recipient of the Enbridge playRites Award for Emerging Canadian Playwright, Gordon Armstrong Playwrights Rent Award, and John Moffat + Larry Lillo Prize, she was artist-in-residence with the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) for In the Shadow of the Mountains, her 10-actor play in development. Her writings have appeared in Canadian Theatre Review,, Ricepaper Magazine, various online publications, and operatic libretti. She has been artist-in-residence with the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, associate artist with Urban Ink Productions, guest artist with Canada’s National Voice Intensive, and the recipient of the 2019 UBCP/ACTRA International Women’s Day Award in recognition of her “outstanding contributions to the Union, the industry, and causes of social justice”. She performs onstage and onscreen, and has voiced animation as well as CBC radio dramas and short-story narrations. In 2014, Valerie was one of two Canadians invited to train with the Suzuki Company of Toga (Japan) as a member of their International Training Group.

Valerie started her producing career in 2000 as co-producer of the Dora-nominated premiere of Jean Yoon’s The Yoko Ono Project (Toronto), going on to produce premieres by Laurie Fyffe, Marie Clements, and her own playwriting debut, the interdisciplinary Confessions of the Other Woman, which was co-produced by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, Urban Ink, and Visceral Visions. She also produced the 2016 Redefining Normal, a 2-day retreat for Indigenous and racialized BC-based theatre artists. In 2018, she designed and delivered “Decolonizing through Theatre”, a series of 8 workshops and associated activities for students 5 – 15; and she was honoured to be a guest artist with the Primary Colours/couleurs primaire Initiative for a 2-week residency in Banff Centre for the Arts – one of 20 Indigenous and racialized artists selected from across the country across disciplines. She is an alumnus of the Banff Centre’s Cultural Leadership Program, and a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, UBCP/ACTRA, and the Playwrights Guild of Canada.

In 2003, Valerie founded Visceral Visions. As Artistic Producer, Valerie works to ensure that Visceral Visions consciously addresses systemic inequality in its artistic practice, using art to build awareness and empathy; the company’s latest project is CultureBrew.Art, a digital platform for Indigenous and racialized artists who work in the literary, performing, and media arts, for which Valerie is Creative Director.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society.