May Q. Wong was born to Chinese immigrants and raised in Montreal along “the Main,” a major boulevard that connects Canada’s most diverse neighbourhoods. Educated at McGill University and the University of Victoria, she spent her career in the British Columbia Public Service working toward improving the lives of those in need. Since retiring in 2004, May has devoted her time to travelling with her husband and writing about the people they have met and the places they have been. Wong is the author of the memoir, A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada and the non-fiction history of Victoria’s multicultural past, City in Colour. She lives in Victoria, BC.
What surprised you most while conducting research for City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past?
When I first moved to Victoria from multicultural Montreal in 1980, the city was known for being more “British than the British” with its emphasis on garden tours and High Tea. The first surprise was that this was not always so, when I discovered Reverend George M. Grant’s observation of the community in 1872, indicating the “general spirit of mutual toleration, kindness, and active good will” among the “various nationalities and religions” living in Victoria. This is what piqued my interest in searching for more stories of ethnic diversity.
The second surprise was the ubiquitous presence of Hawaiians, then known as Kanakas, all through the Pacific Northwest, as witnessed by the many places with Hawaiian names.
A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada details and explores Canada’s exclusionary immigration laws, while City in Colour discusses the diverse immigrant communities of Victoria – do you see City in Colour as a continuation of A Cowherd in Paradise?
I do not necessarily see the two books as a continuation of one to another. But the messages in both are similar; and as a wise person has said, we must remember and learn from our history so as not to repeat our mistakes.
As a member of a family impacted by Canada’s head tax against the Chinese, having been born in, and lived in Quebec where issues of culture, language, and nationality has permeated daily life, and married to a non-Chinese man, I have long been interested in history, immigration, culture and race relations. My degree at McGill University was in psychology and sociology. I see the stories in my books and research through those lenses.
You have lived in Montreal and Victoria – what cultural differences do you find most prominent?
The Montreal that I grew up in during the 60’s and 70’s was very ethnically and linguistically diverse. As a child living near the Main, I remember hearing Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and other European languages, and the foods in the market place and eateries reflected those origins. To this day, my mouth waters at the thought of bagels fresh from stone ovens and hot smoked meat dripping with grease between slices of rye bread. We spent our weekends in Chinatown, with its own, mostly Cantonese linguistic and culinary atmosphere. Later, we moved to the suburbs, where our neighbours were Quebecoise, and French became my third language. French language and culture in Montreal sets it apart from most Canadian cities. As we know, language shapes the way individuals interpret the world.
English is so dominant in Victoria; we rarely hear French being spoken (I have never had to use it here, and have forgotten most of what I had learned). It has only been in the last couple of decades or so that I have noticed Victoria becoming more ethnically diverse, as witnessed by the increasing variety of foods from different countries of origin at “mainstream” grocery stores and the growing number of restaurants offering ethnic menus. At the last Victoria Day parade, we were delighted to see so many more ethnically diverse faces amongst the spectators.