Legends of Myself 30

Posted on October 4, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 29

30.  Vancouver, Clark Drive and Water Street, 1958:  Schools

Clark Drive was always intended to be a temporary residence.  I know this because there was a school close by where I might’ve been enrolled but wasn’t.  It was a block and half away, and during a brief hiatus when I wasn’t going to school at all, I observed that school building—jealously, I think—absorbing all the neighbourhood children in the morning and letting them go in the afternoon.

(I also remember reconnoitring a candy store across the street from that school.  Proving the continuing advantages of location, that store and its candy counter are still there today.)

The school I was enrolled in was Strathcona, the oldest school in the city, which gave its name to its neighbourhood rather than the other way around.  I remember getting up one morning early with my father and breakfasting in a little café on Georgia, the next block up, before leaving together for school.

The café—an ancestor of it remains in the same place today—seemed an odd-man-out business on what was otherwise a residential stretch of street.  Stairs rose to doorways on either side, but the café windows were low to the street and the doorway to the café was a few steps down.  Its slight incongruity in that setting is probably why I remember it, but not my destination that morning. Memory, quirky as usual, doesn’t bring me all the way to the school door.  I must have reached it, and become familiar with it on other mornings, yet it isn’t until the move to the Butler Hotel on Water Street—weeks perhaps after that breakfast—that images of Strathcona begin to come into focus.

It must have been the Monday right after our move that my father showed me my new route to school.  He walked me that morning from Water to Pender Street along Carroll.  I thought that he was bringing me all the way.  Instead, when he got to Carroll and Pender, he stopped there and pointed east.

“The school is straight over that way along this street,” he said.  “Just keep on walking, don’t worry, you’ll see it.”

The distance from Carroll Street—the corner where my father cheerfully left me—to Jackson where the school stands is five long blocks.  They were especially long blocks that day.

The first three blocks of my walk took in the bustle, colour and smells of Pender Street, Chinatown.  I went by restaurants, crowded windows, shadowed doors, mysterious inscriptions, inexplicable goods, bins of strange fruits and vegetables, dried jellyfish, barbequed ducks, barbequed pigs, crabs, fish, chicken feet, etc., all of which hardly concerned me.  By the time I’d walked those three blocks, I felt like the school should already be in front of me.

“Can’t miss it,” my father had said.  Yet where was it?

I continued past Chinatown and noticed other children on the street, on both sides of the street, going the same way.  That was reassuring.  But hardly enough.

What if I’d got it wrong?

They were Chinese children.  What if they weren’t going where I was going at all, but to some special Chinese school?  I couldn’t identify any schoolmates.  I hadn’t been at the school long enough to make many faces familiar.  How was I to tell?  The school wasn’t at the end of the fourth block either.

There were more children who joined us at that corner, which was still not enough to reassure me.  Nothing could reassure me by then but the school itself.

Part way up the next block, when the red brick front of the school finally came into view, I almost laughed.

There it was, after all.

Strathcona School stands in the heart of what was then the Chinese residential community in Vancouver.  The Strathcona neighbourhood is still largely Chinese, but in 21st Century Vancouver, that situation is hardly unique anymore.  However the community forces still centred there remain important to the Chinese community at large.

The Chinese were always seminal players in British Columbia’s history.  When British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, they were the second most numerous ethnic division after Aboriginal people.  In order to induce BC to join Confederation, Canada promised to build a railroad to the coast, a promise which Canada started to fulfill in the 1880s.  The Canadian Pacific Railway company hired 15,000 Chinese indentured servants to help build the railway for them, which the Chinese proceeded to do with grit, sweat and blood.

Despite indispensable contributions throughout their history here, the Chinese community continued to be under siege, suffering continuing oppression and social and legal insults, their very legitimacy as Canadians questioned.  In 1907, a crowd of 5000 people gathered for a White supremacist rally in front of Carnegie Library at Hastings and Main.  Soon enraged by their own rhetoric—which called for driving the “yellow men” from the Canadian shores—the crowd elected to change word to deed.  They gathered up clubs and stones and took their mob to Chinatown and adjoining Japantown, attacking both people and property.  The Chinese (and Japanese) community fought off the mob with great determination.  Although Japantown ultimately fell to the racist coastal exclusion laws of the Second World War, the Chinese community in Strathcona remained united and strong throughout.  They survived to changing times and fortunes.

Looking out my classroom window in Strathcona, I thought I saw one reason why.

And I didn’t like it.

There really was a special Chinese school Chinese children went to.  Looking out my classroom window I saw them go.  After regular classes were over, the children walked across Pender and went in the doors of the Chinese school across the street.  Somebody told me they learned Chinese there.  I admired anybody who could do that.

But the very fact of that school dismayed me.

“How are the rest of us going to keep up?” I wondered.  It wasn’t fair at all.  Why were the Chinese kids allowed to keep going to school when the rest of us had to go home?  After awhile they’d be so far ahead of us we’d never catch them.

I envied them their school.

In the years that have passed I have in my mind often looked out that window.

Knowing who you are and where you come from makes you and your community strong.  Not knowing makes you weak.  I believe that.

At that school across the street from Strathcona (and there is still such a school there today) I believe they taught their students those things—implicitly if not explicitly—and it is one of the reasons the Chinese community has prospered.

My own Aboriginal community has not prospered so well.  I believe it could do better with education shaped for us, with classrooms that taught us who we are and where we come from and why we should be proud of that.

I think Aboriginal people could prosper with such an education.  And I still envy that school across the street.


Continued @ Legends of Myself 31

Posted in: autobiography