“Deskilling Labour of Chinese Immigrant Women and the Reproduction of Domesticity as Housewives in Canada” Essay by Therise Lee

Abstract – Research Focus and Question

The purpose of my research question is to explore the invisibilized community of Chinese immigrant women who are often underrepresented or completely left out from dominant Canadian histories. In particular, I will be focusing on middle-class, educated Chinese women primarily from the southern regions of the People’s Republic of China (which I will refer to as China throughout this paper). These women have long faced discriminatory legal practices that make it impossible for them to continue with their professional careers upon arrival in Canada. Through the examination of the varying intersections of racialization and socio-cultural barriers that limit these women from assimilating into Canadian society, I will explore the geographical concepts of gender performativity, as theorized by Judith Butler in regards to these women’s reproduction of heteronormative roles as housewives. In addition, I aim to deconstruct Canada’s discriminatory immigration practices, highlighted in the works of Geraldine Pratt, a feminist geographer and professor at University of British Columbia. Further, I will explore the experiences of Chinese immigrant women in Canada through the extensive research compiled by various scholars: Christina Ho, Guida Man, Vivienne Poy, Janet Salaff and Yuen-Fong Woon. Ultimately, I hope to understand: how to examine through a feminist analytical framework the deskilling of labour of chinese immigrant women to Canada and the subsequent reproduction of feminised gender performativity through dominantly heteronormative roles of domesticity in Canada from the late 1980s to current day.

Introduction – Establishing My Positionality

While I conduct my exploration of this research question, I aim to examine my own positionality as a self-identified cis-gendered female who is a first generation Chinese-Singaporean-Canadian immigrant to Canada, with ancestral roots tracing back to the Fujian province of China. As a daughter of a full-time mother and housewife, I am particularly drawn to understanding the limiting circumstances of Chinese female immigrants as they leave behind their families and communities to move with their husbands to Canada in hopes of a “better life”. Further, how does the examination of this community of Chinese female immigrants reflect the ongoing discriminatory practices that exist in the geography of Canada today, as a self-proclaimed “multicultural society”?

Throughout this entire research process, I have constantly been reflecting on my own privilege as a postsecondary student of Chinese descent in Canada. I want to acknowledge the countless Chinese-Canadian women and men who have paved the way for Chinese-Canadians to hold the rights and have the opportunities that we do today in Canada. Their great strides in history against marginalization and discrimination cannot be forgotten. The reason why I chose to focus on the experience of Chinese women as opposed to men (or any other demographic) is because I believe it is a crucial part of Canadian history that has not been included in dominant histories. I strive to give voice to the voiceless by including stories of women who were victims and warriors, and who battled against systems of patriarchy and racialization in their journey of immigration.

History of Chinese Women Arriving In Canada (1860s to Present Day)

According to Poy, the Canadian government’s attitude towards Chinese settlement in Canada has evolved from one of tolerance to exclusion to welcome (4). Dating back to the 19th century, the construction of Canadian geography has been significantly influenced by the waves of Chinese immigrants from the southern province of Guangdong, China whose port of departure was usually from the British colony of Hong Kong (Woon 86 and Poy 6). In 1858, many came to the gold fields in Barkerville, British Columbia (BC). From 1881-1885, around 15,000 Chinese railway workers were recruited to complete the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) (Poy 4). The presence of Chinese Women in Canada dates back as early as 1858 during the gold rush era. However, due to the patriarchal traditions in China and BC’s frontier conditions of white racism and restrictive immigration policies, women remained a small minority until the late 1940s (Woon 86). Up until then, Chinese communities in Canada were primarily male bachelors who worked to send remittances to support their families back home in China (Poy 4). Few women migrated with their men because of Chinese traditions that kept them in positions of domesticity, which relegated them to looking after their in-laws, children and ancestors (Poy 5).

It is important to note of the role of Canada’s racialized policies implemented throughout history. On July 1, 1923, the Canadian government established the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all Chinese immigration into Canada (Woon 84). In 1947, the act was repealed and Chinese Canadians were granted the right to vote (84). However, it was not until 1957 that the Canadian government allowed Chinese families to be reunited in Canada (85). Work and educational opportunities that were previously closed off to Chinese people gradually became available. This was not made possible without the years of lobbying work of immigrant women and their major role in spearheading the Chinese-Canadian community (Poy 4).

Gender Performativity, Precarity, and Domesticity

Since the establishment of the “non-discriminatory” points systems in 1967 in Canadian immigration policy, there has been a general consensus that migrants with high levels of human capital are more likely to contribute to the national economy (Man 136 and Ho 497). However, it has been brought to light that “skilled migrants” do not always successfully transfer their skills to new labour markets (Ho 497). According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, to be eligible to immigrate as a “skilled migrant”, the new immigration regulations qualifies “skilled migrants” by placing an emphasis on education, English or French language abilities and work experience involving certain skills, rather than specific occupations (Man 137). The typical “success story” narrative is problematic because of the complex realities migrants face, that extends beyond their economic well-being to other social and cultural factors of influence (Ho 498). The problems are embedded in the gendered and racialized institutional processes in the form of state policies and practices, professional accreditation systems, employers’ requirement of the “Canadian experience” and labour market conditions (Man, 136).

worker
Image by Stephanie Fung

Since the 1990s, the proliferation of highly educated and skilled professionals from China has resulted in a deskilling of their labour and subsequently pushed into the cycle of feminised and domesticated notions of gender performativity. Judith Butler defines this as the reproduction of dominantly Western, heteronormative gendered roles in society, led by power dynamics that marginalize individuals who stray from the norm (i). In this case, Chinese immigrant women are left in a state of precarity, which Butler explains as a politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from falling social and economic networks of support and are set up for failure (ii). This ultimately results in downward occupational mobility or unemployment for Chinese women after migration (Ho 501). The new values and expectations associated with joining the western nation of Canada strayed from traditional Confucian values, where Chinese families are typically close-knit, with extended family members commonly residing under one roof or within close proximity (503). As a result, the escalation in women’s “mothering” roles is exacerbated by the loss of domestic support (503). Some women were shocked by the sudden acquisition of responsibility for housework and tasks they had previously only managed, rather than performed (504). One particular example is of a woman, formerly teacher in Beijing, who became a hotel cleaner in Canada. She described it as “hard work” compared to what she was used to back home (Man 143).

Deskilling Through Immigration: Human Capital Theory vs. Institutional Theory

Geraldine Pratt’s critique of Canadian immigration policy through a feminist anti-racist framework is fundamental in deconstructing the experience of Chinese immigrant women in the Canadian labour market. Pratt argues that immigration, colonialism, and domestic space are all part of the production of borders that define workers as “worthy or unworthy, competent or incompetent, skilled or unskilled” (234). Pratt’s feminist analysis recognizes the importance of the home in shaping the reproduction of women’s labour performed in those spaces (218). In this case, how does the experiences of home in China ultimately shape the relationship that Chinese immigrant women have upon their arrival into these new, foreign spaces of “home” in Canada? In particular, how do other discursively embedded geographies work to structure labour markets (218)?

To understand this, I will draw from the arguments of Salaff to explain Human Capital Theory and Institutional Theory (Salaff et. al 443). Human Capital Theory refers to an individual’s skills and work experiences, which contribute to their earning power (444). It is centred on the value of the employee’s education and experiences as exchanged in the labour market. Therefore according to Human Capital Theory, even if immigrants are highly skilled and qualified, they may not acquire the job if their ability to speak English is not up to par with Canadian standards (444). Whereas, Institutional Theory views careers as following socially constructed patterns of behaviour, norms and expectations that vary in different geographic locations (444). However, it has been noted that many North American professions are powerful enough to set standards for suitable employees, closing the labour market to outsiders by creating internal labour markets (444). This is problematic for recent immigrants from non-western countries such as China who are viewed as unsuitable for management positions that require previous experience holding leadership positions in local companies. In terms of Chinese immigrant women, this is a highly gendered problem, as they face two liabilities: being foreign and being female (444). Human Capital Theory does a poor job however in understanding the lack of recognition in Canadian society and a consequent drop in the status of immigrants (454). In terms of women’s education and credentials in the labour market, it is argued that women have more difficulty continuing with their former careers because the highly institutionalised professional system affects them more than men (455).

What Does It Mean To Be a “Skilled Worker” In a Gendered and Racialized Society?

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, a skilled migrant worker is someone who needs to score a minimum of 75 out of the possible 100 points to qualify (Man 137). Since the 1990s, the number of immigrants from China has been steadily increasing and remains the single largest groups of immigrants entering Canada (138). Many of them come into Canada under the “Other Independent” class as skilled workers and professionals (138). However in Man’s study, she found that almost all the women she interviewed from China had come in as dependents of their husband even though one had a master’s degree, fifteen had bachelor’s degrees and four had tertiary diplomas (139). In addition, they had worked as professionals prior to immigration in fields such as research, teaching, engineering, medicine, computer science, accounting, business and administration (139).

Immigrant women who were teachers back in China found that their teaching experience and qualifications from their home countries are not recognized in Canada (142). In some cases, re-certification processes meant having to go through a minimum of one or two years of retraining (142). In other cases, they had to undergo undergraduate education again in order to access Canadian education programs (142). For some, the financial burden of acquiring the “Canadian experience” was merely impossible and thus, resorted to whatever jobs they were able to find (142). On top of entirely new job environments, some women had to juggle evening English classes as well (143). Women often found that these English classes conflicted with family duties or consumed too much time and energy all together, and reluctantly gave up (143). It is clear that a big discrepancy exists in the transfer of skills and attainment of professional careers for Chinese immigrant women in Canada. In turn the majority of jobs obtained by immigrant women are often low-status, low-paid and part-time, entry-level positions (145).

Conclusion – Canada, Where Do We Go From Here?

The sole purpose of current Canadian immigration policy—to meet state requirements for skilled labour—is negated through other institutional practices.. This is exemplified when professional associations and licensing bodies act as “labour market shelters” to protect and reduce competition of immigrants aiming to re-enter into professional fields (142). The “brain drain” of highly educated individuals in the sending nation of China has resulted in the conglomeration of “deskilled” labour in the receiving country of Canada (145). However, we must understand that Chinese immigrant women in Canada are not merely passive victims of economic, social, and political marginalization processes. Rather, they continue to challenge the gendered and racialized status quo by uniting together as family networks and demanding better services from community agencies. They have been critical of the Canadian social system and have refused to take on jobs with unfair wages and discriminatory practices. As Pratt mentioned, the importance of building a community space centred on home is fundamental for all Chinese-Canadian immigrant women and their families not just to exist in spaces, but also to survive and thrive in them.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. (2009). Performativity, precarity and sexual politics. AIBR-Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana4(3), 321.

Ho, Christina. (2006). Migration as feminisation? Chinese women’s experiences of work and family in Australia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies32(3), 497-514.

Man, Guida. (2004, July). Gender, work and migration: Deskilling Chinese immigrant women in Canada. In Women’s Studies International Forum, 27(2), 135-148).

Poy, Vivienne. (2013). Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Pratt, Geraldine. (1999). From registered nurse to registered nanny: Discursive geographies of Filipina domestic workers in Vancouver, BC*. Economic Geography75(3), 215-236.

Salaff, Janet., and Arnet Greve. (2003). Gendered structural barriers to job attainment for skilled Chinese emigrants in Canada. International journal of population geography9(6), 443-456.

Woon, Yuen-Fong. (2007). Between South China and British Columbia: Life Trajectories of Chinese Women. BC Studies, (156/157), 83-107.


Artist Statement: Therise Lee

As a female Chinese-Singaporean-Canadian immigrant and first-generation UBC student, I have always had a strong passion for exploring the complex issues surrounding the Chinese community and immigration in Canada through a Feminist Anti-Racist perspective. For this piece, I have chosen to focus on the deskilling of labour faced by Chinese Immigrant Women through their migration processes and the subsequent reproduction of domesticity, in many cases as housewives in Canada. As someone who has been raised primarily by my Grandmother and Mother, I would like to honour the countless lives of women whose backbreaking labour has been continually discounted and unrecognized. I believe that the voices and experiences faced by these women is a foundational part of Canadian history that is often left out in dominant histories. I hope my work will shine light to the many Chinese-Canadian women who have paved the way for students like me to have equal rights and access to many opportunities such as post-secondary education to this day.


Therise Lee
Therise Lee is a Chinese-Singaporean first-generation student pursuing a Human Geography Major and Creative Writing Minor. With a strong interest for exploring alternative education programs for at-risk youth, she plans to pursue a career as a teacher. Lastly, she would like to commemorate the relentless hard work and sacrifice of her parents, Clement and Julia, and grandparents, Gong Gong and Mama.

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