“Drums and Seagulls: A Reflection on the 26th Annual Women’s Memorial March” Essay by Wong Ying Nam

Introduction

This year’s Women’s Memorial March was my first.[1]

TransLink: 14 Hastings/UBC

I was on the bus to the Annual Women’s Memorial March when a girl suddenly stood up to ask the driver if he would be passing Main and Hastings. Before he could reply, an older woman sitting on the courtesy seats assured her that it would. She had been on this route many times, she said, and she knew that it would go where the girl needed to be. I couldn’t see the driver’s reaction, but the girl gratefully thanked the woman and sat down across from her.

carnegie-seagulls
Image by Stephanie Fung

“Are you going to the March?” the woman asked, quieter, as if revealing a secret. The girl nodded, explaining that she was excited to go but nervous, since it would be her first time. The woman grinned and lifted up one side of her heavy windbreaker, where she was shielding a hand drum wrapped in plastic.

“Every year,” she said, “I drum for my sisters.”

They continued to talk quietly about the March, the woman eyeing every new person that stepped onto the bus, as if watching for a reason to change the topic.[2] Her drum remained under her arm for the rest of the ride. Before the bus could cross Main Street to its stop, we were blocked by an overflow of pedestrians that had moved off the sidewalk and filled the intersection. The driver waited, honked his horn, and waited some more, until it was clear that he wouldn’t make it through the crowds any time soon.

“Those protestors are always blocking up the streets!”[3]

The front door hissed open, and the woman with the hand drum got off first—head down, arms tight around herself.

“They can be so inconsiderate!”

The girl who was attending the Memorial March for the very first time followed after.[4]

“You be safe out there.”

He looked at me as he said this, so I thanked him and stepped out onto the streets.[5]

Arrival

I walked down Main Street, towards Pender. Dense rows of families and spectators were packed against the sidewalk, watching the Chinese New Year Parade. Behind me, I could hear the opening ceremonies of the Memorial March slowly take shape. A group of us had chosen to meet at a Waves Coffee House, right in the heart of Chinatown. The gold and red lions leaped down the pavement, while a squadron of naval soldiers followed after them: white caps, dark jackets, thin yellow trims.[6] It was starting to rain. Somebody was drumming in the background. Somebody was drumming in the foreground.[7]

Marching

I can’t really write about what it felt like to march that day. I can’t even write about the opening ceremony. I cried for a full hour, and I couldn’t say why. I cried when I was marching too. I just marched and cried and lost feeling in my fingers and marched and cried and lost feeling in my toes and marched and cried held the fluttering cloth banner with the names of the women who had gone missing or been murdered over the last year and marched and marched and marched.

Relations

I heard from a group of local organizers that they would be inviting Chinese veterans to the Memorial March, right after the parade. I couldn’t help but wonder if the elders would be aware of the differences between the two events, how the volunteers would explain the purpose and intent behind the March. To the seniors, it would seem like they had moved from one parade to another, especially with the colourful but unintelligible banners being carried by the participants. Was someone going to translate all names on each banner to them? Had somebody contextualized the March for these seniors? How do you say “missing and murdered Indigenous women” in Cantonese?

But maybe I was being too pessimistic. Maybe these veterans already knew about and truly cared for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. My anxiety was mostly informed by personal experiences in Chinatown and witnessing the charged relationship between its citizens and the other members of the Downtown Eastside. I’d heard stories from a friend who worked in a soup shelter on Hastings, who often saw violent fights break out between Chinese seniors and the “real residents of the Downtown Eastside.” She told me how fellow servers would often refuse to give Chinese recipients more than one serving, even though they would freely distribute extra portions to other recipients if they explained they needed it for their partners or because they had a larger appetite. The language barrier prevented these seniors from explaining that they wanted the second serving so that they wouldn’t have to return to the kitchen at night, when it was more dangerous to be outside.

The perception of entitlement in Chinese Canadians from Chinatown, or maybe Chinese Canadians in general, pervades every corner. I got lost trying to find a building once and ended up in an alley, half a block away from Chinatown. A white homeless woman passed by, looked at me, then spat at my feet. “You nosy bitches come in here and protest,” she hissed, “but you don’t know anything.” This was on the heels of an open house for a condo development right in the heart of Chinatown, which protestors had stormed with Chinese seniors, holding signs that read: “Protect Chinatown,” “We are Chinatown,” and “Save Chinatown, Save the Poor People, and Save the World.” I hadn’t participated in that event, but the woman’s anger has stayed with me since then.[8]

In the end, only one poh-poh made it to the March, a sweet and senile lady who had to be taken to the final destination early because she was too hungry and tired to complete the full route. She thought we were all walking to a restaurant. We held hands and talked about my father’s home village, my experiences at university, and her grandchildren, again and again. She told me to find her at the Japanese Language School afterwards, but by the time the March was over, I’d forgotten.

Home

I could still hear the Women’s Warrior Song in my ears after I got home. My hands and feet were still numb from hours of marching, and I was still thinking about the Chinese elder I’d left behind at the Japanese Language School. I was guilty, or something like it. When my mom threw open my door, I was still standing at Oppenheimer Park, staring at the floating white candles and the seagulls circling the grey sky.

“You just got home after going out on Valentine’s Day!” she exclaimed. “Why do you look like this?”

I thought about telling her that I was just tired. Or maybe I’d had a bad day. Maybe I could say that I’d been dumped or something. The seagulls were still circling around my head. Do some real ally shit, they yelled. Start a conversation, even if it’s hard!

“I was at a march,” I said, “for the missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside.”

“Oh.” She seemed almost confused by my answer at first, as if I’d replied to a question she hadn’t asked. She hovered by the door, and I thought she might ask about the march or about the women or about the murders, but instead: “I guess you don’t want peanuts then?”

seagulls
Image by Stephanie Fung

The candles snuffed out and the seagulls landed, uneasy on the grass. They watched me as I found myself, as I went home.

“I’d love some, ma.”

Somebody, somewhere, was drumming.

“Thank you.”

Works Cited

Chief Elk-Young Bear, Lauren. “There is No ‘We’: V-Day, Indigenous Women and the Myth of Shared Gender Oppression.” Model View Culture: Technology, Culture, and Diversity Media. 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Le, C. N. “The Model Minority Image.” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Razack, Sherene H. “When Race Becomes Place.” Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002. 1-20. Print.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): 1-40. Print.

[1] “Decolonization” was something that I had only studied at the academic level. An undergraduate degree in English literature meant that my understanding of this term stemmed from writing comparative analyses or reading literary critiques. I understood it the way I understood Foucault—at a distance, in the abstract, as an analytical tool. It was something “hip” that I could drop into my essays about Indigenous writers to fill bibliography requirements.

But when Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang warned that if “metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future” (3)—it felt like they were speaking to every callously cited paper I’d written over the last few years. Decolonization wasn’t real to me the way it was for so many other folks organizing and surviving on these unceded territories. By abstracting decolonization, I’d turned it into a theoretical tool that gave me “ally points” as a settler of colour, while ignoring my own complicity in colonial structures that encouraged this process. My move to innocence wasn’t just an attempt to absolve myself of settler guilt, but one that didn’t even recognize my positionality as a settler. I knew about it because I needed to fulfill academic requirements. Furthermore, by only thinking of decolonization as an academic tool, I neglected to see its material impacts in the world and how it is a necessary part of reconfiguring a future around Indigenous sovereignty. Slowly, the unease crept in and the questions began:

“What is decolonization and what does it look like in my personal contexts?” So, I took a seminar on Indigenous and Asian Canadian relationships in the nation state.

“What is decolonization and how do we resist the metaphor?” So, I marched.

[2] The solidarity that happens in public spaces is so, so special. I was humbled by this moment of vulnerability from the drummer, because she was clearly wary of the other people that might be passing through the bus. Here, I saw that solidarity requires so much risk and vulnerability through its relationship building.

[3] Sherene H . Razack’s theories of racialized space are particularly poignant here. Which racialized bodies did the bus driver see when he looked out onto the streets? Why did he immediately interpret them as protestors, rather than participants in a municipally supported March? We were joined by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (We Wai Kai Nation) and Mayor Gregor Robertson, yet the driver spoke of us as inconsiderate nuisances, as if we were obstructions to the city. “Space [is] a social product,” asserts Razack (17), and is necessarily affected by intersections of class, gender, and race. To the bus driver, the city space was prioritized according to the urban movement of people with places to be and cars to drive, while those that actually lived in those spaces were seen as obtrusive and unnecessary. The route falls between Downtown Vancouver and Tinseltown, which someone once described to me as the “new Main Street,” a telling observation on the growing gentrification in the area.

[4] The bus driver’s reaction sheds light on the drummer’s wariness just moments before. As an older Indigenous woman, she was at greater risk of violence than the young, white student to whom she was speaking, especially on the day of the March. I hadn’t realized this tension until I saw how cautious she was and heard the bus driver’s snide remark. Her reaching out to the student was more than an attempt to make conversation, but a way to ask: “Am I safer with you here? Are you an ally? And what kind of ally are you?”

[5] My racialized Chinese body is socialized with specific perceptions, and I am reminded every day to notice these moments. Why did the bus driver wish me safety, but not the other two women that got off before me? What did he see when he looked at me, a light-skinned Asian girl with big glasses hanging off her nose? Justice and safety are racialized, and when I am coded as a “model minority”—I benefit. Complicity with these larger models of submission to the oppressor, in order to unify gender experiences, is something that Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear adamantly argues against in the context of Eve Ensler’s V-Day (n. pag.). In this one interaction, the nuanced experience of gendered and racialized micro-aggressions is immediately highlighted. The bus driver specifically warned me to be safe, but not the white girl who had begun to build a relationship with the Indigenous woman on the bus. White supremacy has forced minorities to tier each other within racialized strata, and when light-skinned Asians are read as the model minority, they are subsumed into wider narratives of mainstream multiculturalism. Model minorities don’t march or protest. Model minorities don’t stand in solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty.

Being a “good Asian” also involves complicity with capitalist and racialized systems of oppression. In fact, the very term stems from early Asian Americans’ complicity with capitalist endeavours and economic gain, two ideals that were conflated with the American Dream (Le n. pag.). It is worth noting that model minority status is not always benign, and it can result in violence, hatred, and persecution against its members. But “[t]he problem with the framing of sexualized violence as an issue that hurts all women equally,” explains Chief Elk-Young Bear, “is that it erases many of the historical and current experiences for Indigenous women” (n. pag.). Though this is discussed in the context of sexual violence, her assertion rings true for other kinds of collapsing that occur in neoliberal pursuits of gender equality. Gendered experiences of violence are racialized differently, sexual or otherwise, and thus decolonizing gendered violence requires an approach that responds to and respects Indigenous experiences first.

[6] The spectacle of the Chinese New Year Parade, happening in parallel with the Women’s Memorial March, provided a stark contrast to the emotional and participatory nature of the March. One is a visual representation of the neoliberal multiculturalism so often lauded by government officials, while the other arises out of a visceral disappointment and anger towards these very institutions. The military presence at the Chinese New Year Parade made me wonder about Chinatown’s complicity with shallow gestures of multiculturalism, and the lack of sensitivity towards the other folks who shared this space on a very important day. Chief Elk-Young Bear’s consistent critique of Eve Ensler’s V-Day due to its reliance on government systems to address violence is particularly meaningful here—I could hear the women behind me decry the national inquiries and their failure to lead to any real action, while I watched naval officers march along leaping red lions.

When I think of complicity from other Chinese Canadians, I think of our willingness to align ourselves with prestige, money, and institutional power, and the internal cultural pressures that encourage these pursuits. I also realized that the bus driver most likely warned me to be safe because he thought I was an observer of the parade, rather than a participant in the March. For that matter, why did he only blame the “protestors” on the street when just as many people in that block were on their way to the parade? Why is one a nuisance but not the other? These questions are asked somewhat emptily—the answer is so vividly “settler colonialism.” I never found out if the Chinatown parade organizers made a land acknowledgement before the festivities that day.

[7] Drums, symbols, and gongs are a large part of lion dancing, which establish the rhythms for the dancers’ footwork. One of the most popular and jubilant forms of lion dancing is the “Seven Star Drum,” characterized by agile footwork and high leaps. Lion dance drums are atonal and cacophonous, but always celebratory. The contrast between these drums and the sombre ones at the March highlights the fraught relationship between Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, as they competed for attention using the same instrument but with different rhythms and tones—in some ways, a metaphor for the different communities’ divergent efforts to be recognized by the nation state.

[8] To expand on Razack, space is not only race, but also gender, and also class. Razack’s interest in examining how “systems of domination operate the local level” (16) is crucial for understanding the parallel locations of Vancouver’s Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, especially when considering who is invested in protecting these spaces from gentrification. In the Pender-Gore-Keefer-Carrall area, you have tenured professors, real estate investors, large business owners, and cultural ambassadors defending Chinatowns on an international scope. These are often extremely powerful people at the top of their field, hoping to “revitalize” yet simultaneously “preserve” Chinatown. Many of these groups are anti-gentrification, citing the need to protect small businesses and the seniors that live there. Unfortunately, despite these seemingly powerful supporters, the fight for Chinatown is still characterized by immense struggle and frequent deadlock.

Yet I can’t help but wonder—if Chinatown is “revitalized” through things like street festivals, vibrant localized businesses, and affordable seniors’ living spaces, how does that affect the residents in the Downtown Eastside? Where do they go after Chinatown becomes a bustling hub of cultural dynamism? What is the difference between revitalization and gentrification? Space is race, but whose space? Whose race? Which social forces have created and legitimized Chinatown for the Chinese diaspora?


Wong Ying Nam
Wong Ying Nam is a migrant guest living on Musqueam, Tsawwassen, and Kwantlen territories. She read and wrote about stories until she had a degree, but now she mostly listens. Her ancestral village was best known for high-yield lychee trees. These days, it is home to the world’s second largest shopping centre, a dead mall filled with economic ghostboxes.

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