Asian-Canadian Film: Multiculturalism Aspect of Canadian Cinema


            Asian Canadian visual artists are probably the most productive and best known (at least among those working in the United States). Since Vancouver has lately become the focus for immigrants from Hong Kong, China, Philippines and other Asian countries, it is hardly surprising that Canada is witnessing a booming Asian Canadian cinema (Xing and Chun 1998 32). “Yellow Peril: Reconsidered,” a 1990-1991 traveling show of film and video by Asian Canadian artists, showcased an impressive array (twenty-five in all) of Asian Canadian productions, in all styles from straightforward documentaries to experimental short films and performance pieces.

Because of Canada’s geographic and cultural proximity to the United States, there is a danger in drawing too many parallels between U.S and Canadian Asian communities—not the least is the inclination to discount Canada’s distinct and particular historical milieu (Ty 2004 198). However, shared issues and concerns exist when any oppressed minority group struggles for sovereignty within a hegemony social structure. Although Asian Canadian films arc distinguished from Asian Americans’ efforts by national, cultural, and ideological orientations, they do share similar thematic concerns, and they have developed comparable representational strategies and aesthetic sensitivities. The study involves the discussion on three Asian Canadian films specifically, Double Happiness (1994), Eve and the Fire Horse (2005) and The War Between Us (1995).


Double Happiness (1994)

            In 2002, like her acclaimed autobiographically driven first feature, Double Happiness (1994), and unlike her unsuccessful second feature. Pre-release publicity made clear that Mina Shum had even brought back Sandra oh, the praised lead of Double Happiness (Xing and Chun 1998 32). Shum had already wanted the Korean Canadian actor, who passes as the Hong Kong-born Chinese Jade Li in Double Happiness, for the lead in her second feature, though its story reprised only the feminist theme of Double Happiness not its ethnic plot. Interpreting Sham’s record of successes and failures can reveal something about the enterprise of non-White and ethnic filmmakers making feature films in Canada today (Ty 2004 198). It would seem that critics and general audiences expect ethnic filmmakers to offer personal stories that reveal something about living in a multi racial and multi cultural society—which is particularly true of Canada today—and to do it in a lively and familiar format (Xing and Chun 1998 32). Discover the question 

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            Hong Kong-born Mina Shum (1966) is the first Chinese Canadian to have directed a feature film in Canada. Double Happiness (1994) is a story of Inter-generational conflict between a young daughter and her immigrant father. Described as a semi-autobiographical work of self-ethnography that seeks to explore the Chinese immigrant culture and its issues, Double Happiness uses its contemporary urban domestic setting to picture a non-typical Canadian family (Xing and Chun 1998 33). The film reflects the growing demographic importance of Chinese immigration to Canada in the 1990s, first from Hong Kong prior to the reversion of that city to Chinese sovereignty, then from Taiwan, and finally from China itself (Ty 2004 198). The issues raised by Shum are those that affected the lives of many Chinese adapting to life in Vancouver and Toronto during the 1990s.

            Produced mainly for the English-speaking world, such films as Double Happiness made by Asians in the diaspora are important because they contest not only the dominant Euro-American culture’s representations but also its power to represent. While Canada is a country of immigrants, greater Vancouver has become home to Chinese immigrants in particular (Xing and Chun 1998 33). In 1996, Chinese accounted for slightly over a quarter of the population of Vancouver, which included almost 45 per cent visible minorities. By the time Shum made Double Happiness, the Chinese population of Vancouver was almost 30 per cent, and across the river in Richmond, the percentage was even higher (Ty 2004 201). These numbers must have at least partially inspired the confidence Shum felt in embarking on her first Chinese-subject matter film, although her natural tendency for optimism has also played a part (Xing and Chun 1998 34). The racial and cultural mixing of populations in Vancouver; however, has not been without tensions. The quick transformation of the composition of the city strained ethnic relations in the 1990s. It is useful to review both the recent and distant history of Chinese immigration in Canada to place the production of Shum’s films in context for a better understanding of what making a Chinese subject matter film means in the framework of Vancouver and Canada.

            While multiculturalism is a relatively new concept in the United States, it has been official policy in Canada since 1971 and the government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and it means something quite different here as opposed to the US. The various waves of Chinese immigrants, however, fall into only two groups when considering class aspects and attitude to their country of reception (Xing and Chun 1998 34). Accordingly, the immigrants who arrived soon after 1967 differed little from early immigrants and those who came after 1947. Generally relatively poor, at the time of their arrival, these immigrants lived modestly, careful not to stand out ‘too prominently” or annoy the White population. This contrasts with the majority of Chinese immigrants arriving in the 1980s and early 1990s who were often wealthy and disinterested in keeping a low profile (Ty 2004 201). This wave built a series of extensive Chinese malls where English signage was absent. Newspapers in the late 198os ran story after story of a ‘Chinese takeover” of the real estate market in Vancouver and the established white population expressed horror at the building of ‘monster homes” in their neighborhoods and at the cutting down of trees that the new arrivals considered to ‘block the path of good fortune (Xing and Chun 1998 36). This climate of xenophobia is the context in which Mina Shum made Double Happiness, a film that reaches out to say, “we Chinese are harmless and essentially just like you.” It should be noted, however, that at present anti-Chinese xenophobia has quieted down. New demographics, fewer financially competitive Chinese immigrants, and a well-integrated school system have lead to a new harmony between the Chinese and established White population. Although unacknowledged, as such, the film seems set in the past, before more recent immigrations, at a time when the Chinese community was harmonious and of a similar economic stratum—before the arrival of the special category investor immigrant of the 1990s—and when Chinese life in Vancouver was more physically circumscribed (Xing and Chun 1998 36). It is a vision of Chinese-Canadian existence in which the tension between the two poles—Chinese and Canadian—is eliminated because the implications of the second term are missing. Mina Shum’s films have at least demonstrated that ethnicity need not always be cast as suffering (Rueschmann 2003 152). Her theme of color blind casting in Double Floppiness has also succeeded in making a Chinese out of Sandra oh (everyone now seems certain that she is Chinese and not Korean). Thus, Peter Feng’s aspired-to label, “Asian-Canadian”, has been realized, though it seems here to have lost Feng’s political dimension, not a victory against hegemonic power (Tator 2003 174). This ambivalence and doubleness create the interests and tensions in Shum’s film. Double Happiness reveals the indeterminacy and some of the yet unresolved problems of Asian Canadian who choose to represent themselves (Rueschmann 2003 152). Shum undercuts the inside/outside opposition, her intervention is necessarily that of both a deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider. Shum’s Double Happiness ends with Jade in her own apartment, hanging up curtains with pictures of Marilyn Monroe on them (Tator 2003 174). Using Marilyn Monroe here as an icon is in keeping with the ambivalent spirit of the film, Monroe was successful in becoming a star, something Jade wants, arid yet her life was fraught with difficulties (Rueschmann 2003 153). In the final scene, in a rather suggestive gesture of drawing the curtains, Jade is at once inviting us to participate in her life at the same time as she is closing off the gaze of the outsider. Double Happiness premiered at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival to a staggering response — director Mina Shum was heralded as a great new director, the films star Sandra Oh was showered with offers and U.S. distributors came knocking (Samuel 2005 132). All this for a funny, introspective, semi-autobiographical movie about an immigrant Chinese family in Vancouver, focusing on a rebellious, artistic young woman navigating through two cultures. The implications of such movie in Canadian society are the impression of Chinese, or in general – Asian, culture to be significantly acknowledge in the Canadian society (Rueschmann 2003 153).

            Mina Shum’s debut feature, Double Happiness is a film that challenges the scopic drive of mainstream Hollywood films by intervening in what Ann Kaplan calls dominant looking relations. The film, the first feature produced by a Chinese Canadian woman, self- consciously plays with its North American audience’s expectations of cinematic gaze, narrative voice, subjectivity, and racial stereotypes (Tator 2003 174). In the opening scene, the central character, Jade Li, talks directly to the camera, comparing her Chinese family with that of the TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch”. However, she notes with irony, “The Brady Bunch never needed subtitles” (Rueschmann 2003 153). Subtitles and the need for translation suggest a concern with cultural and artistic re-presentation. Similar to the last two authors I examined, who dealt with issues of alienation and dislocation, Shum grapples with misunderstandings due to one’s ethnicity. However, she adds the dimension of staging and representation to the politics of the visible (Tator 2003 176). Through the genre of comedy romance, Shum reveals the extent to which identity is constantly being performed — in Judith Butler’s sense of the term, performance. Racial and gendered identity is re-enacted arid problematized together in Double Happiness (Rueschmann 2003 154). Double Happiness highlights what Judith Butler calls the ‘performativity’ of racialized and gendered subjectivity by its metafilmic structure. Several scenes contest the notion of a stable ethnic subject by playing with accents, dress, and performance (Tator 2003 178). A number of instances in the movie demonstrate that being Asian is a negative marker in Canadian society Jade’s Asian features engenders certain expectations in the people she meets (Rueschmann 2003 154).

Eve and the Fire Horse (2005)

            In Julia Kwan’s movie of Eve and the Fire Horse, the concept mainly portrays the spiritual diversion that occurs in consideration to multiculturalism. The religious as aspect of diversity in the form of Chinese Buddhism and Canadian Christianity present in the Asian-Canadian society (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 254). Julia Kwan evidently introduced these concepts of religious diversion in the form of two sisters that somehow implicate the cultural thought occurring in the society (Raphael and Shannon 2006 231). It does not seem to find this an important goal. By way of example, some years ago the Swiss theologian Hans Kung was in Toronto to lecture on religious diversity and the need for dialogue (Samuel 2005 134). The host, Trinity College professor Willard Oxtoby, called upon a distinguished Japanese-Canadian scholar to represent Buddhism. When it came time for this individual to reflect on the possible significance of what inter-religious dialogue purports for the future, he remarked that the search for dialogue appeared to be a Christian “problem.” Non-Asian Buddhism in Canada reveals an amorphous scene (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 256). There is on the one hand a distinguished scholarly record that is in large part attributable to Euro-Canadian scholars, all of whom respect the subject enormously, though few arc practicing Buddhists (Raphael and Shannon 2006 231). On the other hand, there are some bona fide tradition-based Buddhist temples and schools, presided over by non-Asian monks or teachers, as well as guru-based organizations with largely (though not completely) Asian Buddhist teachers. However, Buddhism has a far wider impact on non-Asian Canadian awareness than its temple- based presence (Samuel 2005 134).

            In Julia Kwan’s film, the superstitious perspective and coverage of the leads and the overall concept provides the conjoining of two different religions in a society in a form of social proposal. As discrimination or prejudice may have been occurring due to religion multiculturalism, Julia Kwan utilized the stories provided by her father when she was young. The story goes on two separate idealism wherein the end points out the rationale and logic between two separate religions (Raphael and Shannon 2006 233). Julia Kwan’s creativity utilizes this scenario in order to provide a media message in a form of Asian-Canadian film, which institute and reveals the presence of diversion in the society (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 256).

            Second, even if the communalistic roots of ethnic Buddhism are to a degree intensified by Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, Canadian-Asian Buddhists continue to retain their ethnic identities with certainty and pride, finding security in cultural and spiritual roots in an adopted country that is not in the least antagonistic to their religion. Technological globalization has also made voice and other forms of rapid communication with distant homelands so much easier that they function in effect as taproots, sending up the juices of spiritual life (Samuel 2005 136). Though there may not be much formal contact, Buddhism in Canada is clearly embedded within a global transnational network. Admittedly, such contacts with Asia may in one sense retard Canadianized forms of Buddhism based on fusion and syntheses of ethnic and non-Asian Buddhism. As with the movie, Julia Kwan introduces the concepts of Buddhism under Chinese’ religious diversity towards the Canadian religious diversion, Christianity. Although Buddhism in Canada does not have a unified presence, single prelate, or spokesperson, it still bears certain identifying features, whether Asian or non-Asian (Raphael and Shannon 2006 233). Most, if not all, of these are entirely inoffensive in Canadian society. Buddhism is not a religion burdened with dogmatic fundamentalism, different dress codes, unusual diet, or special demands for educational needs beyond what the state can provide (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 256).

The War Between Us (1995)

            Anne Wheeler is a prolific Canadian filmmaker born in Alberta; she has lived for the last decade in British Columbia (Desai 2004 48). Anne Wheeler is one of the most celebrated Canadian filmmakers. Wheeler came to direct after a number of varied experiences as a mathematician, teacher, actor, photographer, and activist. Wheeler’s films usually center around women’s issues and women’s stories. Her ties to region are clear in her oeuvre: her prairie and Alberta films inhabitant their locations and brave, not unlike the landscape (at the risk of bad cliché), moved laterally across a range of themes and have insisted on plumbing the depths of historical memory for the visible evidence of the violence of that plumbing the depths of historical memory for the visible evidence of the violence of that repressed and contained past (Samuel 2005 142). Her West Coast projects clearly draw from Vancouver’s iconic neighborhoods, and workplaces, as well as from BC’s particular experience of the World War two in the internment of Japanese Canadians (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 256). One of her featured film is War Between Us (1995), which is a sensitive study of Japanese-Canadians displaced to a small town in the BC interior during World War 2. Wheeler’s handling of the controversial subject matter is admirable, particularly in its emphasis on female friendship and community-mindedness. Despite the difficulties Wheeler has faced in funding situations, she maintains that perseverance pays off in the end (Desai 2004 48).

            The movie tells about the Japanese society in the aspect of its multiculturalism in a different scenario particularly, during World War II. Neighboring Canada adopted a similar policy wherein Canadian troops had helped defend Hong Kong, and stories of Japanese atrocities followed its capitulation (Beard and White 1999 132). The Canadian-Japanese community in British Columbia, about 22,000 in numbers, were also deported from the coastal region and interned. The British Columbia politicians demanded that after the war they be expelled from Canada to Japan (Desai 2004 49). In wartime propaganda, emanating from Hollywood and other film studios, the Japanese were invariably portrayed as sub-human monsters (Kooh 2003 72). A wartime “Japanese type” was evolved, more ape than man, with huge, hideous teeth, low forehead and shambling gait (Hammamoto and Liu 2000 258). In the scenes of brutality in such films as Betrayal from the East and Black Dragon, die Japanese-Americans, the Nisei, were depicted as traitors and spies (Beard and White 1999 132). When wartime propaganda films handled German themes these almost always emphasized that it was the Nazis who were the enemy; such films took care to include at least one “good German” to indicate that the war in the West was not directed against a whole nation (Desai 2004 49). There were no “good Japanese” in the films about the Pacific war. The creative movie angles brought by Anne Wheeler provided this perspective on her film indicating how it was like to be a Japanese individual in the time of war wherein the fight is between nations and not individually (Kooh 2003 72).

            The cultural diversion and intense discrimination due to the great social, economic and moral impacts of war brought undeniably by Japan in several countries. Japanese individuals were regarded with negative image indicating bloodthirsty monsters, which are somehow illustrated in the film of Anne Wheeler (Beard and White 1999 133). The inclination of Anne Wheeler’s film is mostly and evidently on the aspect of history, which unquestionably because of her experience during these significant periods (Desai 2004 51). On the other hand, compared to the treatment of the Chinese during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state of the Japanese remained relatively favorable, due primarily to the active attention of the Japanese officials. The movie of “The War Between Us” emphasized the character of the director mainly in terms of Anne Wheeler’s being Canadian. The war that occurred between the social strata of Japanese and Canadian in the time of World War II is the primary scenario depicted in the story (Kooh 2003 72).

            Anne Wheeler emphasizes the historical perspective of Japanese-Canadian relations during the time of World War II and to influence the Canadian audience that the stigma of war and the discrimination of Japanese individuals should be relinquished. In the movie, Japanese were demoralized by the loss of their homes and property and devastated by being cast into an alien world, where, because of the disappearance of their communities and their lack of English, they were forced to relinquish authority over second generation (Kooh 2003 86). Yet the legacy of World War II lives on strongly in the minds of Canadians and the Japanese. There is more to the folk memory of the war than the monuments in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which memorialize the tens of thousands killed by the atomic bombs; mote than lingering Canadian animosity about the treatment of Canadian soldiers and prisoners of war during and after the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941. Often unstated, often unconscious, is the recollection that Canada and Japan were mortal enemies, sworn to kill soldiers, undermine civilian morale and bring the other to its knees (Desai 2004 51).

            Movies and popular culture have trivialized World War II, turning it into a military struggle between competing armies, and obscuring the intensity of the conflict on both sides of the Pacific (Beard and White 1999 136). The friendliness of the postwar relationship, which gives cause to hide the bad blood of earlier years, has the same effect (Kooh 2003 86). However, the memory is there— potent and important. Canadians lived in fear of being overrun by the Yellow Peril, armed to the teeth with guns, bombers, battleships and a suicidal commitment to the emperor and the country. Canadians gave their all for the war effort, throwing their support behind rationing campaigns, victory bond drives and military recruitment campaigns. The Japanese, stirred to war by patriotic appeals to help the country reach its national destiny, approached World War II with steely determination (Beard and White 1999 136).


            In the conclusion of the study, Asian-Canadian films have greatly yet discreetly influenced the move of Canadian society with respect to the awakening on Asian presence in the country. Discrimination and lesser placement in society are evidently provided in these strata of citizenship, which should not be the case. The stigma brought by the influx of Chinese immigrants, the religion disparity present in the society itself as well as the historical dilemma that occurred between Japanese and Canadian society. These are all tackled in the discussion via the elaboration of three movies, specifically Double Happiness (1994), Eve and the Fire Horse (2005) and The War Between Us (1995).

Works Cited

Xing, Jun, and Chun Hsing. Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representations, and Identity. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Rueschmann, Eva. Moving Pictures, Migrating Identities. Univ. Press of Missipi, 2003.

Raphael, Haike, and Shannon Steen. AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics. NYU Press, 2006.

Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. Routledge, 2004.

Beard, William, and Jerry White. North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980. University of Alberta, 2002.

Kooh, Tsen-Ling. Banana Bending: Asian-Australian and Asian-Canadian Literatures. Hong Kong University Press, 2003.

Ty, Eleanor. The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives. University of TorontoPress, 2004.

Tator, Carol, and Frances Henry. Challenging Racism in the Arts: Case Studies of Controversy and Conflict. University of TorontoPress, 2003.

Hammamoto, Darrel Y., and Sandra Liu. Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Temple University Press, 2000.

Samuel, Edith. Integrative Antiracism: South Asians in Canadian Academe. University of Toronto Press, 2005.


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