A powerhouse who helped internationalize the University of BC is now creating a museum to house Pacific Canada’s stories of immigration, interaction, exclusion and belonging.
She’s been part of Vancouver’s “cultural kitchen” for more than 20 years and is typically found, apron on, tending many pots at once. Throughout her career, Winnie Cheung has been UBC’s Director of International Services, Executive Director of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, and a well known leader within the intercultural community that helps newcomers fold into the Canadian mix.
Now, after an impressive roster of accomplishments, she’s helping to create the Pacific Coast Heritage Centre Museum of Migration to tell the stories of people who immigrated to Canada through Pacific portals because she believes one of the most powerful ingredients in harmonizing cultures is the personal narrative.
Inspiration for the museum partly came from a trip to her husband’s home town of Saskatchewan. Her husband’s great-grandfather came to Canada from China and started a business here, but discriminatory Canadian law forced his wife and children to stay behind. The grandfather arrived when he came of age. After their deaths, in the process of the family selling the property, Cheung came across very special heirlooms.
“I happened to see a box with his grandfather’s notebooks. One small notebook with a red and black hardcover, a very popular Chinese style, had [handwritten] recipes and remedies. He was something like 18 or 19 when he came. So when his father sent for him, he gave him advice, “You would need this remedy. You would need this....”
Also in the box were templates of letters in English: how to write down all supplies needed because they were running a little restaurant. When I saw that, I tried to imagine what life was like for a young man from a village in China going into Canada alone.
And then I saw him writing this letter to my husband, his grandson, in English, because my husband could not read Chinese. I was so moved. I wanted to capture his story. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted my retirement, so I can do my own family history.”
Family, literature and languages in all forms have been a force in her life. Her father, Fujian, and mother, Cantonese, met and married not knowing how to speak to one another. But that inhibited neither their love nor their ability to successfully bring up seven children together, largely with body language.
During her school years, in her free time, Cheung pored over books in Chinese and English. She picked her university based on the fact that she could study English and Chinese Literature rather than having to choose. She earned first-class honours before becoming a Commonwealth scholar and pursuing a Masters in English Literature. Literature later played a crucial role in Cheung’s choice to semi-retire from UBC to begin the museum.
Cheung, forever passionate about knitting cultures together, deepened her insight into how to clear away cultural misunderstandings when she was hired to help UBC change from a province-focused institution to an international one. Beginning in 1990 as Director of the International Student Centre, she not only built a “home away from home” for international students, but an unparalleled experience for local students.
Before the university could transition successfully, professors, staff and students needed to rethink some of their ingrained behaviors, let go of stereotypes and start to understand people with very different world views from theirs. Cheung invited the entire UBC community for dinners, conversations, films and performances at the International House, the “home away from home” for visiting students and scholars, affectionately referred to as I-House. She helped eliminate the notion that the I-House, was “a ghetto,” insisting that “before you call I-House a ghetto, come and see for yourself.”
“If we are trying to change people’s mindsets, we have to employ a lot of different skills and get people to work with us. We are talking about winning people over, not forcing people to change. So how do you do the educating? I learned that it is easy to start with something non-threatening like sharing culture and music. Everyone is proud about something in their heritage. If they are able to share, they feel that they don’t have to suppress themselves to integrate. Then the locals, they are curious. They come into this environment, and they feel so enriched.
“When you take that approach, you are able to break down some of the initial barriers. However, if you just stop there, multiculturalism becomes very superficial; just sharing food and dance is not the end of it. The pros and cons of things at a profound level — that is where it is very difficult because you are dealing with a lot of denials and blind spots. Sometimes people can be so entrenched without knowing it. Reflection takes a lot of courage and honesty; that is the hard piece.”
A literature lover, Cheung found reflection, courage and honesty in authors like Vancouver’s Wayson Choy (Jade Peony and Paper Shadows). In the early years of the new millennium, “Asian Canadian writers began to find a voice,” she says. Choy “demonstrated strongly the power of the narrative” to reveal the joys and challenges of living as an Asian minority: balancing tradition, exclusion, curiosity and complex identities. Cheung felt something powerful stirring.
“If you try to teach a whole lot of knowledge, sometimes you get resistance. But when you are telling a story, it is so much easier to speak from one heart to another heart. So I started to work with people to tell their own stories. And the museum that we want to build was incorporated.”
By encouraging all types of immigrants and their families to save artifacts and records, even if they’re in a language the younger generation doesn’t know anymore, the museum will help newcomers intimately connect with their new country’s history and trace unique cultural interactions.
“Talk to your grandparents,” Cheung entreats us, “capture it on tape, on your iPhone. Do your oral story. In fact, a lot of young people who are working with my friends teaching history at UBC are doing exactly that. We also encourage the people who may not have enough English to tell stories. Just don’t lose that important experience of how you came here, what it was like to be a part or not considered a part of this country. If we capture the past, we will be able to do better reflecting on the vision that we want to have in the future.”
Photography by Hugh Zhao