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Teaching Asian-Canadian Literature in an International University Context

Enseigner la littérature asiatico-canadienne dans un contexte international
Andrew Parkin
p. 112-130


Cet essai fait suite à une invitation à rédiger un rapport sur des cours pilotes de spécialité en littérature asiatico-canadienne enseignés à l’université chinoise de Hong Kong. Ces cours s’articulaient harmonieusement avec ceux d’un autre collègue qui travaillait sur la littérature asiatico-américaine. Ces cours ont été proposés en 1990 pour trois bonnes raisons : les asiatiques écrivant en anglais, étaient à cette époque, et c’est toujours le cas, en augmentation rapide en Amérique du Nord, ils étaient populaires auprès des maisons d’édition ; d’autre part, l’intérêt de nos étudiants était stimulé par la présence aux Etats-Unis et au Canada de membres de leur famille et par leur visite de l’Amérique du Nord ; enfin, le contexte historico-culturel permettait de mieux comprendre les forces migratoires tandis que la littérature de langue anglaise montrait l’émergence significative des productions cross-culturelles écrites en anglais dans l’histoire de la littérature américaine  et canadienne. Ces cours étaient pionniers à l’époque. Peu de temps après leur mise en place, un collègue en poste dans une université canadienne s’y est intéressé car il souhaitait lancer un projet similaire. De tels cours ne peuvent se concrétiser sans la prise en compte de deux facteurs principaux : la disponibilité d’un enseignant compétent et intéressé et la motivation renouvelée des étudiants attirés par la lecture d’une littérature de qualité.

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1This essay grows from my experience of setting up and teaching a pioneering course in Asian-Canadian literature to English Majors students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There were practical as well as academic reasons for this and the Asian-American course, already in progress. The courses ran for one-semester each, were optional, and were complementary, so that students might choose between them or take both, one after the other or in different years of the programme.

2The academic merits of these courses in 1990-1991 and thereafter were rather obvious: the growing interest in the new literatures in English written by people whose native land was not England and whose native language was not usually English. This phenomenon was as old as the Scottish Chaucerians and the later Scottish, Irish and Welsh literatures written in English. Indian writers using English had had the Nobel prize-winning Tagore as a sort of beacon if not a precise model. Much of the new writing of what used to be Commonwealth literature had found some theoretical underpinning (if such were needed) not only in the department at Leeds University but later in Edward Said’s hugely influential Orientalism (1978), a somewhat flawed critical landmark but a prominent landmark none the less, and also influential theoretical/ critical support in the provocative The Empire Writes Back in 1989. We had responded in our department with some interest, because one of our strengths was, and is, the comparative aspect of English literature and language with the Chinese; moreover, one of my colleagues, the poet Louise Ho, had been “writing back” in English for many years.

3Here practicalities intrude. Many Hong Kong Chinese have relatives resident in the United States and Canada, as well as in Britain itself, and other parts of the world. Furthermore, the Yale-China connection with our department, and American-Chinese relatives in contact with our English Majors, made study of Asian-American writing in English a real point of interest for our students, one directly connected with their own lives as people writing themselves every day in English.

4When I, arriving in Hong Kong to head up the department as a Canadian citizen as well as a British expatriate, assessed our course offerings, I realized we needed an Asian-Canadian course to complement the American one. I also realized very quickly that in Hong Kong, political events and particularly those in China itself, affect the way in which things are studied and the intensity of the study; pure interest in a particular study is quite a rarity. The experience of teaching English in Hong Kong, for those who wish to see this essay within the Hong Kong context, has been described accurately and entertainingly by Eugene Chen Eoyang in his article “From the Imperial to the Empirical: Teaching English in Hong Kong” (2000).

5The two courses attracted goodly numbers of students, perhaps because of uncertainty after the Tiananmen Square events. Many Hong Kong families were taking French at the Alliance Française (at that time the largest one in the world), because they had heard that it was easier to obtain landed immigrant status in Canada through francophone Quebec than through English-speaking Canada. Students were competing for exchange scholarships for studying abroad for a year, so that they could test out the waters in foreign universities as well as broaden their academic experience and their mastery of English as a language. The idea that Asian immigrants to mainly anglophone countries were finding success as writers in English rapidly became current among the more ambitious students.

6How did I organise the 1991 course “The Asian Canadian Experience”? I started with my own experience as a landed immigrant seeking citizenship. Confronted with cultural differences in an immigrant population, one meets Canadians born and bred, but of different ethnicorigins, as well as more recent immigrants from many different parts of the world. If one is a child at school, one also meets First Nation Canadians (the original local North American Indians); as an adult, one finds that it is more rarely that one meets them in large cities. In small communities they are much more in evidence. The experience, then, is of a multicultural country based on native North American Indians, people descended from long-established settlers of French and United Kingdom origin, later immigrants from the United Kingdom, Europe, the Ukraine, Russia, and, since the nineteenth century, China, other parts of Asia, and the West Indies.  Since Upper Canada made slavery illegal some years before Britain did, there are also the descendants of black slaves smuggled from American plantations. When America engaged in the war in Vietnam, Canada had an influx of young Americans, many of whom stayed and some of whom became Canadians. Thus a description of Canadian society would take these factors into account.

7Landed immigrants taking Canadian citizenship are required to appear before a Citizenship judge and answer some simple factual questions about Canada and its history. A brief history of Canada, the names of prominent politicians, the number of Provinces, and the like, are usual areas of questioning. One also takes an oath of loyalty to the Crown and to obey the laws. When citizenship is granted, one sings the anthem “O, Canada” and receives along with the documentation a small lapel pin depicting the red and white design of the modern Canadian flag. In fact, I took mine along to class as a visual aid; at the end of the semester, a student, having more influence apparently than I, appeared with a bag of these pins and gave one to each of her classmates!

8The course started with an introduction to contemporary Canadian society, dealt with the then recent repatriation of the constitution, and followed up with a brief history of Canada, paying particular attention to the history of Chinese immigration. The course then went on to examine Canadian books in English by Asian immigrants, not just the Chinese ones. A very practical reason for this was that in 1991 there was hardly enough quality writing in English by Chinese Canadians to warrant a university specialist course devoted to it alone. At this time, Joy Kogawa’s documentary novel, Obasan, was enjoying considerable success, being taught in Canadian departments of English. It thus served as an excellent text for our students, partly because of the fact that Hong Kong Chinese had been under Japanese rule during the Second World War and that there was in contemporary Hong Kong a thriving Japan trade, investments, and student exchanges. Moreover, it is well-written and conveniently illustrates aspects of documentary fiction. We also studied poetry and fiction published in Canada by Michael Ondaatje, just before he hit the jackpot with The English Patient. A group of women poets who were immigrants from India had published Shakti’s People, an anthology of their verse. This book represented some of the East Indians (as they are known in Canada) and also some of the experience of Asian women in particular. Chinese writing in English was represented by some of Fred Wah’s poetry. Evelyn Lau had just broken onto the North American literary scene with her Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989), thus giving a sort of scandalous excitement to the idea of Chinese writers of English in Canada. At the time, in the early 1990s, immigrant writers tended to be compartmented off from ordinary Canadian writing. Ethnicity in writing as in cuisine seemed somewhat exciting. Nowadays, writers seem much more intent on being simply accepted as writers rather than ethnic representatives.

9Hong Kong Chinese are in general very pragmatic. Those students with relatives in Canada had a more than purely academic interest in the course. This did not necessarily mean that they loved Canada and yearned to become Canadians. The Hong Kong salaries and the low level of income tax in the territory made it a better place for them to find work than in Canada, where, competing with native English speakers and as new immigrants, they might encounter many difficulties. And even if they managed to find work, they would be taxed at a punitive rate by Hong Kong standards. Thus Canada was attractive to them not so much per se but as a safe haven in case of disaster arriving from the People’s Republic of China. Indeed one student remarked that an uncle had just returned from Canada having been there long enough to get his Canadian citizenship and passport. He had told the family that getting back to Hong Kong was like coming home from ‘prison’! He had not, it seems, had an easy ride in Canada. The writers we were studying, though, whether born there or not, had stayed.

10The course not only attracted the interest of Chinese University of Hong Kong students but also that of the Canadian Consulate, to whom I showed my course outline. News of the course also reached Canada, because I soon had a request from a university in Canada to send information about what I was doing in the course. I was something of a pioneer, it seemed. I had also a stroke of fortune in that Canada organised a Canada in Hong Kong festival, thus bringing Canadian cultural events and businesses to Hong Kong and to the attention of my students. I was able to induce the Canadian government to send a First Nation potter from British Columbia, Laura Wee Lay Laq, to Hong Kong with an exhibition of her pots. This was held in Victoria’s Central district at Mak Yee Fun’s Pottery Workshop and on the Chinese University’s campus in the Sir Run Run Shaw Hall. The festival was to be followed the next year by a Hong Kong in Canada festival.

11Another “enrichment” activity for students who wished to attend was a Canadian Forum series I founded with the strong support of the Canadian Consulate staff. The forum sessions were held in the Consulate activities room. High profile Canadians arriving in Hong Kong, usually en route for the People’s Republic, Taiwan, or Japan, would give a talk, after wine and cheese, to an audience of mainly expatriate Canadians and friends. Only a few students availed themselves of this unusual opportunity for the usual reason: it was not on the examination. They missed, however, many opportunities to hear people like university presidents, top journalists like Lloyd Robertson, and many others. These talks gave real insights into the preoccupations of Canadians at the time.

12What interested me about the whole experience was that I was able to explore with my students a cross-section of writing in English by Canadians or Asian origin, studied and taught as part of the new literatures in English. Had I still been teaching in the English Department in the University of British Columbia, I would have taught such a course, had it been offered to me, as part of Canadian literature. The interest this course aroused outside Canada showed very clearly an aspect of Canada as a country that is sometimes forgotten when one is installed there: Canada is at once a desired destination and a place where immigrants survive in the face of sometimes very harsh difficulties. I realized that as an immigrant who had secured a university post and the comfortable bourgeois way of life that goes with it in Canada, I was one of a fortunate minority among immigrants. Certainly  the most important single factor for me as a writer, was that I had learned how to be a published poet in Canada, had become a member of the Canadian Writers’ Union, had become a member of the League of Canadian poets, and, as a Canadian writer who had advised at the Chinese writer’s centre in Vancouver, and had subsequently interacted with Chinese writers in Hong Kong, learned that Canada, as a country mainly of immigrants, was always  a two-wayinteractive thoroughfarebetween cultures. Some of my first-hand experience of writing in Canada reflected the experiences too of Asian-Canadian writers. When I collaborated not in Canada but in Hong Kong with the Chinese writer Laurence Wong, I discovered that he, too, was Canadian. Aspects of Canadian cultural experience can therefore be said to take place both inside and outside Canada. Hong Kong Poems (1997; 1999) was conceived and written mainly in Hong Kong, though it was published in Canada and, I believe, printed in the People’s Republic of China. Laurence Wong has recently published in three volumes the first complete translation into Chinese (with scholarly apparatus) of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This decade-long project would never, I think, have been completed without his Canadian experience, and his Hong Kong working experience as a professor of translation. Such cultural twists and turns are not often analysed but they are in fact of prime significance.  

13The courses we had set up at the Chinese University of Hong Kong depended for continued offering, like most optional courses, on several factors: the interests of students, and these change with different generations; the interest and skill of teachers involved; the quality of the literary texts chosen as course requirements and optional reading. In crafting a course for specifically Hong Kong students, I felt justified in using the Asian-Canadian label. Inside Canada, the intercultural flow in contemporary writing seems to me so firmly established that Canadians who write are simply Canadian writers and world experience, as well as specifically Canadian experience, can be, and often is, their oyster.

14My life experience in Canada and that in Hong Kong gave me an impetus I might never otherwise have had to investigate Asian writing in Canada from the perspective of both an immigrant and an expatriate. It also helped me to produce my own contributions to Canadian writing, whether considered as immigrant or not. Some Europeans are now saying, I’m European with an Irish, English, German etc. passport in my pocket, because of the larger post-national society of the European Union. I think many writers nowadays are writers with one or more passports in their pockets. This does not mean that they have ceased to love aspects of their own cultures, old and new.

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ASHCROFT Bill, Gareth GRIFFITHS and Helen TIFFIN, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in post-colonial literatures, London: Routledge, 1989.

EOYANG Eugene Chen, “From the Imperial to the Empirical: Teaching English in Hong Kong,” Profession, 2000, 62-74.

KOGAWA Joy, Obasan, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986; 11982.

LAU Evelyn, Runaway: the Diary of a Street Kid, Toronto: Harper Collins, 1989.  

ONDAATJE Michael, The English Patient, London: Bloomsbury, 1992.  

PARKIN Andrew and Laurence WONG, Hong Kong Poems, Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 1997; repr. 1999.

SAID Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, London: Penguin, 1995; 11978.

WAH Fred, Pictograms from the Interior of B.C., Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1975.

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Andrew Parkin, « Teaching Asian-Canadian Literature in an International University Context »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, 112-130.

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Andrew Parkin, « Teaching Asian-Canadian Literature in an International University Context »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 29 octobre 2009, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Andrew Parkin

Prof. Dr., (Paris, France et Hong Kong, China)
ANDREW PARKIN is a poet-critic who has taught at university level in England, Canada, and Hong Kong. Professor Emeritus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Honorary Adviser to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (for Comparative Literature) in Beijing, he has published extensively on W.B. Yeats and drama. His fourth and most recent collection of poems is The Rendez-Vous: Poems of Multicultural Experience (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2003). He is now working on a volume in the Cornell Edition of Yeats’s manuscripts.

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