The importance of celebrating Asian Heritage Month

May offers the time to reflect and celebrate Asian Canadians, but also acknowledge the work that still needs to be done the rest of the year

Art by @RESLUS

Art by @RESLUS

Over the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many issues that have been widely ingrained in Canadian society. In particular, racism towards Asian Canadians, which drastically increased in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. 

Since the World Health Organization believes the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic began in China, anti-Asian hate crimes started occurring more frequently in Vancouver and across Canada.

From 2019 to 2020, the Vancouver Police Department stated that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 717 per cent than in previous years. 

Due to this harsh reality, the organization, Elimin8Hate, the advocacy arm of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF), was created to combat and eliminate anti-Asian racism against Asian Canadians. 

“Asian Canadians were being attacked and verbally accosted,” Audrey Wong says, the executive director of Elimin8Hate. “We often are seen as perpetual foreigners even in our own country.” 

With COVID-19 being seen as less of a threat today, the organization still believes work needs to be done to prevent further racism from occurring. 

“Now we are focusing on the underlying systemic issues of racism that are subtler and more nuanced, which Asian Canadians face,” Wong says. 

Asian Heritage Month in Canada has been celebrated and acknowledged since 2002. It is also a time for Canadians to reflect and learn about the history of Asian Canadians, as well as attend events in celebration. 

“During this month, we recognize, appreciate, and honour the courage and resilience that Asian communities have shown over the years. Diversity is one of Canada’s greatest strengths and the participation of Asian Canadians in our country’s civic life is of tremendous value,” reads a statement on the Government of Canada’s website. 

Throughout May, many events happen across the Lower Mainland, including the explorASIAN Festival produced by the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society. 

This society was created in 1996 by Jim Wong-Chu and others to recognize and instill Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Wong-Chu eventually founded the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, as well as Ricepaper Magazine.

“They started the festival in response to the lack of Asian Canadians being recognized in the arts and culture sectors,” says explorASIAN festival coordinator Carol Hamshaw. 

The non-profit organization offered a wide range of events for Asian Heritage Month, such as short film screenings and book talks. 

“We have also developed some of our own signature programs such as a Chinatown walking tour, an interconnected exhibition of emerging artists, and an awards gala,” Hamshaw says. 

“There is such a diversity of events and it is such a great way to learn and experience what Asian Canadians in our society are accomplishing,” she says. 

Hamshaw’s niece and nephew have Chinese heritage, so she connects to this month personally and believes that she is doing something important for them. 

Although there are many celebratory events being offered by explorASIAN, there are also opportunities to reflect and learn about harsh realities many Asian Canadians faced in history.

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Chinese head tax, which the federal government of Canada implemented between the years 1885 until 1923. 

“The head tax was meant to discourage the men working on the railroad and other industries to bring relatives over,” Hamshaw says. 

The amount would vary between $100.00 to $500.00 and occurred after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. After 1923, the Canadian government introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act, which existed until 1947, and prohibited Chinese people from emigrating to Canada.  

By the end of 1908, over 5,000 South Asians immigrated to Canada and in 1914, approximately 10,000 Japanese immigrants arrived. Each of these Asian communities faced racism and hardships, such as the Komagata Maru incident, which prevented South Asians from entering Vancouver in 1914, and Japanese Canadians being sent to internment camps during the Second World War. 

“There are lots of opportunities to learn about the history. It is enlightening, yet also builds understanding and tolerance,” Hamshaw says. 

Learning about the history of Asian Canadians is also important to KPU’s Asian Studies instructor, Yao Xiao, who believes that this month can be complicated for Asian Canadians. 

“Asian Heritage Month has been here for a long time and people should celebrate, but also celebrate in a critical and reflective sense,” Xiao says. 

Xiao believes that racism can be prevented if more people know about Asian heritage and its history. 

“Racism is a deeply structural problem that goes beyond an individual’s perception or interpersonal relationship. But, racism sometimes comes from ignorance,” Xiao wrote in a follow up email to The Runner

“Arrogant ignorance [occurs] when people do not know about the language or culture, but think they do,” he says. 

Xiao wants Canadians to support the Asian Canadian community more, especially during the month of May. 

“Go beyond film festivals or cultural festivals, even though those things are the first step and are important. Talk to a person and appreciate their complexity, because there are no single ways to define what Asian studies or the Asian community is,” Xiao says. 

Xiao views himself as a learner in the classroom and wants to open up these conversations with his students

“Academically and intellectually, we should go beyond Orientalism and empower students to find ways to define their own culture because Asian culture is so complex and has different meanings to different people,” he says. 

For him, food and language are how he defines what it means to be Asian, as those cultural aspects mean a lot to him. 

“It is time to reframe what Asian Studies means. We need more diverse stories because there are so many people who can share their stories and realities of [being] Asian Canadians,” Xiao says. 

This is exactly what Elimin8Hate is trying to do, by working with VAFF, which, for over 27 years, is the longest running Asian film festival and the largest Asian film festival in Western Canada. 

“We really want to create a more accessible way of talking about racism against Asian Canadians. Our focus is on representation and quality representation of Asian Canadians in arts, film and media, as well as just in everyday life,” Wong says. 

“Multimedia and arts and film can be a great way to share that story.” 

The importance of seeing oneself onscreen and being represented through forms of media is important to this organization. 

Elimin8Hate’s hope is that it will also destigmatize and combat racism towards Asian Canadians. 

Although Wong knows that the B.C. government has supported the Asian community in recent years, she also believes that there is more work that needs to be done. 

“There are great intentions, but we want our voices at the table and to be heard. We want there to be resources and funding dedicated to Asian Canadians to help push equity and forward our communities,” Wong says. 

“Asian Heritage Month is a great time to reflect on the rich history of Asian Canadians in Canada, but to also be aware of how diverse our community is. There is a wealth of diversity within the Asian community,” she says. 

Elimin8Hate has also created a theme for this year’s Asian Heritage Month within their organization. It is called Cultivating Anti-Racist Workplaces: Asian Canadian Edition. 

Feeling and being supported in the workplace is important for everyone, but especially for BIPOC communities. Almost half of Canadians feel that employers aren’t doing enough to combat racism, according to a statement from Elimin8Hate’s website

Their website also says that people from the Asian community report having fewer strong networks, mentors, and role models in the workplace. Asian Canadians make up 20 per cent of Canada’s population, but only make a fraction of executive positions in North America. 

Elimin8Hate wants to tackle this issue and change the way Asian Canadians are treated in the workplace. 

“The intention is to call upon organizations to further their journey in allyship and dismantling racism in the workplace,” Wong says. 

“There will be an opportunity for organizations to partner with us and to teach them more about anti-racist policies and practices, specifically as it pertains to Asian Canadians.” 

Elimin8Hate hopes that this will highlight problems that occur in the workforce towards Asian Canadians and specifically against Asian Canadian women. 

A 2022 study, by CulturaliQ and in partnership with the non-profit organization Pink Attitude, reported that South Asian women are twice as likely to experience unjust treatment in the workplace and 57 per cent plan on quitting their job because of this treatment. 

“We want to be a part of a conversation that talks about dismantling racism in workplaces,” Wong says. 

“It is important that structural and systemic racism is tackled, especially since people spend most of their day at work. We need to shift the burden away from individuals and call upon employers of workplaces to be active participants,” she says. 

Wong is optimistic that exposing these issues will make the workplace a safer space for Asian Canadians. 

“We want to make sure that all groups and marginalized groups are celebrated and have a seat at the table in participating in the future of Canada,” she says. 

Now, 20 years since Asian Heritage Month became an official declaration during the month of May, it is important to celebrate and also acknowledge that there is still much work that needs to be done.