Negotiating identities in Hong Kong, Canada: Opening small doors

Negotiating identities in Hong Kong, Canada: Opening small doors

Goldstein, Tara

It’s not just another wave of immigrants. Over 20 years, 142,000 from Hong Kong have moved here. With ambition, money and a strong identity, they’re changing the city’s face. (The Toronto Star, 1996, November 10)

As a Chinese Canadian, I struggle to find acceptance in either Eastern or Western society. This piece represents the beginning of my search through my culture, my heritage, my surroundings and myself for acceptance… (Yeung, 1997)

My role for these kids is to open doors … And whether they go through them is always their choice. But that’s the teaching technique … They’re small doors that we open-to allow them to open the bigger doors … As teachers [that’s] what we have to do, whether we’re educators, parents, we open small doors. (Edgars, 1997)


This paper recounts the journey taken by a young Chinese-Canadian artist and her high school art teacher as they begin to negotiate who they are in a city and a school that has recently seen the arrival of a large number of immigrants from Hong Kong. Analyzing the student’s art work as a pedagogical project that not only promotes the positive development of self-identities but that also challenges anti-immigrant ideas that structure relationships both inside and outside the school, I re-tell the story of how a group of students and their teacher use art to work across linguistic differences and resist linguistic discrimination.

This is an ethnographic case study about an 18-year-old Canadian artist named Evelyn Yeung and her prize-winning art piece “Journey to Acceptance.” It is also a study of Evelyn’s art teacher, Leslie Edgars, who attempts to “open small doors” for the students in her art class. Evelyn’s art piece symbolizes her and Leslie’s efforts to negotiate identities in a school and a city that has recently seen increased immigration from Hong Kong. The importance of such efforts has been discussed by Cummins (1996), who believes that the negotiation of identities at school is central to student learning. Identities are formed and negotiated through everyday interactions among teachers, students, and the communities the students belong to. Importantly, these interactions are never neutral. In varying degrees, they either reinforce “coercive relations of power” (the exercise of power over people) or “promote collaborative relations of power” (the creation of power with people). By reinforcing coercive relations of power, teachers contribute to the subordination of minority students and communities. By promoting collaborative relations of power, they are able to participate in “a process of empowerment” that encourages students and communities to challenge the operation of coercive power structures (1996, p. 19). Analyzing Evelyn’s art work as a project that challenges “coercive relations of power” (Cummins, 1996) both inside and outside the school, I hope to illustrate how teachers like Leslie Edgars are able to provide opportunities for their language and racial minority students to resist society’s “confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” (Taylor, 1994, p. 25).


This case study is part of a larger three-year study that was undertaken in the Canadian city of Toronto from 1996 to 1999. The critical ethnographic project explored everyday language practices in a multilingual high school (grades 10- 13) that had recently enrolled a large number of immigrant students from Hong Kong. When the project began in 1996, 35% of the student body used Cantonese as their primary language. The other primary languages used by students were English (38%), Mandarin (6%), Farsi (5%), and Korean (4%). The goal of the study was to examine the linguistic strategies bilingual Cantonese-English students and their teachers developed for achieving academic and social success at school. The findings of the study revealed that different kinds of language practices created different kinds of linguistic, social, and academic dilemmas and issues for both teachers and students in the school. Influenced by contemporary Canadian discourses and policies around immigration and minority language use, these dilemmas and issues were complex and required skillful negotiation. This case study focuses on a set of issues experienced by Evelyn Young, a Canadian-born Chinese student in the school who was often marked as an immigrant from Hong Kong because she was Chinese.

During the three years of fieldwork undertaken at the school, the research team and I spent time observing and interviewing students and teachers in a variety of classrooms and subjects. The data collected as part of this case study comes from Leslie Edgar’s senior art class, which was beginning a painting assignment when we began our observations. As Leslie asked her students to write reflection pieces in their art journals during the painting assignment, the data I use here comes from Evelyn’s journal reflections (which she sometimes read aloud to me) as well as from several interviews with both Evelyn and Leslie. At the end of the painting project, I asked Evelyn to join the research team and paid her to write a final reflection about creating her art piece.

As mentioned earlier, “Journey to Acceptance” is an art piece that symbolizes Evelyn and Leslie’s efforts to negotiate personal and professional identities in their multilingual, multicultural, multiracial school. To analyze the journey that Leslie and Evelyn took together, I will draw upon Cummins’ notions of coercive and collaborative power and Lippi-Green’s (1997) ideas on the language subordination process. However, in order to introduce readers to the issues Leslie and Evelyn needed to negotiate, I will begin with a discourse analysis of what it means to teach and learn in a city and school that has recently seen increased immigration from Hong Kong.

Teaching and Learning in “Hong Kong, Canada”

As can be seen in the quotation that opens this piece, there is some anxiety about the number of Hong Kong immigrants who have come to live in Toronto. The headline printed over Vanessa Lu’s report in The Toronto Star characterized Hong Kong immigrants as people who were “changing the city’s face” from one that had historically been mostly European and white to one that was increasingly Chinese. The title of the report, “Hong Kong, Canada,” was typed in enormous bold-faced letters that dominated the page the story appeared on. The headline shaped what Canadians are to make of this latest “wave” of immigration. Canada was being invaded by large numbers of immigrants from Hong Kong. We were no longer living in Canada, we were living in “Hong Kong, Canada.”

The discourse of invasion that emerged can be related to a perceived threat of shifting economic power bases in Canada. In her contribution to the feature, demographics reporter Elaine Carey began her article with the following lead:

They’re younger, more educated and they hold better jobs than the average person in the Greater Toronto area. They’re the 142,300 Hong Kong immigrants who have flocked to the GTA, largely in the past 20 years. They now make up 15 per cent of all new immigrants to Canada each year-an average of about 40,000-making them the largest group from any one country, as well as the wealthiest. (The Toronto Star, 1996, November 10)

The article continued to report about the wealth that some Hong Kong immigrants bring into Canada. For example, there was a picture of the owner of Toronto’s Metropolitan Hotel, sandwiched between two headlines: “To Canada, with cash” and “Hong Kong money likes GTA.” There was also a description of how Hong Kong immigrants had “changed the look of much of the city” by financing the building of 50 “Chinese malls” in the Greater Toronto area (The Toronto Star, 1996, November 10). However, what was missing from the “Hong Kong, Canada” feature was any detailed reporting on fact that, overall, Hong Kong immigrants are poorer than Canadian-born people and other immigrants. At the very end of her article, Carey reported that 25% of all immigrants from Hong Kong live below the low-income cut-off compared with 15% of those who were bom in Canada and 19% of all immigrants. Highlighted in a different way, with pictures of Hong Kong immigrant families struggling to make ends meet in a new country, such statistics could have done much to challenge the idea that Hong Kong immigrants were buying up Canada with their Hong Kong cash. Buried at the very end of the article, however, the statistics on the poverty of 25% of Hong Kong immigrants did not make much of an impact on the reader. The Star’s discourse of invasion went unchallenged. And it made its way into 18-year-old Evelyn Yeung’s life.

Opening Small Doors

As mentioned earlier, Leslie Edgars asked each of her art students to keep a journal as they planned and carried out their painting projects. Here is an excerpt from Evelyn’s first journal entry, which she read aloud to me in an interview.

… Yesterday I was reading in The Toronto Star and there was an article on how people, not only Chinese, are learning Mandarin because of China and Hong Kong. The doors in mainland China are slowly opening. I am disgraced that other people of other backgrounds learn Mandarin and Cantonese when I, of Chinese background, cannot read or write my own dialect of Chinese … It’s frustrating going into Chinese malls when, where everywhere it’s Chinese, and I’m practically illiterate. (Interview, 1996, November 20)

After provoking a claim of “illiteracy” in Chinese, Evelyn’s reflection about shopping in a “Chinese mall” is followed by a description of an embarrassing experience she had in an English-speaking department store. Note the way that the discourse of invasion described above is reflected in Evelyn’s first art journal entry and marks the beginning of her “Journey to Acceptance.”

Last month when I was shopping at the Bay with my friend, out of the PA. system came someone speaking Chinese. My friend and I felt embarrassed. What made me feel more embarrassed was that there was a customer that was complaining to a cashier about it and looking directly at me. Sometimes I wish there was a distinct way of separating us Canadian-born ones with the ones from Hong Kong… Earlier this year I read in the newspaper about how the people in Richmond Hill (a suburb located north of Toronto) were complaining about the signs on the stores. They said that the English is too small and the Chinese is too big on the stores, store signs. There were more complaints but I do not remember them right now … The Chinese immigrants of the past few years, I heard a lot of them say that they will return to Hong Kong after university, or if, or if Hong Kong is okay [politically stable after return of Hong Kong to China in July 1997]. I get mad sometimes when they say that because they are competing for the same spots in university as, as us. And they are changing the whole Toronto, yet they are going back to Hong Kong . (Interview, 1996, November 20) Leslie Edgars is a teacher who wants to open small doors for her students

so that they can open the bigger doors for themselves. Doors can be understood as metaphors for insights into life issues. When Leslie’s students start opening doors, they shed light on the personal, social and political issues that impact their everyday lives. After reading Evelyn’s first journal entry, Leslie suggested that Evelyn consider doing a painting that expressed how she felt about the Chinese language. The two talked about Evelyn undertaking an abstract painting and then discussed the idea of Evelyn creating her own alphabet or her own language. A third option was Leslie’s suggestion that Evelyn learn how to write in Chinese from one of her Hong Kongese classmates. She thought that the experience of learning to write in Chinese might provide Evelyn with something that she could use for her painting.

Learning to Write in Chinese

Taking up Leslie’s third suggestion, Evelyn began learning how to write Chinese characters from several of her classmates who were born and educated in Hong Kong. The characters that Evelyn asked her classmates to teach her were those that had some meaning or relevance for her. Many came from the journal entries she was keeping. The first word that Evelyn asked one of her classmates, Peter, to teach her was “Hong Kong.” As she began working with Peter, Evelyn began to remember childhood experiences of learning to write in Chinese.

(Reading from her second journal entry) The black ink brought back all memory, all the memories of Chinese school on Saturday, where the Chinese, where the teacher walked around criticizing the way you held the brush… For the first couple of characters I followed Peter’s brush stroke. But I sort of knew that he was sort of uneasy `cause I didn’t follow it completely, properly. As well, there was my audience of grade eleven and grade twelves (Evelyn was a grade 13 student) who kept saying that it wasn’t right … I really didn’t want to disappoint them by writing it wrong … I felt sort of uncomfortable that everyone was looking at my characters . . . [S]ome people in the class were sort of poking fun at my characters… Sometimes when I am talking to people from Hong Kong, they poke fun at my Chinese if I don’t pronounce it clearly. Same thing when I’m speaking English. People poke fun at my pronunciation. I wish I never belonged to either [group], I wish I either belonged to either [one group] or [the other]. I never knew that learning how to write Chinese could in, involve interaction with so many people. Two other grade elevens (who were not critical) came over to see what I was doing. What a surprise! I felt that everyone wanted to be part of my process. And at that, that moment, [came] my peace. It felt great to write Chinese again. Writing Chinese helped me interact more with the grade elevens and twelves, something I wasn’t expecting. Even though my Chinese, my Chinese characters are not going to earn me an award, it did help me communicate and learn from other people in the class …. (Interview, 1997, November 20)

Evelyn’s childhood memories and critical comments from some of her classmates frustrated her and made her feel uneasy and uncomfortable. These feelings of discomfort were so strong that she wished she had only learned English or Cantonese because being monolingual would mean that she could speak in a way that would not allow people to “poke fun” at her pronunciation (in either English or Cantonese). It would also mean that she would be able to write Chinese “properly.” In thinking about how and why people learn to value some varieties of language (like mainstream/standard English or Chinese) and not others (like Cantonese English or English Cantonese), Lippi-Green’s (1997) model of the language subordination process is very helpful. The model Lippi-Green presents grew out of her analysis of public commentary on English language use and language communities. According to her, people learn to value a particular variety of language over another through the following processes and practices:

Language is mystified

You can never hope to comprehend the difficulties and complexities of you mother tongue without expert guidance.

Authority is claimed

Talk like me/us. We know what we are doing because we have studied language, because we write well.

Misinformation is generated

That usage you are so attached to is inaccurate. The variant I prefer is superior on historical, aesthetic, or logical grounds.

Non-mainstream language is trivialized Look how cute, how homey, how funny.

Conformers are held up as positive examples See what you can accomplish if you only try, how far you can get if you see the light.

Explicit promises are made Employers will take you seriously; doors will open.

Threats are made

No one important will take you seriously; doors will close.

Non-conformers are vilified or marginalized See how willfully stupid, arrogant, unknowing, uninformed, and /or deviant and unrepresentative these speakers are. (pp. 67-69)

Of the eight practices Lippi-Green has identified, two seem particularly relevant to Evelyn’s uneasiness about learning to write Chinese characters: claiming/giving mainstream language authority and trivializing non-mainstream language. At the very beginning, when she attempted to follow Peter’s brush stroke, Evelyn felt that he was uneasy because she wasn’t following his strokes “properly”. Similarly, a number of students watching her initial attempts to follow Peter’s brush strokes told Evelyn that she wasn’t “doing it right”. Here Evelyn and her audience gave Peter’s brush strokes authority. Evelyn absorbed Peter’s (perceived) uneasiness because she was not writing like him-a person who learned to write characters in Hong Kong, a person who wrote well. When some of her classmates poked fun at her first attempts to draw Chinese characters, Evelyn was reminded of the times other people from Hong Kong had poked fun of the variety of Chinese she spoke and of the times that English-speakers had poked fun of the variety of English she spoke. Here Evelyn’s use of non-mainstream language-both Chinese and English– was being trivialized.

While Evelyn experienced feelings of discomfort as she began to learn how to write Chinese characters, she also experienced some excitement, as her classmates become interested in her art project. Their interest helped her associate positive feelings with writing Chinese. As she says in a final reflection piece that I asked her to write at the end of school year,

I was delighted and relieved that they were excited to help and teach. Although some of them criticized my character strokes, it didn’t matter. I was the center of attention. And I really, really enjoyed it. (1997, July 31)

Evelyn’s delight with the recognition she received from her classmates mitigated the discomfort she felt when people criticized her brush strokes. Even though her first attempts at drawing characters were trivialized, Evelyn herself was not “vilified or marginalized” as a non-conformer. This was something she had been anticipating.

The first word was shaky. In fact the first column was shaky. I braced myself for all the nasty comments that would burst out of the mouth of the students. But there wasn’t any. I was surprised. The second column was less intimidating. As the columns progressed, I became more confident … The strokes were more powerful and expressive. (1997, July 31)

Evelyn’s use of the words “less intimidating,” and “more powerful” in this reflection asks us to think about her work in terms of power. Cummins (1996) tells us that the process by which students and teachers negotiate identities in classroom and school interactions can play a major role in determining how students feel about themselves and how they feel about others. In her interactions with Evelyn around her journal entries, Leslie Edgars opened a small door and provided Evelyn with a space to explore identity issues by learning Cantonese from a classmate from Hong Kong. In a school and a city that is struggling with the use of Cantonese in public spaces, Leslie and Evelyn’s work can be seen as a pedagogical project that challenges coercive relations of power underlying standard English ideology and traditional roles of authority in the classroom (Goldstein and Lam, 1998). Outside Leslie’s art classroom, there is debate in the student newspaper around the publication of bilingual Chinese-English advertisements, the use of Cantonese at the students’ annual Talent Night and the use of Cantonese at a Karaoke event scheduled during Spirit Week. There are also teachers who are experimenting with English-only policies in their classrooms in an attempt to encourage their ESL students to speak and practice English. Inside Leslie’s art classroom, Evelyn Yeung learns to write in Chinese characters-using both Cantonese and English-so she can express her feelings about being a Canadian-born Chinese woman living in “Hong Kong, Canada.” Importantly, the students’ use of Cantonese to complete the project requires Leslie to negotiate a new identity for herself as a teacher in her classroom. Not able to understand the Cantonese the students are using while they assist Evelyn in learning to write Chinese characters, Leslie must ask the students to translate what they are saying into English so that she can enter their dialogue. Having to ask students to translate their words shifts traditional relations of authority in Linda’s classroom: she must request and be given permission to enter her students’ conversations.

I’ve always dialogued with the kids but you can’t do that around here if, if they are speaking Cantonese… So you have to engage more with the students … [Y]ou almost have to bring up a chair and kind of just sit there and say, “Okay I’m here now and you, I, I don’t understand what you’re talking about. So either you have to teach me your language or let’s talk, let’s find a place where we can talk because this is my job and I need to know what you’re doing. So can I come in? (1997, February 13).

Returning the ethnographic gaze toward Evelyn, there are a number of important questions we can raise: What is Evelyn able to do with the collaborative space she is provided within Leslie’s classroom? What kind of impact did her artwork have on how she felt about herself and how she felt about others? In answering these questions, I turn to excerpts from Evelyn’s last written reflection.

It took me a long time to have my first [writing] lesson. I was scared. I was scared of Peter. I was scared of the brush. I was scared of what the other students would think. I was scared of everything. It wasn’t until a couple characters later that I was more relaxed. I really started to have fun. I talked to many of the Grade 12’s and they were eager to help me. It wasn’t like I thought. People were willing to help you.

I have lost the bitterness I felt toward Hong Kong people, because I had the opportunity to know some of them better. I know that they are losing a home back to China. They don’t know what is going to happen in China. Some of them don’t even know what they are now. They don’t have China citizenship, but they don’t have a Canadian passport yet. They don’t have a place of birth. They are in the middle, too, like me. I sympathize with them, but when Hong Kong was given back to China on July 1, I felt nothing. I was just an observer of a historical moment in history, but many of my friends were scared of what might happen to their family and friends. I am beginning to see their side of the story. I have become closer to many classmates from this experience. I have learned that there are Chinese people from Hong Kong who want to be your friend and that not all people are mean and cruel. (1997, July 31)

Learning to write Chinese characters in her art class provided Evelyn with an opportunity to interact with classmates that she had resented. The particular interpersonal space that she and her classmates created through their work together produced surprises that shattered some of the stereotypes that she had been holding. Evelyn found out that people from Hong Kong were willing to help her; that they, too, were in between cultures and that they, too, had a side to the immigration story that she had not heard. Having shared personal, intimate interactions around issues of language, identity, and immigration with those she had perceived as “other.”

Toward the very end of her last reflection piece, Evelyn wrote, “Sometimes it is not the artwork that is important, but the process along the way and what the piece stands for.” Evelyn’s “Journey to Acceptance” was a project that ruptured the discourse of invasion that weaved itself in and out of Northside. In an economic and political era where art, drama, and music programs are all at risk of being cut from secondary school programs in Ontario and other provinces and states across North America, the story of Evelyn’s engagement with issues of immigration, language, and identity in her art class is an important story. Teachers of the arts, like Leslie Edgars, who help students shed light on personal and social issues that impact on their lives have much to contribute to their students’ education. Understanding the kind of work that goes on in the art classroom provides a clearer idea of what we lose when funding for arts programs are cut.


1 The names of the teacher and the school in this article are pseudonyms.

2 The ethnographic stories discussed in this piece are stories we have “borrowed” (Goldstein and Lam, 1998) from Evelyn Yeung and Leslie Edgars to discuss issues of language, identity, and discrimination facing both immigrant and Canadian-born Chinese high school students in Toronto. We share these stories with Evelyn and Leslie’s permission. As well, Evelyn and Leslie have seen an earlier draft of this paper and have told us that they are satisfied with the way their stories have been re-told in this piece. For further discussion on power relations between researchers and research participants see Cameron, Frazer, Harvey, Rampton and Richardson, 1992; Cohran– Smith and Lytle, 1993; Gitlin, 1994; and Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995.

3 This three-year project was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) grant. I would like to acknowledge and thank SHRRCC for its support. I would also like to acknowledge and thank research assistant Judith Ngan who collected data in year one of the project and co-collaborator Cindy Lam for her contributions to the analysis of Evelyn’s “Journey to Acceptance”.

4 The perception that Toronto’s “face” has been mostly European and white ignores the historical and contemporary presence of Canada’s Aboriginal/First Nations people who have always been part of the city’s face. It also ignores the historical presence of non-European and non-white immigrants who have not only been part of the city’s

face since the beginning of what Aboriginal scholars call “the contact period,” but who have contributed to building of the city and the country.

5 “Chinese malls” are shopping malls in which the names of stores are written in Chinese. Sometimes store signs are bilingual, written in both Chinese and English.

6 While English-only policies are usually viewed as a way that teachers reproduce coercive relations of power in the classroom, it is possible to distinguish between English-only policies that demand students “speak” English and policies that demand that students “practice” English. Teachers who base their classroom English-only policies on the understanding that their students who speak mostly Chinese outside of class need opportunities to “practice” English to do well academically have different assumptions about the place of English in their students’ lives than that do teachers who implement English-only policies because they believe that English is a symbol of successful assimilation and that English is the only possible language of a unified and healthy nation.


Cameron, D., Frazer, E., Harvey, P., Rampton, M. B. H., & Richardson, K. (Eds). (1992). Researching language: Issues of power and method. London and New York: Routledge.

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: CABE (California Association for Bilingual Education).

Edgars, L. (1997). [Interview]. Unpublished raw data.

Gitlin, A. (Ed.) (1994). Power and method: Political activism and educational research. London and New York: Routledge.

Goldstein, T., & Lam, C. S.M. (1998). Negotiating identity In “Hong Kong, Canada.” Unpublished paper presented at TESOL ’98, Seattle, Washington.

Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (1995). Field relations. In Ethnography: principles in practice (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Lu, V. (1996, November 10). Hong Kong, Canada. The Toronto Star, p. B 1. Taylor, C. (1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yeung, E. (1997). [Art show speech]. Unpublished raw data.

Tara Goldstein

University of Toronto

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