I think Winnipeg is the most racist city I’ve lived in, but I’m making my space here

This First Person column is written by Lindsay Wong, a Winnipeg-based writer and educator. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There is a shameful anecdote about my great-great-uncle, who came to Gold Mountain — a nickname that refers to parts of North America as a land of opportunity and riches — to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad from 1880-85. 

Not much is known of him. Even his name has been purposefully forgotten. All we know is that he gambled away his earnings and could not return to Guangdong, China, as was common in those days.

It is because of his failure that he is mentioned only when someone moves away. The lesson of this particular story: if you don’t succeed in your new venture, you will be forgotten, because you are a blemish on the family’s good name. 

In Hong Kong, the Cantonese notion of transportation is associated with death; to venture into the horrors of the new land results in ending up in a coffin. “Sucks to be you,” my family might say, unsympathetic to your risk-taking behaviour. 

This had never happened to me before — in any city in North America.– Lindsay Wong

And yet, whenever there is an opportunity for a better life, we scurry like Komodo dragons. You might say it’s a family curse. After all, both my maternal and paternal grandparents fled the Communist regime in China to Hong Kong in the 1950s. Their children then migrated to Canada, the United States and Australia at varying intervals, when they were offered education and jobs in the 1970s and 1980s. 

A woman with long dark hair and wearing a mask holds up a sign that says 'Professor Wong' and another sign with a cartoon image of a cat wearing glasses.
Lindsay Wong arrives at the airport in Winnipeg. ‘I threw my belongings in a bag and moved from Vancouver to a city I had never visited before,’ she writes. (Submitted by Lindsay Wong)

In July 2022, I was offered a tenure-track assistant professor job in Winnipeg. So I threw my belongings in a bag in less than two weeks and moved from Vancouver to a city I had never visited before. All because I was promised financial stability, a better life.

Was it the curse of my migratory ancestors? Was diaspora genetic and inherited, or was something learned and practiced? These were the questions that I pondered, when I flew alone to Winnipeg to search for an apartment — and to my surprise and frustration, met some building managers who would not show me a place to call home. At a viewing in the Exchange District, a white woman in her mid-50s glimpsed my Chinese face and proclaimed: “This is too expensive for you.” 

At first, I thought she might be joking, but she wasn’t. To her, I might have appeared to be an impoverished graduate student or a minimum-wage worker instead of an employed professional, and she thought she was doing both of us a favour by not wasting time. Would she have declined to show me the apartment if I wasn’t a person of colour? So I left, and signed a lease in Osborne Village instead.  

As I settled into Winnipeg, I found that the employees guarding the Costco doors and security at Shoppers Drug Mart routinely asked me to show them the contents of my bag when I left the store. This had never happened to me before — in any city in North America, Asia, Europe or the U.K. I was stunned the first time it happened. 

View from behind of a woman standing against a glass balcony railing and looking out at parking lot below.
Lindsay Wong, shown on possession day in her new condo, says some neighbours were friendly. (Submitted by Lindsay Wong)

When my lease expired in June 2023, I purchased a condo in Tuxedo, a neighbourhood that doesn’t have many racialized people but only requires one direct bus to get to work.

Some of my white neighbours were friendly, but others accused me of breaking into my own unit. 

“This is my place,” I insisted. But they didn’t recognize or believe me, and threatened to call the police. 

Someone even asked to see my ID.

Is Winnipeg the most racist city I have ever inhabited? I believe so. 

I’ve moved 14 times, lived in various areas of Vancouver and New York and travelled internationally for residencies. As a Chinese woman in Winnipeg, I am subjected to racism on a daily basis — treated like a naughty child in a country I was born in, where I know the rules and customs. This level of surveillance is uncomfortable and disheartening.

I don’t want to swallow bitterness to survive.– Lindsay Wong

At a friend’s book launch at the Manitoba Museum, I thought of my ancestors when my sneaker caught in a wood crevice and I fell off a platform, into a gallery that featured sections of the original Canadian Pacific Railroad. From 1880-85, 400 to 6,000 Chinese men died building the CPR. They were called coolies (kulis), which means “bitter strength” in Chinese.

The atmosphere in this section of the museum was terrifying, especially when I thought of my great-great-uncle and others from our village, toiling across Canada in horrendous working conditions, one labourer dying for every mile of track.

The railroad in the exhibit reminded me that I was in a strange place, where I was constantly othered, and oceans and continents away from Guangdong.

But I made it my space here. I had to, for financial security.

“What if my ancestors are offended?” I whispered to my closest friend, whom I call Unni (which means older sister in Korean). She had witnessed me fall.

“They won’t be mad at you,” she promised in her reassuring big sister way. “They’d probably think it was funny.”

Posing with expressions of mock horror, we took a selfie in front of an eerie mannequin, a white-coated practitioner in this life-size diorama. Around us, history consumed us. Laughing, Unni took my arm and we ran (I hobbled) into the museum lobby and out the front door. 

She and I were proof that we might be able to flee the hardships that plagued our ancestors, move forward and embrace prosperous futures. 

Unlike my ancestors, I don’t want to swallow bitterness to survive. I want to outrun it.

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