One of the most delightful things about doing historical research is finding something you least expect. In my case, it was Mavis Chu, a seventy-something-year-old daughter of an upper-middle-class white woman and working-class migrant of Asian heritage. I met Mavis while pursuing research on the relationship between participants in Toronto’s post-World War Two lesbian bar culture and the residents of Chinatown where the main hangout was located, but Mavis’ family photo album opened a door on a life of interracial intimacy that, up until now, was completely unknown to those who had not lived it.
Since the mid-1800s, young men of Asian heritage began a mass migration that led them to the United States, Canada, Australia, and beyond, in search at first for gold and subsequently for work opportunities to improve their peasant farmer family fortunes at home. The family-imposed goal was to invest their earnings in property back home in Guangdong province, not to settle in the places they sought work. It was principally for this reason that the Chinese overseas lived in “bachelor societies.” Some returned home to marry, but when they went back to their temporary home overseas, their wives stayed behind to take care of their husband’s family and family’s ancestral plot, as well as any children she might have as a result of their union.
Historians have emphasized how racism in general and restrictive and prohibitive immigration laws in particular created “bachelor societies”: uniquely gender-imbalanced communities of men of Asian heritage. Many historians proclaimed that there was only one woman for every ten men, by which they meant one Chinese woman. By failing to imagine romantic and erotic possibilities with non-Chinese women, historians unwittingly created a new kind of exclusion.
In Toronto and likely elsewhere, many men of Asian heritage had sex with, maintained long-term companionate relationships with, and married women of non-Asian heritage.
The story Mavis helped me uncover was so rich with meaning and in the kinds of documents it generated that, as I worked toward the publication of a scholarly article, I began imagining ways to make the oral history interviews, the newspaper clippings, the photos, and the marriage certificates I had amassed accessible to anyone who wanted to see or use them. Over the past eighteen months and with the assistance of an education specialist and a graphic designer, I created interracialintimacies.org, an open access online archives and teaching tool.
The internet allows us to circulate and share primary source materials in completely new ways. A wide variety of images and documents already circulate on the web, proving that our research materials have the potential to engage a broad audience. Putting our materials online in open access environments also allows us to break down social and economic hierarchies that limit access to knowledge to those who can afford to pay for it, and to achieve the foundational goals of empowering the very people who made the histories about which we write.
interracialintimacies.org strives to be accessible while at the same time being educative and instructive. The site is divided into two main elements, a complete archives of my research materials and a curated page called ‘How to think like a historian.’ ‘How to think’ provides a visualization of the research process, integrates research and methodological questions at key points, and, for graduate students and newly minted PhDs, makes transparent the writing and publication process by sharing the editor’s, anonymous reviewers, and copy editor’s comments and my responses. The site’s success is, in my view, also due to very high quality design, which serves to complement rather than complicate the historical materials presented.
Recently I presented interracialintimacies.org at a conference on digital diversity. I invited Caroline Doerksen, a student in my Intro to the History of Sexuality class, to talk about what it had been like to use it as a learning tool. She did that, but then she told the audience that she was the granddaughter of a woman of Chinese heritage and a Norwegian immigrant. She was very close to her grandmother, but it had never occurred to her to ask her about her experience. She shared the article with her grandmother, and they explored the site together, and for the first time talked about her family’s own history of interracial intimacy. Hopefully, the site will generate many more such moments of intimate exchange.
Elise Chenier is a Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. She received her Ph.D. in modern Canadian history from Queen’s University in Kingston in 2001. Her research focuses on oral history, and the history of sexuality in the twentieth century. Her award-winning book Strangers in Our Midst: Sexual Deviancy in Postwar Ontario was published in 2008 by the University of Toronto Press, and examines the concept of sexual deviation as it played out at the intersection of the law, medicine, the prison, and postwar society. She has also published work on butch and fem culture in Toronto, which inspired the founding of the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony. Her work has appeared in Left History, Radical History Review, Archivaria, Sexuality & Culture, and the Canadian Historical Review. She is currently completing a book tentatively titled Outlaws to Inlaws: Same-Sex Marriage in the United States from 1950 to 1987 which offers a critical examination of the interpretive challenges historians face when handling evidence of same-sex marriage practices before the marriage equality movement. Elise tweets from @elisechenier.
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