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Douglas Fetherling - Chinese Eatons
by Douglas Fetherling

When Cora Hind, the first important female journalist in Western Canada, applied for work on the Winnipeg Free Press in 1882, she was rebuffed because of her gender, even though she had recently qualified as a typewriter. (In those days, the word referred to the operator of the device, not to the device itself, which was a typewriting machine.) So for some years thereafter, until the newspaper came to its senses, Hind supported herself as a public stenographer (the first one west of the Lakehead). Her customers included lawyers and businessmen as well as visiting dignitaries. Her most singular client, she told her biographer, was a Spanish-speaking prospector who hired her to write a proposal of marriage to his English-speaking beloved in California. Hind recalled that as she applied herself to the chore she found herself wishing, if only for a moment, that she had read more romantic fiction.

Today of course Hind is remembered for her role in the women's suffrage movement more than for her role as a writer. I've always wondered whether she ever read her fellow steno Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914), who was beginning her own literary career in the 1880s, largely in the pages of the Montreal Star and the Dominion Illustrated News. More than idle curiosity prompts the question. As today's feminism has become more concerned with women of colour, the case of Eaton, an Anglo-Chinese Canadian who wrote as Sui Sin Far, grows in importance. She was the first writer in English (not only the first Canadian) to make fiction from the experience of Asian women in North America. Her short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance, first published in 1912, might be called the beginning of all such writing, as well as an early reaction against the racist popular fiction of such writers as Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu.

Since 1995, Mrs. Spring Fragrance has been in print again, in an edition by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks, published by the University of Illinois Press: the same publisher that brought out White-Parks's book Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography (also 1995). Now comes a new edition of the strange autobiographical novel by Edith Eaton's sister Winnifred, Me: A Book of Remembrance (University Press of Mississippi, US$45 cloth, US$17 paper). Winnifred Eaton, who was ten years Edith's junior, followed a course similar to her sister's by getting into newspaper work and then breaking out into fiction, but with one important difference. Instead of acknowledging her ethnic Chinese roots as Sui Sin Far had done, she tried to pass herself off as a mixed-race child with one Japanese parent. At that time, Japanese were more admired and less discriminated against in North America than Chinese were. Accordingly, she published her books as "Onoto Watanna" and was usually photographed in a kimono.

Sui Sin Far ("not a pseudonym but a term of address her family used from early childhood," White-Parks explains) was born in England in 1865 and arrived in Montreal in 1873, the eldest daughter in an impossibly large family. She lived there until she was thirty-two, writing prolifically about the original Chinese community, of which so little trace remains now. Her biographer postulates that she found living in a city "divided by language, religion, and education" taught her "what a segregated community looked like" and provoked her to explore the meaning of her own mixed heritage. Later she moved to Boston (as a number of other Canadian writers and artists were forced to do) and then to Seattle, where she worked for a time in the CPR office. She wrote perceptively about Seattle's Chinese community as well.

Her whereabouts are so interesting because she knew intimately the tiny Chinese populations of the eastern cities in the days before the building of the Canadian Pacific greatly increased the Chinese presence in the West. Similarly, she wrote on the ones in the West in the period when they had begun to decline (while those in eastern cities grew). Her peregrinations, however, were not confined to the North American mainland. She was first of all a British subject, moving within the imperial framework, and at one point she spent time in Jamaica, going there with Winnifred, who was also trained in stenography (and self-taught in journalism). Me: A Book of Remembrance draws heavily on this experience, though as always the sisters' perceptions are quite different.

In her Montreal days, Sui Sin Far wrote freelance for the city's vigorous English-language press, having "most of the local Chinese reporting" all to herself, by dint of industry no doubt, but also perhaps through default. In time, the role came to include being a kind of journalistic defender: "I meet many Chinese persons, and when they get into trouble am often called upon to fight their battles in the papers. This I enjoy." From that stage, White-Parks theorizes, it was only a short hop to taking "a stand for Chinese North Americans [that] clearly ignored national borders." The shift was concurrent with "a new trend in her fiction" that saw her separate the documentary from the imaginative and use short stories to reveal the essential truths that journalism could only describe. Over the course of her too short but always busy life, she also experienced, as both insider and outsider, the Chinese communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. She makes a fascinating comparison with Winnifred Eaton, who had more success as a fiction writer in her lifetime but seems so much less vital today. Winnifred lived for various periods in New York and Hollywood but, like her sister, kept returning to Canada-in particular, to Calgary, where she hid from instead of embracing that city's fascinating Chinese-Canadian community. Her papers are at the University of Calgary Library. 


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