Although very short and simple, A Passage Beyond Fortune touches on many of the legislative challenges Chinese immigrants and families faced in order to build a life and community in Canada. It is a worthwhile watch that encourages viewers to do more research into Canada’s history beyond the already well-known treatment of Chinese railway workers who essentially built the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
This 16-minute documentary short focuses on the Chow family – patriarch Gale, matriarch Myrna, and sons Kyle and Art – using their stories to hint at the many untold histories and struggles of Chinese immigrants in Saskatchewan. A humble household with close ties to the Chinese-Canadian community in Moose Jaw, the Chows are just one of many families who have been impacted by racist legislation in Canada’s not-too-distant past.
First dismissing the claims of Moose Jaw’s infamous underground tourist attraction – a series of hidden tunnels under the city that are advertised with stereotypical Chinese artifacts as a “passage to fortune” – filmmaker Weiye Su then digs a little deeper into Canada’s past in regards to Chinese immigration after the completion of the national railroad. Interstitial clips of freight trains slowly moving through the prairies puts a button on the topic.
With a restrictively expensive head tax on Chinese persons in Canada and later an exclusion act that barred Chinese people from coming to the country, many families were split across the Pacific, including Gale’s parents. It is revealed that Gale’s father chose not to bring his wife over from Hong Kong as he ended up finding another woman in Canada, which led to Gale’s mother dying with a “broken heart.”
An even more surprising but real law is revealed, one that prohibited white women from working for Chinese men out of fear of miscegenation. This “White Women's Labour Law” started in Saskatchewan in the 1910s and was not removed until the 1960s. The discrimination is clearly felt by the Chinese business community, of which Gale is also part.
Snippets of archival footage showing Gale discussing the start of the local Chinese association is coupled with displays of a contemporary Chinese New Year dinner. It is clear that the community has grown quietly but fruitfully in Moose Jaw. A tender collection of family photos and heirlooms is put on display in Kyle’s home as his elderly parents move to Regina to be with their son.
A Passage Beyond Fortune is showing on the National Film Board of Canada website for free.