Seeking a Home for Stories: A Discovery of Identity

This story was originally published in Ricepaper Magazine 20.3: A Partnership Issue with PCHC-MoM and Ricepaper (Published Fall 2015)

by Fung Ling Feimo, once Fung Ling Ma

I was carrying a Monopoly board game. Mahmee was carrying her custom high heels in a small stack of shoe boxes tidily tied up with string. Little did my mother know that bespoke heels weren’t exactly de rigueur in Saskatoon of the ‘60s.

I suppose the game was intended to amuse the three of us little kids on a long long flight. The only problem was that the Monopoly instructions were all in English – a language none of us spoke. The game had play money with a funny £ symbol which only made sense much later.

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June 23rd, 1968

That day, my sister and I wore matching dresses – my favourite chamois yellow plaid dress with a sailor collar and short, full skirt. My sister, brother and I were told that we were moving to some place called Ga Na Di. That day, we were given new names in English, aliases by our dad. I ended up with the name of a British royal – a name I couldn’t pronounce nor spell for years. That day, I felt really dumb because I instantly became illiterate: I was confused by the sudden name change, and I couldn’t even respond when questioned by someone in an official-looking uniform. Dumb and mute. I lost speech and identity, all in a single one-way flight.

It was a sunny June 23 when we arrived in Canada from Asia. I remember walking down the stairway from the plane onto the tarmac of the runway then into the airport, the whole time clutching the Monopoly box. It was barren and cold in the middle of summer. The destination was Saskatoon – barren and cold in the winter.

When we arrived in Vancouver for our connecting flights, we landed as well as ‘landed’. We were greeted at the Vancouver airport by a friend of my dad, who dropped by with his son. I was really surprised when this man handed his son a coin, and the kid was allowed to roam the airport by himself, untethered. What kind of safe place was this, where a kid could choose all by himself what to buy, unsupervised? Such freedom.

My dad later commented about the man’s hands, how they were like a cluster of bananas; the hands of a labourer, not that of the white-collar worker that he has always known. Worse yet, the suit-wearing, urban Cantonese-speaking fellow used a Toisan expression (gasp, a country dialect) for the 25-cent piece he gave his son. This should have been a signal that mahmee brought the wrong shoes.

When I migrated to Canada with my parents, we went from a two-parent family to a single-parent family and sometimes a without-parents family. You see, my father’s work was in Montréal. And because he was just starting out in Canada and unsure, he decided to leave my mum and three children with his brother’s family in Saskatoon. So not only did we have to adjust to a new country, a new language and culture, but also a new family structure. We left behind a home and joined my uncle’s household. At times my mother would travel to Montréal accompanied by my little brother, so my sister and I were without parents and instead had an uncle, aunt, a little cousin as well as a newborn cousin who arrived just days after we did.

My toddler cousin later became the first non-white Rhodes Scholar chosen in Canada, yet I’ll always think of him chasing children in a yellow fleece sleeper with white vinyl footsies – after all, that’s how we met. And my baby brother dedicated much of his past social justice activism to issues affecting newcomers through his work with the Chinese Canadian National Council in Toronto. He continues to advocate on issues of race, resettlement, and for a just redress with the Head Tax Families Society of Canada. To me, he’s the one with hair pulled back in a black elastic, through the ponytail hole of his baseball cap.

I, the black sheep of the family, am writing a story, this story.

My name is Fung Ling Feimo, and I am Canadian. To be precise, I’m a generation 1.5 Canadian who grew up in an Anglophone Jewish neighbourhood in Francophone Montréal, in then-Prime Minister Trudeau’s riding (please don’t fault me on that), and will always call it my hometown regardless of the decades I spent in Calgary. My grandfather was a hajji; my dad grew up in a Portuguese colony; my mum, a British colony. What does that make me?


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February 14, 1975: Letter to Fung Ling Ma (now Fung Ling Feimo) from the Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau

After a first year in Saskatoon, we settled on and in Montréal, living on a street filled with Italian and Anglo kids. Then my parents eventually bought a house in a Jewish neighbourhood and became citizens.

I went from knowing kids like Fabrizio to a school with students named Naomi, Nassim, Joshua and Solomon. On Jewish holidays, our Protestant school was mainly closed — save for one classroom that housed all the non-Jewish students in one room. So to keep our heads down for the self-study day, we were typically told to write an essay to wile away the hours.

Eventually, I convinced my parents that it was really unproductive and was allowed to stay home on Jewish holidays. Because of my non-Jewish otherness, I was required to bring a note to be excused. Thus began my boilerplate notes readied for my mum to sign.

Being the only Asian family in the neighbourhood and of only a handful of Asians (counting my sister) in the school, I always wondered why I wasn’t Jewish. I attended English school with French during the week, and weekend Chinese school held in a Chinatown Presbyterian church.

Like my sister, I was the very first student in the school’s history to complete its Chinese elementary school program ran by mostly Toisan parishioners with a Taiwanese matron who spoke Cantonese. Given the circumstance, it is truly uncanny that I managed to hit all the right Cantonese tones. Most students gave up on the lessons; the very few who stayed typically reached university age by the time they progressed in Chinese grade school. My sister and I were by far the youngest; we were in English high school as we completed Chinese elementary. After almost half a century in Canada, I have yet to meet another of my generation who can read Chinese. It’s already rare enough to find those who retained the oral language. Much was lost.

Aside from seven days of school and homework, family entertainment for the five of us consisted mostly of double/triple features of popular Hong Kong cinema. Here, I learnt to listen to Cantonese or Mandarin dialogue while reading simultaneous Chinese/English/French subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Venerating teachers aside, I owe much of my linguistic development to those hundreds (or was it thousands?) of hours of movie watching. It was well before CSL, ESL, FSL, VHS, DVD, and the internet.

Yes you did read ‘hajji’ earlier and my other other name is Fatima. Raised in a Cantonese-speaking Muslim household in a Jewish neighbourhood in Montréal, I matter-of-factly breathed in different languages and cultures, with body language to match. In Chinese school, I was neither Toisan nor Presbyterian. In weekday school under the Protestant School Board of Greater Montréal, I was neither English, French, Protestant, nor Jewish. And though educated in Montréal, I never understood local Québécois but instead mimicked an European accent from French Jewish teachers who all originated from either Morocco or France or parts of Africa. Where are the Québécois teachers you say? It’s a mystery that took me forever to unravel – in the Catholic schools of course.

After decades of denial or resistance to the space or place, I have now returned to Chinatown to take Mandarin classes, in present-day Calgary rather than Montréal. Why am I taking these classes aimed at Cantonese speakers? Aside from learning to communicate in Mandarin, my reason may be different from most – to find a sense of belonging and recover loss. I navigate shifting identities and otherness to this day.

And just to make things even more interesting, some years ago I discovered quite accidentally that I am in fact of Manchurian bloodline and the Chinese family name is/was an alias. My birth certificate reads ‘Ma’ to hide the Manchu heritage, as it has done for many generations before me. I was with children of my own and having a burger with my uncle in Saskatoon when he casually dropped the Manchu tidbits on some overseas visitors, said something about Qing dynasty.

So I grilled my dad over the phone and he confirmed the Manchu ancestry as well as shared some fragments of stories he heard from his father who heard it from his. The family name change occurred at the same time as adopting Islam, a religion that wasn’t recognised in official Manchu society though its influence had spread to the Chinese. I suppose one hides a name or heritage and gives up Qing dynasty Manchu privilege for survival – when your life and your family’s lives depended on it. A Han Chinese alias reinforced with a change in religion was the perfect cover, with me and my clan here as proof. After at least a couple of hundred years, whatever reason it was, it can no longer be valid in modern day Canada.

And so begins my long keyboard journey to uncover the family identity. For years, I had absolutely no luck with popular search engines in English, and just about given up when I shared my story with a newish colleague who coincidentally came from my ancestral region, near the once capital of Manchuria. Imagine my total surprise when days later he returned with a scrap of paper scribbled with two Chinese characters.

He had uncovered my Manchurian name using Chinese search engines, based on my flag or imperial banner along with some scratches of family lore. Armed with those two characters, my further searches proved much more fruitful. They match! The internet searches, with the flag and pieces of oral history.

I am the only family member who has since ‘come out’ and shed both ‘Ma’ as well as the Muslim façade. The rest of my clan remains happily, ‘Ma’. My dad is quite excited about the discovery and has asked me to spell out ‘Feimo’ 費莫 numerous times, so he could tell his friends.

Where does our identity come from? Or more accurately, where do our identities come from? As Canadians we carry so many invisible stories that shape who we are.  I am looking for a post-it wall for these stories. Be it virtual or brick and mortar, it will frame stories of Canadians and how we came to be. It will bring people together, build relationships and connect communities. In sharing our personal stories as Canadians, we build connectivity to each other and capture a glimpse of our intimate history and identity, at the same time dispelling preconceived ideas of immigration and migrants.

A Museum of Migration can capture these stories. Together, they will serve to create an archive for generations to come.

I had first met Pacific Canada Heritage Centre – Museum of Migration (PCHC-MoM) Founding President, Raymond Lee, over dim sum in June 2013. Prior to our visit, I had googled ‘Raymond Lee Citizenship Judge’ and was immediately in awe. For over fifty years, he has been a driven advocate for the Chinese Canadian community as well as the broader community. Ray was a consultant for the Chinese Head Tax Apology by the Government of Canada. In 2006, he became the first person of Chinese descent in Alberta to become a Canadian Citizenship Judge.

We recently talked about the need to capture the history of Pacific Canada; the first histories and lost stories. We need to explore and share stories that originated from the West or crossed over to the West. Such a Museum of Migration will complement that work accomplished at Pier 21, Halifax that focuses on European Canadians whose port of entry was the East. We recognise it is only part of the Canada story and we need to tell the whole story, one that is all encompassing and more inclusive. Together, West and East will reflect the whole, all of us – Aboriginals, Asians, everybody.

Why does Raymond Lee, want this museum? Why is he so passionate about it?

“PCHC-MoM is inclusive…Natives, Asians. We need the stories to be told…how the West was built, the whole picture. Want MoM to represent anybody that has gone through the western portal of Canada.”

Chief Wayne Sparrow and Council of the Musqueam Indian Band write: “We would like to formally endorse the PCHC-MoM Society… for the proposal to build a Museum of Migration in the Lower Mainland. We wish you much success in bringing this vision to life.”

Who is Canadian? I am. You are. We are.

Other than the First Nations people, we are a Second Nation of immigrants.

We are all migrants.

We are all treaty people.

And you thought I was Chinese.

Addendum: A previous version of this story stated the first meeting with Raymond Lee happened in June 2014. This has now been corrected to June 2013.