May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Over the last two centuries, immigrants from East Asia, Southern Asia, Western and Southeast Asia have journeyed to Canada, bringing our society a rich cultural heritage with an infusion of many languages, ethnicities and religious traditions.
This month is meant to offer all Canadians an opportunity to learn more about the history of Asian Canadians and celebrate their contributions to the growth and prosperity of Canada.
But mid-May, we still haven’t seen or heard much about Asian Heritage Month in mainstream media. A big reason why is COVID-19 dominating our news cycles, which is ironic because the coronavirus has also ushered in a spike in anti-Asian racism.
Since the onset of this global crisis, there has been a rise in racism and xenophobia toward Asians around the world. They have been stigmatized, shamed and “othered.”
For a country that often says diversity is one of its greatest strengths, we, too, are guilty of such abhorrent behaviour — seen in the many racist aggressions, including an alleged attack on a 92-year-old Vancouver man and the recent social media rant by Canadian icon Bryan Adams.
It’s all too clear to see how dangerous and damaging such sentiments can be during these times of uncertainty and fear.
In years past, this month would be celebrated with vibrant live performances of song, dance and delicious samplings of food. But Asian Heritage Month highlights more serious issues too, like social justice, colourism, islamophobia, racism and the plight of refugees.
It is truly in seeing the people of these cultures, through their stories and lived experiences, that we are able to expand our understanding of each other and our world views.
Madelyn Chung, founder of The RepresentASIAN Project, agrees. Her organization’s aim is to celebrate, elevate and advocate Asian representation in media and beyond.
The platform shares the stories of Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans. In their own words and through their own lens, they tell how their cultural backgrounds have impacted their personal and professional lives.
“Especially now, it’s a more important time than ever to celebrate and elevate Asian-Canadians, with the racist attacks against Chinese-Canadians (and Asian-Canadians who “appear to look Chinese”) because of the coronavirus,” Chung says.
“We were doing so well in terms of breaking down barriers and having more positive and accurate representation of ourselves, but now this feels like a step back, which is disheartening.”
While Chung understands this year is unprecedented, she also thinks that is precisely why more acknowledgement or awareness around it is important this year and is disappointed our country is not holding virtual celebrations as well as highlighting prominent Asian-Canadians — whether that be in the mainstream media or in public service announcements.
She admitted that she herself wasn’t even aware of Asian Heritage Month until two years ago, though Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated across Canada since the 1990s. In December 2001, the Senate of Canada adopted a motion proposed by Senator Vivienne Poy to designate May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada. In May 2002, the Government of Canada signed an official declaration to designate May as Asian Heritage Month.
Lack of awareness is a common thread when it comes to Asian Heritage Month.
Raj Girn, founder of Anokhi Life, feels that part of the problem is that the month is not truly recognized nationwide.
“Initiatives are still very limited in scope and reach,” she says, adding that she feels Canada could do better in marking Asian Heritage Month with more funding and grants for more diverse initiatives to cover all Asian groups so as not to micro marginalize some segments of an already marginalized community.
Anokhi Life, which has an online magazine blog, radio show, e-community, and social community, focuses on the North American, South Asian story. Girn says its tribute to South Asian Heritage Month is a four-part look at the story of art. The first two parts have already gone live, with the final two to come in the remaining weeks of May.
Yenny Trinh, president of the Asian Heritage Society of Manitoba, also acknowledges the lack of public awareness and publicity around the month. While the Government of Canada advertises Asian Heritage month on its website, she says more public service announcements would be helpful.
The organization has been celebrating Asian Heritage Month for the past 18 years.
“It is unfortunate that we had to cancel this year’s event due to COVID-19 as we had a wonderful lineup of activities. Our members are made up of diverse individuals from many Asian communities, such as the Japanese, South Asian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities, to name a few,” Trinh says.
“We feature artists and professionals to celebrate Asian cultures. We host forums and sessions on a variety of relevant topics, including racism, inter-generational gaps, and integration into Canadian society.”
Simu Liu, the star of CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, has made his own historical contribution by being cast as the first Asian lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’ll portray superhero Shang-Chi in the highly anticipated Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Throughout the month of May, fans can follow along with Simu on Twitter (@SimuLiu) with the hashtags #AsianHeritageMonth and #AHM to see what talent and content he will be highlighting.
Also taking part in the celebration is Tamil-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who has seen overnight success as the breakout star from Mindy Kailing’s new Netflix series Never Have I Ever, her first professional acting role.
The Mississauga-born 18-year-old will give fans an inside look at her own ground-breaking journey with personal anecdotes and experiences.
The National Film Board of Canada has curated a selection of films that celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent. Fashion lovers can see Sandra Oh grace this month’s ELLE Canada’s cover with a powerful cover story and striking editorial spread. For the history buff, you can peruse the Virtual Museum of Asian Canadian Cultural Heritage.
Award-Winning Asian Canadian composer and artist Alice Ho and involved artists are generously sharing the world premiere of the new work Witch on Thin Ice online. It is a percussion theatre work inspired by life and works of Yoko Ono commissioned by Beverley Johnston through the Canada Council for the Arts.
By showcasing Asian culture, art, and traditions and more importantly the people and stories behind these cultures, Asian Heritage Month serves as a reminder that we have more similarities than differences. We may not all look or speak the same, but we all have a shared humanity. That is something we should never lose sight of — especially now.