Finding forgotten history

CNC report from Vancouver
Added On March 29, 2013

A Canadian university professor recently stumbled upon a treasure box of lost fiction and short stories written by Edith Eaton.

Eaton, who is best known for its exquisite portrayals of Chinese immigrants in Canada and America, is believed to be the first female Chinese-Canadian author some hundred years ago. 

Lifestyles takes you to meet Mary Chapman, the historian who dug out Eaton's past.

[STANDUP] AL CAMPBELL, CNC correspondent
"A Canadian academic has uncovered a cache of 89 articles written by the late Edith Eaton, believed to be the first Chinese-Canadian female journalist in North America. The discovery of the articles from various publications took four years to collect and provides new insight into the life of early Chinese here in North America and the hardships they often faced in the late 19th century and early 20th century."

Mary Chapman, an associate professor in the English department at the University of British Columbia, first became interested in Eaton, the daughter of a Chinese mother and an English father, while training as an American literature expert in the early 1990s.

She told of how Eaton, who also wrote under the Chinese name Sui Sin Far, lived in various cities around the United States and became a prominent writer contributing to a variety of publications -- writing short stories, news stories, children's stories and telling about the Chinese experience in North America.

"She began writing, covering Chinatown stories in the 1880s in Montreal and she didn’t know much Chinese at the time but she slowly became more familiar with the life stories of the people who were immigrating to Montreal and the issues that they struggled with."

Chapman noted Eaton was very much a defender of the early Chinese in North America, bringing awareness to the discriminatory practices of the day in the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States and the Chinese Head Tax in Canada.

"She made the point that Chinese immigrants were great, they made a great contribution, they brought money into the country, they were law-abiding citizens, why are they being treated so badly?"

Chapman, who is close to finishing the first of three books she plans to write about Eaton, read CNC a passage from Spring Fragrance, a collection of short stories Eaton wrote two years before her death in 1914 at age 49.

"When I am east, my heart is west. When I am west, my heart is east. Before long I hope to be in China, as my life began in my father’s country it may end in my mother’s. After all, I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. You are you and I am I, says Confucius. I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant connecting link."

After working abroad in the United States and briefly in Jamaica for 20 years, Chapman said Eaton eventually returned home to her native Montreal when her health started to fail.

She noted Eaton was very informed politically and got to know Doctor Sun Yat-sen on his visits to North America to raise money for the Xinghai revolution.

Chapman also added Eaton was prolific until the end and the search for her lost works continues.

"But she’s published in the neighborhood of 300 works that we know of in her bibliography right now. There’s probably more. There are gaps, there are a few years where, hmm, there’s nothing, you know. But some months she’s publishing a big story, a bunch of newspaper articles and something else, so I would say she was a workaholic writer, earning her living and she was very prolific."

Chapman plans to release her first book on Eaton in the second half of 2014.