Emotionally Attuned History : The Case of Velma Chan

by Eric Wright


Recently, I have been writing an essay for Access Gallery on the history of Chinese Canadian women’s working lives in the Vancouver area for an upcoming exhibition opening on June 27/2014 entitled Eight Ounces Half a Pound: Guadalupe Martinez, Katherine Soucie, Tommy Ting. I have spent hours listening to and transcribing recordings of first and second-generation Chinese-Canadian women’s life stories. The more I have listened to the recordings, the more I have become attuned to their emotional content, and the way in which the perception of this content opens up new possibilities for historical interpretation.

Historians often make use of oral sources by transcribing them into written text for publication as evidence in articles and books. There is an assumption that in the act of transcribing an oral source, no significant content is lost, or at least no content of any value is lost. Symbolic of this mentality is the fact that audio or video recordings are sometimes destroyed after being transcribed. Listening to Chinese Canadian Women’s oral histories has reminded me that the human voice contains much additional information outside of its literal meaning, which is lost when transformed into the written word. As the theorist of oral history Alessandro Portelli writes, “The tone, volume range and rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing.”[1]

The orality of oral history as a medium offers historians the possibility to interpret the emotional content of voice in addition to the literal content it conveys. Registering and interpreting the emotional content of the human voice can qualify, modify or entirely contradict, yet never discount in any degree the literal meanings participants express in an oral history interview. If done thoughtfully and carefully, emotional interpretations can complicate and greatly enrich our understanding of the lives of people in the past.

How to Interpret Emotions in History

In order to hear the emotional content of an oral history participant’s voice the historian must develop their emotional listening skills, defined as the ability to sense other’s emotions intuitively through registering a range of unstated visual and verbal cues. These include pace of speech, pauses, tone of voice, and rhythm of conversation. In video recordings, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, etc. are all emotional cues that convey meaning in addition to the spoken word.

One of the easiest ways to develop emotional listening skills is to spend long amounts of time listening to oral sources. Working under time pressure to construct arguments, historians sometimes treat sources, both written and oral, as resources that can be “mined” for data relevant to the project at hand, instead of media that when listened to in its entirety, can reveal novel truths about the past.  Listening to an oral recording in its entirety allows the historian to get to know the participant in such a way that they begin to pick up on the subtle inflections, changes of tone, etc. in voice that might indicate additional meanings.  The process of spending time with the source is similar to spending time with a friend: the more time we spend interacting with a friend, the greater our ability to sense their emotional state beyond their words.

Although the ability to hear the emotions in people’s voices can be developed through spending long amounts of time listening to oral sources, the ability to make emotional interpretations is inherently a process of intuition and sensing that cannot be reduced to a concrete set of directives and logic. It requires emotional receptiveness on the part of the historian, which is a skill that can be developed in other facets of life.

The Problem of Misrepresentation

The greatest pitfall in making emotional historical interpretations is that the historian might be totally wrong, which could be hurtful to a participant.  It is important to avoid discounting the literal voice of interview participants.   At the same time, the potential for emotional interpretations to enrich our understanding of the past outweighs this potential problem of misrepresentation, which can be minimized by ensuring the following: a) any emotional interpretation should be qualified with conjoining words like “hints”, “suggests” or “possibly.” The inclusion of these qualifiers clarifies the historian’s central role in creating an emotional interpretation of the source, and leaves open the possibility that their interpretation might be entirely wrong; b) Emotional interpretations should never be construed as more fundamental realities, as the real ‘truth’ behind the subject’s stated truth. Rather, they should be framed as additional interpretations that complicate, productively contradict or possibly enrich the literal meanings of participants’ voices. Emotional interpretations therefore ‘thicken’ historical interpretation, rather than offering a new tool to get at some more primary truth about the subject; c) Finally, one should simply use good judgement when considering whether to include emotional interpretations in their published works. One must consider the potential impact of the interpretation on the participant’s reputation, family, etc. If the subject is still alive, it is probably best to avoid making emotional interpretations.

The Story of Velma Chan from the Nicola Valley

In my recent research, there have been several instances where the possibility of making a careful emotional interpretation of a source has been evident. One story in particular is that of Velma Chan, a second-generation Chinese-Canadian woman who grew up in the picturesque Nicola Valley of British Columbia in the early 20th century.  Listening to Velma narrate her life story, and appreciating the somewhat archaic and quaint cadence of her voice, I slowly came to feel that there were additional emotional truths to be understood about her experiences, which if brought to light could enrich and complicate our understanding of her life and others with experiences similar to hers.  You can listen to Velma narrating her life story in its entirety here.  Many other life stories of Chinese-Canadian women are available on the Multicultural History Society of Ontario’s website.

The Nicola River Valley between Spences Bridge and Merritt, B.C.

The Nicola River Valley between Spences Bridge and Merritt, B.C.

One moment that struck me as important was Velma’s narration of her experiences of feeling socially isolated in the community of Merritt, B.C. due to racial discrimination and her mother’s prevention of her seeking social contacts outside of the family.  A short excerpt of Velma recounting these experiences can be accessed here.

* * *

The way in which Velma ends her description of being discriminated against by the other school kids with the somewhat blasé and fatalistic: “so that’s how it is,” gives the impression that she was not too perturbed by their actions. When questioned about whether she felt frustrated at her overall situation as a young woman in Merritt, she recalled that she “didn’t know enough to be frustrated.” The literal meaning of Velma’s words could lead us to conclude that Velma was neither hurt nor frustrated by the actions of the school kids or her mother.

Yet, the emotional content of Velma’s voice, her cadence of speech, her stress on particular words, and an empathic imagining of what one would feel like if faced with her situation, suggest that Velma did feel hurt and frustrated. Note the way in which Velma sharply and abruptly ends her narration of the story in which the other school kids excluded her from their parties with “I’d just keep away.” This clipped fashion of speaking suggests the suppression of painful memories. Her unprompted reference to her mother’s role in restricting her social life hints at frustration. From this complex emotional and literal reading of Velma’s oral history, it is clear that Velma was probably frustrated and hurt and entirely not frustrated and hurt at her situation growing up in the Nicola Valley in the early 20th century.

The contradiction that emerges out of listening to Velma’s literal and emotional voices is a productive one. An emotional reading of Velma’s voice suggests that she felt frustrated and hurt due to racial discrimination and social isolation. At the same time, she chose not to feel frustrated or hurt at her situation, as a strategy to get by in her life. In choosing not to feel frustrated at racial discrimination and social isolation, in the act of getting on with her life, Velma actualized this in the world as a reality, in a no less truthful way than the emotions of frustration and hurt she felt. By listening to the emotional content of Velma’s voice, we understand a coping strategy dynamic in her life that is not at all evident when we simply listen to the literal content of her voice—which would suggest that nothing ever got to her.

The Value of Making Emotional Interpretations

The broader point to be taken from my interpretation of Velma’s story is that if historians choose to ignore the emotional content of history, they risk giving a one-dimensional and simplistic portrait of peoples’ lives in the past. In the example of Velma, and for others like her who experienced discrimination or hard times of some sort, a solely literal reading of oral histories risks portraying people as emotionally tougher than they really were. An emotionally attuned historical interpretation of Velma’s life story suggests that in response to discrimination and feelings of isolation, she was both incredibly strong and incredibly vulnerable.  The way in which the emotional content of people’s voices can enrich our understanding of how people experienced the past should give historians cause to hesitate before simply transcribing oral sources into written sources. There exist many possibilities for novel and important historical interpretation in the gap between the literal and emotional meanings of the human voice.


[1] Alessandro Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,”in The Oral History Reader, (London: Routledge, 2006), 34.


Race and politics in Vancouver’s First Civic Election

by Eric Wright

** Trigger Warning: This post contains the racist language and imagery of historical actors directed towards people of Chinese origin in B.C.

The story of Vancouver’s first civic election does not lack its fair share of political chicanery.  The contest was held on May 3, 1886 and pitted R.H. Alexander, manager of the Hastings Sawmill, against Malcolm Maclean, a newcomer businessman from Winnipeg.  By all accounts, It was Alexander’s election to lose.  He was backed by the local business establishment and had lived in Granville for twelve years.  As a resident of early Vancouver recalled, “He was so very sure of being elected that he had a lot of torches prepared, and went to a lot of expense.” (Hart, 1933)

R.H. Alexander was heavily favoured to win in Vancouver's first civic election but lost in an upset to Malcolm Maclean.

R.H. Alexander, candidate in the city of Vancouver’s first election, 1886.  Photo courtesy of Vancouver City Archives, Richard Alexander Fonds.

As it turned out, Alexander would never light those victory torches.  On voting day MacLean stole the election by a mere 17 votes, becoming the first mayor of Vancouver.  And steal the election he did in the most literal sense, through an unholy combination of political slander, electoral fraud and voter suppression.

How did MacLean steal the election?

As an underdog, MacLean and his supporters knew that they had to find an issue to campaign on that would resonate broadly with a large portion of Alexander supporters.  MacLean’s status as a newcomer also meant that he could not run a campaign based on his “record” against that of Alexander’s– instead he needed an issue that would galvanize the electorate on a broad scale, and perhaps even inspire an “anyone but Alexander” style reaction amongst early Vancouverites.

MacLean faced a distinct disadvantage, having arrived in Vancouver only a few months prior to the first election.

Malcolm Alexander MacLean, first mayor of Vancouver.  MacLean was an underdog in need of an issue.  Photo courtesy of SFU Centre for Scottish Studies.

Lacking any real issues to campaign on, the MacLean camp turned, unfortunately, to lies and innuendo.  A few days before the election, they circulated a rumour via written pamphlet that Alexander had made remarks to the effect that white male Canadian labourers were no better than male Chinese labourers.  The pamphlet read:

“Canadians! Read this! The following answer was given by Mr. Alexander to a deputation which waited upon him with a protest against the employment of Chinese: ‘I do not consider that a Canadian is much superior to a Chinaman.  If he can procure a bowl of black-strap and a piece of fat pork, it is all he requires.’  Let Alexander deny this if he can, the deputation is prepared to prove it.” (The Mainland Guardian, May 6, 1886)

According to the racial ideology of the time, most white people in early Vancouver would have taken it for granted that they were superior to Chinese people.  Therefore, when they got wind of Alexander’s supposed suggestion that white Canadians were really no better than Chinese people, they were gravely insulted.  The MacLean camp had accurately understood that if eligible white male voters believed Alexander had put them on the same level as the“Chinese”, they would throw their support behind MacLean, despite the fact that he had almost no connection to the community.

Many men who voted in Vancouver’s first election recalled years later in interviews with city archivist Major Matthews that Alexander’s supposed comparing of white people to Chinese people was a key reason why they chose to vote for MacLean.  Although many interviewees swore that Alexander had actually uttered the infamous words attributed to him in the above quoted pamphlet, none claimed to have actually heard him say the words or know when he said them.  As one “old-timer” put it, “He said it all right, but when or why, I never have known.” (Jackman, 1936)

Ensuring the Victory

By starting a rumour that Alexander had put white working men on par with Chinese men, the MacLean camp tapped the electorate’s belief in white superiority to its own advantage. But they did not stop there. The MacLean camp doubly ensured their victory by committing extensive electoral fraud.  Many men in early Vancouver were loggers or CPR railroad workers who lived in hotels on a temporary basis before shipping out to far-flung locales.  On election day, MacLean and his supporters created false tenancy papers for many of these men so they might vote in the election.  As V.W. Haywood, the city’s first constable recalled, “There was a lot of people who voted who did not have a vote.  Lots of people coming in here stopping in hotels; they had no qualification, but, as I said, we wanted to put in MacLean, and we did.” (Haywood,1936) Vancouver’s first election saw a healthy amount of document forgery, which permitted many unqualified individuals to vote.  

In the course of election day, as Alexander became aware of MacLean’s political chicanery, he and his people decided to “collect together,” in early Vancouver resident W.H. Gallagher’s words, the Chinese people who laboured in the Hastings Mill to vote for him, despite the fact that a racist law had banned Chinese people along with other non-white groups from voting in provincial or municipal elections in B.C. (Embrace BC, 2014)  Although the informant Gallagher’s choice of words, “collected up,” suggests that Alexander purchased the votes of the Chinese people who laboured at the mill he managed, possibly through promising slightly better working conditions or higher pay, it is hard to determine what exactly happened due to a lack of documentary evidence.  It is possible that the Chinese people working at Hastings Sawmill decided to try to vote of their own volition.  However, this is doubtful, since they would have been aware that contravening racist laws could result in violent repercussions.  White violence towards Chinese people was endemic in this period throughout the North American west. (Pfaelzer, 2007)

Cartoon depicting Amor de Cosmos (Lover of the Universe) second premier of British Columbia assaulting a Chinese person. Cartoons like these both reflected and re-enforced white violence towards Chinese people.

“The Heathen Chinee in British Columbia, ” Canadian Illustrated News, 1879.  Caricatures depicting white violence committed against Chinese people were common throughout the North American west in the late 19th century.

When the Chinese men made their way to the polling place, at the behest of Alexander or not, they were blocked by a white male mob of MacLean supporters.  W.H. Gallagher, who participated in the blockade, recounted the incident in the acceptable racist language of the early 20th century:

 “they [MacLean supporters] shouted at the approaching Chinamen, and began to move towards them. Then one or two of the Chinamen decided, I suppose, that they did not like the look of things, and that they did not want to vote anyhow, and turned around; then one or two more came to a standstill, the rest came on up, until there was a little crowd of them, standing, and the white men advancing towards them. The white men shouted at the Chinamen and the Chinamen turned tail and ran.” (Gallagher, 1933)

Thus, the Chinese men who laboured in the Hastings Mill were blocked from casting their votes by a white male mob.  And that is how, in broad strokes, the first civic election in Vancouver was won — through political mud-slinging, electoral fraud and racially based voter suppression. 

Although not an example of democracy in action, the story of Vancouver’s first election is useful in the way it reveals the centrality of whiteness to many peoples’ identities in the early city.  When seeking a highly emotive issue that would engender a powerful “anyone but Alexander” style reaction in the white male population, MacLean chose, of all the possibilities, to make up a fib about Alexander putting white people on par with Chinese people.  The very effectiveness of this “insult” at driving voters from the Alexander to the MacLean camp shows how it was a central part of white peoples’ identity in early Vancouver to understand oneself as superior than other “races.”  MacLean, opportunist that he was, knew how to locate and hit this exposed nerve to his own political advantage.

Works Cited:

Embrace B.C., “Legislation Affecting British Columbians of Chinese Descent,” (2014), access at http://www.embracebc.ca/local/embracebc/pdf/chronology_english.pdf

W.H. Gallagher, “Our first civic election – Chinese,” (1933) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, vol. III (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

Frank W. Hart, “The First Election,” (1933) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, vol. II (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

V.W. Haywood, “In conversation with J.S. Matthews,” (1936) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. IV, (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

T.J. Jackman, “Memo of Conversation with Captain T.J. Jackman,” (1936) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. IV, (Vancouver: City of Vancouver Archives, 1935).

Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The forgotten war against Chinese Americans, (New York: Random House, 2007).

“The Election at Granville,” The Mainland Guardian, May 6, 1886.  Newspaper published at New Westminster, B.C. Vancouver Public Library Archives, Microfilm Collection.

Additional Resources:

Robert MacDonald, Making Vancouver: Class, Status and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996).  A history of Vancouver’s early years as a lumber town that charts the growing political and social conflict and heightening class tensions that arrived with the coming of the CPR in the 1880s.

“Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past,” Web Resource, 2014.  This project is a joint collaboration between UBC, SFU and other institutions aimed at providing resources for the teaching of Chinese Canadian History as well as giving scholars and researchers access to a searchable database of over 20,000 photos, videos, newspapers and historical documents.  There’s also a fun game for kids called “Gold Mountain.”

James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vols. I-VII(Vancouver: City of Vancouver Archives, 1935).  Early Vancouver is one of the best sources available for finding information about the city’s early days.  James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s first archivist, created Early Vancouver from a lifetime of interviewing residents and collecting photographs and ephemera.  In 2011, it was digitized by the Vancouver City Archives, and is now available in searchable format online.  

** Research undertaken for this article was supported by the Global Civic Policy Society