Thursday, April 11, 2024

In Search for an Opaque Past

As I search for my family’s past, I've run into many hurdles.  Genealogy is difficult work, particularly for racialized and historically marginalized people. There is an array of special identity documents – called C.I. certificates – that were issued by the Canadian Government exclusively to its Chinese residents. Files were kept of foreign-born Chinese in Vancouver, Victoria and Ottawa. These pieces of paper that were intended to control, contain, monitor and even intimidate this one community continue to be mysteriously hard to access.

Ironically, the very documents that were used to control was somehow forgotten, closed to the descendents who looked for them. About a decade or more ago, I started to research my great-grandfather and his brothers at Vancouver Public Library which has microfiche of C.I.9 records.

A Chinese Immigration Certificate no. 9 (C.I.9) was a Canadian reentry permit for Chinese immigrants, issued between 1910 and 1953. Every C.I.9 had to be returned when the traveler arrived back in Canada. Héritage Canadiana has released digitized records of nearly 5700 C.I.9 certificates from the Port of Vancouver (1928-1930).

These records show Chinese immigrants' travels and provide biographical details like names, occupations, physical descriptions, and departure/return dates. The release sheds light on migration patterns amidst immigration laws and political changes. The documents also offer insights into the photographers and references involved in the application process, reflecting the social dynamics of the time.

But searching for my great-grandfather’s C.I.9 was no easy task. The scholar Lily Cho has argued that while C.I.9 certificates served as passports for noncitizens in Canada, they also highlighted the ambiguity of granting a citizenship right to noncitizens. Despite their detailed records, the system often failed to accurately identify migrants. The certificates, though meticulously archived, revealed the challenges of accessing historical information due to issues like name Anglicization and dialect differences. If it weren’t for knowing the nuances of his village, I would likely never have found his record as his anglicized surname is “Choo” which is different from his gravestone recorded as “Chow.”

The system's reliance on human agents and photographic technology led to vulnerabilities and errors. Agre's concept of "grammars of action" elucidates how systems like the C.I.9 relied on standardized procedures for identification. While the C.I.9s captured vast amounts of information, the distinction between memory and storage underscores their limitations in processing and effectively utilizing this data. Overall, the C.I.9 system exemplifies the complexities and failures of mass information capture in immigration control.

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