Points of View: Speculating a Chinese Canadian Archive


by: Maya Wei Yan Linsley, Lowens-Libraries Fellow

Fall of 2021. I’m in my second year of an English major and first year of in-person university, eager to jump on any opportunity that comes my way but clueless as to what I’d do with any of it. I stumble my way through a research assistant position with Dr. Janelle Jenstad, get lost in Clearihue, and sustain myself with tri-weekly walks to the nearest Fairway Market. Somehow, between trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life and trying to pretend I already know, I discover the Peter and Ana Lowens University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections Student Fellowship. Dr. Jenstad encourages me and supports my application, I prepare for weeks to submit a proposal, and I get a very kind rejection letter in response.

Fast forward to the fall of 2023. I’m no closer to knowing what I want from life but much better at faking it. On the bus to campus one morning I’m struck by the realization that yet another Lowens deadline is two days away. (The view of Cadboro Bay from the 11 bus tends to produce startling mental results). My degree will end in the spring: what do I have to lose by trying again? But what would I even put on a proposal, when my Honours essay and my JCURA poster are already the same topic?

Then it hits me: the Chinese Canadian Collection. With a Lowens Fellowship, I could get my hands all over that––something I’ve wanted to do for ages. I draft a hurried proposal as soon as I get off the bus; Dr. Luke Carson kindly makes it coherent. You’ve read this far, so it should be clear how that turned out.

That application would end up being one of the best spontaneous decisions I’ve made in my life so far. Five months later, I installed my first-ever physical exhibit in the Special Collections reading room, entitled “Points of View: Speculating a Chinese Canadian Archive.” The exhibit, which combines text, media, and objects from the collection and my own life, visualizes the complicated relationship between the Chinese Canadian diaspora and its institutional records. As a mixed-race daughter of Cantonese immigrants, this relationship catches my attention all the time; I am fascinated by the morph of tradition and cultural identification between myself and my elders, the fused-yet-scattered life experiences of people like myself. Being of but not from can be both alienting and liberating. That’s also how it felt to be in the archive.

I dove deep into Chinese Canadian diasporic history to prepare for the exhibit, reading through David Chuenyan Lai’s accounts of BC’s Chinatowns and Zhongping Chen’s work on transpacific Chinese revolutionary networks. My mentor, UVic librarian Ying Liu, helped me shape this research pathway; my faculty mentor, Danielle Geller, provided invaluable creative insight and support in developing a cohesive vision for the project. In the end, I split my output into a two-sided analysis of institutional versus personal record-keeping, and drew from two subsets of the collection––the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association fonds and the Ko Bong family fonds, respectively––to create a visual interweaving of the UVic archive with items from my personal and family archives.

It’s perhaps ironic that I, a biracial student, was only able to draw my work on Chinese history together when I split it in two––but I think being able to disregard the arbitrary barrier between the academic and personal is exactly the kind of freedom that comes with experimental research. The Lowens program encourages intellectual risk, creative liberty and interpersonal collaboration. One day you’re sitting through an unexpectedly fascinating lecture on metadata, the next you’re at Prospect Lake getting your hands dirty with a master paper-maker––and I don’t mean that theoretically. In many ways, being a Lowens fellow felt like being in elementary school again, let loose on all kinds of new and practical knowledge that you wouldn’t necessarily come across in a fifty-minute lecture on modernist poetry.

It is certainly no exaggeration to say that Lowens changed my life, and I’m not being paid to say that, either. My second-year self vaguely aspired to the concept of a library science degree; my post-Lowens self is working towards that goal with a clear set of objectives in mind. “Points of View” may at first appear conceptually divorced from my ‘typical’ research––which is focused on fanfiction and online fan cultures––but Lowens, in addition to being an invaluable personal journey, opened my eyes to a scope of archival and theoretical possibility that I intend to carry through to my Master’s research on fan community archives. The archive is an organizer’s dream but it is also ephemeral, malleable and complicated by the realities of social change. It can be a science and it can be a work of art. It is frequently nothing like what you anticipate.

And if you take anything away from this article, let it be this: apply to everything that catches your eye and apply twice to everything that catches your mind. Also, go check out my exhibit in the reading room. It’s only up until August 2024. I wanted it to be transient and insistently physical, like the diaspora it belongs to. You won’t know us until you look through our windows.

UVic News: "An archive of their own"