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BC Filmmaker Jordan Paterson Talks Tricks on the Dead
“The stories and voices of those marginalized, exploited and underrepresented people of the past must be liberated through conscious anti-colonial, anti-war story telling that engage the legacies of the colonizers of land and minds. It is only in this way that the dead can find justice and give us a chance for peace today.” – Jordan PatersonRead Interview
BC Filmmaker Jordan Paterson Talks Tricks on the Dead
Jordan Paterson’s film, Tricks on the Dead, was voted the Must-See-Film award and bonus screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Three years in the making, the film was a labour of love for Paterson.
In it, he tells the story of the First World War’s “Chinese Labour Corps”. We learn there were 140,000 Chinese recruited to support France and Britain, and 85,000 of them were secretly shipped across Canada in locked trains to be shipped again to Europe so they could clear munitions and dead bodies from the Western Front. In this mass migration from the West Coast to Halifax, hundreds of train cars transported these mostly poor, rural Chinese – and yet, their story’s been deeply buried.
Tricks on the Dead gives us a rare glimpse into the men’s experiences through translated diary entries from the front lines. And we meet Zhang Yan – a young researcher devoted to digging up the long-buried stories of these labourers and sharing them with their descendants. Jordan Paterson tells us how he hooked up with Zhang Yan and why it was so difficult – and important – to tell this story.
Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:
How did you come across this bit of history?
I was working on a documentary about Chinese Canadian history, specifically looking at the period of exclusion from 1923 to 1947. I came across a statistic… 85,000 to 90,000 Chinese labourers in the middle of World War I were secretly transported across Canada in locked trains under the War Measures Act. I thought that’s an astonishing statistic – what the heck is this? Only a handful of people knew about the history and even those people had not gone too deeply into the history. You hear about stories that are overlooked in history all the time, but this particular story struck me for many reasons.Chinese labourers were transported across from Vancouver to Halifax in locked trains.
I’m interested in how you connected with Chinese history student Zhang Yan. How’d you find each other?
This history in China has been largely ignored and repressed… Most of the Chinese labourers came from the North in Shandong province, and so I looked for archives and historians in the province that might be able to guide me. And there was very little.
I connected with this gentleman… a local government official who took it upon himself to learn and collect this history for the archives. I think I was the only person staying at [this large hotel in Weihai] at the time. It was right by the seaside where the Chinese labourers departed for Europe back in 1917, so it was a rather eerie feeling.
Down at the bottom of the elevator was the government official, his translator and this young man who was about 24-years-old at the time... Zhang Yan. It turns out he was, at that time… one of the few, if not the only, people taking the time to find the descendants of the labourers [and] learn their stories. He really valued… the elderly descendants, the children of the labourers in Shandong.
Initially he was going to be a research partner and then I realized he should be in the film. To some people that might not be very interesting, you know, looking at academics with their noses in books, but I felt because he was young, because he was from the same village area as the labourers, because his parents were farmers, because he was one of tens of thousands of Chinese youth who excelled in the school system and was in the one percentile of academics, he was a very unique person. And his story was very representative of contemporary China and contemporary youth effort… to reconstruct history in a way that’s meaningful way to them.
Zhang Yan talks about tracking the individual stories of these labourers, tracing their histories to find out what happened to them. How do you track 140,000 histories? What’s his goal?
He can’t. There’s no way he can trace that many. You try to put together a piece of it, and that piece – if done well – reflects a little more of the reality of the greater whole. There are 140,000 separate stories… very diverse and very unique. He will do his part to reconstruct what he can.
His life [has become] intertwined with the labourers; he’s not living a separate academic ivory tower life. He nearly froze to death [returning] from a village one night in the middle of winter in Shandong [because] there were no buses. He’s really sacrificed a lot to try and find the stories. His goal is to reconstruct and reconnect descendants that he finds to their loved ones, to their family members who died in Europe, and to try to find European descendants to reconnect to villages and family in China. But this is literally just beginning. He’s 25-years-old now or so and I’m sure he has many years in front of him of this labour of love. It’s really part of who he is as a person.While walking the streets of Paris, researcher Zhang Yan says in the film, “I am not my own dream but the dream of generations of my family.” He comes from the same village area where many of the workers for the Chinese Labour Corps were recruited from.
You report in the film that Chinese scholars estimate 20,000 Chinese labourers died in WWI, while Western scholars estimate no more than 5000 died. How can there be such a gap in their estimations?
The death toll is sort of a big red flag. In the western academics’ eyes, it’s more of a sensationalization of the history to say that 20,000 have died. In the East’s eyes, it is the West’s continual repression of the Chinese history and the reality of their experience to say that no more than 5,000 have died… In general, that statistic represents the divide that began at the Paris Peace Conference – the ideological… methodological… cultural divide that continues today between China and the world.
There are huge differences of opinion, not only in the death toll, but in the motivations of the Chinese government to join the war, the transparency in the recruitment process and the knowledge that the labourers had [or didn’t have] about where they were going. In both east and west, there’s a question [about] whether this was a just war. And I think it’s quite clear now that… one could call it an imperialist war. No wars are just, necessarily, but in this case [it’s] been called “The Great War” for so many years, and for Canada, “the war that defined our nation”. I think it’s important to… really look at what that means.In Noyelles-sur-Mer, France, researcher Zhang Yan visits graves of Chinese labourers who died while working for the Allies in World War I.
In the film you get at the various reasons why this history was buried… Canadian press censorship, widespread illiteracy among the labourers and the destruction of primary documents during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But this history stayed off the public’s radar so long.
It’s buried in a landscape of World War I history. This story was just kind of swept to the side – oh, it’s not relevant to Canada; they just were transported through; don’t even look at it... Certainly people who are savvy to World War I history and Chinese history will tell you this is a fascinating history, but the general public and most academics have overlooked the story… It just happens that China is really now becoming a more prominent force in the world and becoming more present in all of our lives.
After you’ve been researching for six months to a year, you see what an astonishingly powerful and relevant history this is in terms of the history of imperialism… of migrant labour… of our country’s history, of China as a world power. It is obviously very relevant, but it took a lot of rigorous work.
There’s conflicting reports. It was difficult to really put your finger on what happened in Canada because most of the history’s documentation is buried in archives and such. There’s very little first-hand documentation from the Chinese side; we used the only two diaries that we could find from the Chinese perspective and had them translated into English for the first time. It was a PhD plus worth of research, but once you’re in there’s really no going back.
The descendants, the oral histories we uncovered – I only put about 30 per cent of them in the film. There’s so much. And descendants are now contacting me from around the world. I’m sure as years go by it’ll become clearer and clearer for people… become part of the public history of the First World War and China’s connection to the world.Filmmaker Jordan Paterson shoots a historical reenactment.
You had your world premiere at VIFF in October. What was the reaction from the community?
Immensely positive. I don’t think anybody expected the film to be as expansive and as epic as it was. It took three years. Myself and my wife and a research team covered three continents’ worth of research and filming. Money didn’t come all at once. I learned Mandarin… [and now] I speak on an intermediate level. This has really consumed my life. I was experimenting, trying to include docudrama and re-enactment dialogue sequences from the diaries and I didn’t want it to be conventional... I think people got that and really felt it.
Often the comment is why is a non-Chinese [person] telling the story of Chinese [people]? You’re always dealing with the moral dimension of telling any story and I think documentary and journalism and academic research is all about investigating the world… other people and other cultures. But it is a huge challenge and I couldn’t have presented the story in the way that I presented it without the help of my Chinese friends, both from mainland China and… locally. [They] really… helped me to position the story in a way that would be accurate to the culture and history. You have to collaborate on an inter-cultural level in order to tell the story properly.
You mentioned there have been phone calls from descendants around the world. How do you plan on continuing the work and supporting Zhang Yan?
You know the interesting thing about Zhang Yan is he did all this work… and he really pioneered the research in the field with the descendants. And as a result of this research, he was admitted to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but they would not let him continue, as his PhD dissertation, the Chinese labourer story. So it’s very disappointing for me and for him that that didn’t happen.
However, he continues to publish papers about the subject and… to connect descendants to their lost family members. In fact, on William Head [on Vancouver Island], he found [graves of lost family members]. He was able, through the death register of the [Commonwealth] War Graves Commission, to connect the family and say, look, your father is buried in Canada – and they had no idea. So this will be ongoing work. I will continue to promote it and promote Zhang Yan. I’d like to get a website up with help of government if possible, a non-profit website where people can connect and look at this history. The history of Chinese labour is connected to the history of labour in general and I think it’ll be part of a larger discussion about colonized labour in the world.
I’m curious to know if these migrant stories you’ve been documenting over the past decade have prompted you to dig deeper into your own family history.
I write about it… my family tree. My family is like fifth or sixth generation Canadian… so I have a very old colonial history. We were the last generation to farm our family farm [In the south of Manitoba] until the farming business basically went broke. It’s very important to me.
I grew up in a place that was only Caucasian. The only Chinese family that was in the area moved away basically when I was born and closed down their Chinese restaurant. They gave my grandfather the counting abacus from the restaurant and my mother gave it to me, so I’ve always had this counting abacus in my house from some mysterious long-lost Chinese family from my hometown that I never met.
I continue to investigate my own history. I have just not been compelled to make documentaries about the histories of prairie Canada, the history of farming communities and what that means at this point in my life. I supposed because I’m so close to it… but it’s possible I will at some point.
I know there’s only so much you can do in 60 min… but one thing I would have liked to see more of in Tricks of the Dead is the impact of this on Chinese women and families.
Yeah, this is the perspective that everybody wants to see. It is an important and relevant aspect of the history: what happened to the women and families after the migrants left China? In a sense, it’s an entire documentary unto itself. It relates to different things… sociocultural realities and scarcity that they dealt with in China. It deals with… how they supported the families back home with a remittance from Europe and how much of that remittance, in the case of the First World War, was either lost or taken by the colonial powers. In the 98-minute [version], there’s a little more of that: there’s the idea of the remittance, there’s the idea of families overseas losing contact. But the bottom line is women were left to tend to the farm and children alone. And that was common not only in World War I, but for all of migrant labour coming out of China.
What do you hope Canadians who see this film take away from it?
I hear from a lot of Canadians that they just feel bad about how racist Canada was, and I don’t want that to be the number one point.
We still have integrity as a country and… as Canadians, but we need to take some level of responsibility and look at our history and recognize the injustices suffered by Aboriginal peoples, Asians, migrants from all over the world that came into a colonial context and really just look at how that’s reflected in today’s reality. There’s still imperialism; there’s still colonial efforts by major powers; we’re still dealing with… a lot of the same social problems. These are things most “average” Canadians don’t look at every day and by looking at them occasionally in a documentary or a book it becomes part of their consciousness, part of their history. And maybe they’ll teach their children to be more responsible. Maybe their children will have a more open-hearted, cosmopolitan – for lack of a better word – attitude toward other cultures and people and not feel so protective and xenophobic about their country.
What’s next for you?
It’s been three years of really intense work. I don’t intend to make a dozen documentaries any time soon. I’m going to be happy writing for the next few years.
Tricks on the Dead premieres Wednesday, January 20 at 8pm on Knowledge.