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Beyond Chinese: The evolution of Taiwanese Canadian identity

Charlie Wu
TAIWANfest organizer Charlie Wu came to deeply appreciate his Taiwanese identity in Canada.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, a cultural producer generated discussion within the Taiwanese diaspora about national identity. It came when Charlie Wu wrote an article declaring: “I’m a Taiwanese Canadian, not  a Chinese Canadian”.

Wu, managing director of the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, did this in response to being constantly labelled as Chinese in his adopted country. In fact, Wu was even included in the list of the top 100 influential Chinese Canadians in British Columbia in a 2006 article in the Vancouver Sun.

“I know that Taiwanese people share some customs and traditions deemed Chinese, but so do Koreans, Vietnamese, or Japanese,” Wu wrote. “Taiwanese people love many Chinese art forms, including calligraphy and food, but so do Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese.

“Beyond those traditions, Taiwanese people also celebrate their Indigenous heritage just like Canada,” he continued. “Taiwan, as a thriving democratic society, has seen wave after wave of doers, thinkers, and leaders who are inspired to be different from Chinese.”

Wu, who’s from Kaohsiung, is among several Taiwanese-born people whose identities have evolved since moving to Canada.

Van Lefan
Vancouver musician Van Lefan recorded her most recent music video in Taiwan.

Lefan appreciates complexity of identity

Vancouver singer-songwriter Van Lefan was born in northern Taiwan. She lived in the country for 11 years before her family moved to British Columbia. In an interview with the Georgia Straight last year, Lefan said that it took a long time to find her sense of self and belonging in Canada.

One thing was certain in her mind: she was from Taiwan. But even that perspective has evolved somewhat since she visited the island nation last year to make a music video.

Lefan has a keen interest in Indigenous rights, so she travelled to Taitung County to learn more about the Paiwan people.

Her time there reinforced on a visceral level that the Indigenous people are truly the original custodians of Taiwan. She knew that she was a guest on their traditional territory.

“I am Taiwanese,” Lefan said. “But I’m also Han Taiwanese. I’m technically a mainlander.”

Dr. Charles Yang
Dr. Charles Yang was a Taiwanese pioneer to Canada when he immigrated in the 1960s. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Dr. Charles Yang grew up speaking Japanese

One of the pioneering Taiwanese immigrants to Canada is Dr. Charles Yang. The retired physician was born in Taiwan in 1932 when it was under Japanese colonization. As a result, he had a Japanese name. At the age of two, he moved to Manchukuo, which had been established as a Japanese puppet state in Manchuria. His father was studying medicine there.

The Yang family moved back to Taiwan as Soviet forces were invading Manchuria in 1945. And for him, at the age of 13, it was shocking because he felt like he was Japanese. Then, Yang had to live under martial law in Taiwan after Kuomintang forces established control over the island and imposed Mandarin. In 1964, Yang immigrated to Canada and became an activist opposing the KMT dictatorship.

Vancouver author and teacher Julia Lin told his story in her critically acclaimed 2017 book, Shadows of the Crimson Sun: One Man’s Life in Manchuria, Taiwan, and North America.

“I lived my entire life in Taiwan under martial law,” Yang said.

Taiwan has been shaped by waves of colonization that differed from experiences of its Asian neighbours. In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors gave the island the name “Formosa”, meaning “beautiful” The Spaniards set up a colony on the northern part of the island in the 17th century, calling it “Hermosa”.

During the Eighty Year’ War, Spanish Hermosa was ceded to the Dutch Republic, which had a colony in the south from 1624 to 1662.

Fort Zeelandia Govt of Taiwan photo
In the 17th century, Dutch colonizers created Fort Zeelandia in what is now the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. Government of Taiwan photo.

Colonizers imposed their languages

The Dutch East India Company induced Han Chinese from Fujian province in China to develop the agricultural industry in Taiwan, thereby increasing profits. But taxation policies led to rebellions, according to historian Tonio Andrade, resulting in the defeat of the Dutch by a Ming Dynasty loyalist.

Scott Harrison, a historian and a senior program manager at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in Vancouver, says that various waves of colonization, including by the Ming and Qing dynasties, sometimes led to abrupt changes. In 1895, control over Taiwan shifted to Japan as a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki following the first Sino-Japanese war.

According to Harrison, the Japanese introduced very strong programs to propagate Buddhism, Shintoism, and the Japanese language in Taiwan.

“What’s interesting is the Japanese language started being a forced language, but began to be seen as a language of the upper class and social mobility,” Harrison said. “If you could speak Japanese, you could go to Japan. You could study in Japan. You could work in Japan.”

He added that Japanese colonization of Taiwan, Okinawa, and other Japanese colonial possessions was modelled on some of brutal methods used in the colonization of its northern island, Hokkaido. It resulted in the repression of Indigenous peoples’ culture, ceremonies, hunting practices, and language.

“Where did the Japanese take their lessons about colonizing Hokkaido?” Harrison asked. “A lot of it from the United States and western imperial powers at the time.”

Japan believed that it would retain Taiwan in perpetuity. However, after Japan lost the Second World War, the Chinese nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek laid claim to the island.

Treaty of Shimonoseki
The signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, as depicted by artist Kubota Beisen.

Unpacking history shapes identity

Harrison said that the Republic of China “kind of put the Chinese stamp on what the Japanese society was doing”. It discouraged the use of the Taiwanese, Japanese, and Indigenous languages, and promoted Mandarin instead.

It meant that the Indigenous people—the original inhabitants of Taiwan—had to learn yet another language.

“Those are things that multiple waves of colonialism caused,” Harrison said.

In Canada, Wu, Lefan, and Yang each had to unpack this history of colonization as they came to terms with their identities as Taiwanese Canadians.

Lefan chooses storytelling, whether it’s through music, visual arts, or writing. Yang chose many years ago to support Taiwanese independence and nurture Taiwanese arts and culture. This created a legacy for future generations.

Meanwhile, Wu has expanded on that vision by amplifying Indigenous and Hakka voices at annual  TAIWANfest events.

In addition, Wu worked with writers Sisi Chang and Kau-Chun Huang on a memoir. His book, Taiwan: The World’s Answer, was published in 2021.

“While the book is written for the Taiwanese people in Taiwan or around the world, I really want to thank every Canadian who might have played a role in this journey to find my identity,” Wu said when it was released. “I am also very proud and honoured to tell the world that Canada is the best place in the world to discover who you really are.”

This is the fourth installment of Pancouver’s six-part series on Canada, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. Pancouver created this in partnership with Taiwan Insight. It’s the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. Taiwan Insight has published different versions of the articles on its website. Follow Taiwan Insight on Twitter @UoNARI_Taiwan. Follow Pancouver @PancouverMedia. Wu is general manager of the Society of We Are Canadians Too, which owns Pancouver.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.



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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.