Retired Vancouver businesswoman Carol Pan was one of the Taiwanese pioneers to Canada. In January 1971, the National Taiwanese University grad moved to Ottawa, which is one of the country’s coldest cities. Her Taiwanese husband Leigh had attended graduate school at the University before being hired as a civil servant.
According to Carol Pan, it was very rare to hear anyone in Canada speak Taiwanese.
“The Taiwanese community was very small,” she recalls. “One time, I went to the supermarket. I heard someone speak Taiwanese and I started to cry. That’s because we missed home so much.”
Pan estimates that back then, perhaps only 10 Taiwanese families lived in Ottawa. When she and Leigh went out for Chinese food, servers only spoke Cantonese, reflecting Canada’s long history of immigration from Hong Kong.
When the Pans’ three children were young, they wanted to learn Mandarin or Taiwanese. But Pan says there was no such school in Ottawa. In those days, the only East Asian language offered was Cantonese.
But over the years, the Pans have witnessed remarkable growth in the population of Taiwanese Canadians. Nowadays, there are more than 128,000 overseas Taiwanese people in Canada, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Co-operation and Development.
This has led to growing confidence within the community of Taiwanese Canadians. It’s reflected in their growing presence in arts and culture, academia, politics, the professions, and business.
“If somebody asks—are you Chinese?—for sure, we will say ‘No—we are from Taiwan!’ ” she says. “We are Taiwanese.”
Taiwan history marked by Dutch colonization
In 1990, a Taiwanese Canadian cultural enthusiast in Metro Vanncouver, Cecilia Chueh, started a “Music Night of Taiwanese Composers”. This grew into the annual TAIWANfest celebrations in Vancouver and Toronto, which each last for several days.
The Pans and other Taiwanese pioneers in Canada helped nurture TAIWANfest. It promotes not only music, but also dance, literature, fashion, film, and other cultural touchstones of Taiwan.
The festival has also hosted dialogues with other countries—such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Plus, it’s featured Indigenous Taiwanese and Canadian First Nations artists.
This year, TAIWANfest will host a dialogue with its first European country, the Netherlands, which is a former colonizer of Taiwan. In 1624, the Dutch East India Company created a trading base and remained on the island until being ousted in in 1662.
In the coming week, Pancouver will publish a series of articles highlighting the impact of the Netherlands on Taiwan then and now. In addition, this series will focus on how Canada has shaped Taiwanese identity.
For Carol Pan, this year’s TAIWANfest carries a special meaning because she was born and raised in Tainan. And to this day, she can still see evidence of the Dutch presence in her hometown, including in some of the mixed-race residents.
In the meantime, Pan says that the number of Taiwanese immigrants to Canada increased from 1996 to 2010, partially in response to China’s bellicose behaviour. She suggests that some who left Taiwan were wealthy, but a lot of them were not.
Prior to that, many of the immigrants were graduate students. They didn’t want to return to a Taiwan under martial law, according to Leigh Pan.
“That was actually one major reason why so many Taiwanese kids like us went overseas,” he says.
In the 1620s, Fort Zeelandia was built in the port town of Anping, Tainan.
A well-known Taiwanese song, “Reminiscence of Anping,” tells the tale of a Taiwanese woman who bears the golden-haired child of a Dutch ship doctor… pic.twitter.com/kpT8CLGqaX
— TAIWANfest Vancouver (@TaiwanFest) March 24, 2022
TAIWANfest welcomes diaspora
In fact, Leigh Pan adds, quite a few of these students, including his brother and early supporters of TAIWANfest, were blacklisted by the Kuomintang government. It established martial law lasting for four decades after the Second World War.
Over time, the festival has offered opportunities for Canadian-born kids to connect with their parents’ culture. Plus, it’s provided a welcome mat for new immigrants who want to enjoy arts, culture, and food from their home country.
For several years, Leigh Pan worked as a civil servant, first in Ottawa and later in Victoria. In the 1980s, he and his wife launched a wholesale company that sold B.C. jade and B.C. rhodonite jewellery and sculptures.
In recent years, Carol Pan has served as co-chair of the Metro Vancouver Overseas Taiwanese Society. And the Pans’ business success enabled them to contribute to cultural events supporting Asian and Canadian artists. They also donated generously to the B.C. Cancer Agency so it could fund research and purchase equipment. This included a PET/CT scanner to reduce patient waiting times.
In return, the B.C. Cancer Agency honoured the couple by posting their photo in the building.
That led to an emotional encounter between Carol Pan and a patient at the B.C Cancer Agency in 2019. The woman saw the photo and came running up to Pan to express her gratitude.
“The tears were doing down her face,” Pan says.
It was further proof of the deep ties that continue to exist between Taiwan and Canada.
Pancouver created its six-part series on Canada, the Netherlands, and Taiwan in partnership with Taiwan Insight, which is the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. Taiwan Insight has published different versions of the articles. Follow Taiwan Insight on Twitter @UoNARI_Taiwan. Follow Pancouver @PancouverMedia.