Let's Talk - A history of silence: spoken word on model minority

A history of silence by Chris Tse

The first time my grandchild asks,
and they will
Where were you?

A history book will unfold before my eyes
Brittle spine snapping like a leather belt,
Some pages yet unwritten,
dripping with the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors who crossed an ocean seeking a dream that turned out to be more like a myth
Where were you?

When CPR foremen sent trembling Chinamen with frail fingers into the tunnels with sticks of dynamite
Where were you
When head tax and immigration acts shut the door to the motherland
Splitting countless Asian families down the middle
like steamed pork buns
Where were you
When the boat people landed in the dead of winter, promptly pushed to the ghettos like the rest of the rabble,
When Nikkei fishing boats were impounded, their nets deemed a threat to wartime security
Twenty two thousand Japanese sent to the mountains to concentrate on all the ways they weren’t Canadian enough

The first time my grandchild comes to me with puffy eyes
Asking me where I was the first time I got called a chink
Asking me why it still hurts this bad in a country that says it welcomes us all,
I will be forced to contend with all the times I have kept my head down and pulled my bootstraps up
A history of silence that speaks louder than a Hiroshima bomb
We have never been a loud people, just hardworking
After all / chopsticks and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt you
So study hard, jai, don’t talk back, we are lucky to be here, to be doctors, lawyers, engineers
Railroads and laundromats to prosperity and graduation caps
They might not love us like they love our food but they pay our mortgages while we pay our dues

When my grandchild asks
What did you do
When they knelt on a Black man’s neck till he died, when they trespassed and attacked First Nations healing camps, when they called it kung-flu and spit on our grandmas at bus stops
What did you do?
And where were you
When Black Canadians paved the way for our emancipation
When local natives pulled our broken bodies from collapsed railroad tunnels and nursed us back to health, bending cedar and weaving bamboo?
Did you fight for them, when they fought for you?

I want to tell them:
We tried. We stood. We fought, we could.
No longer only doctors, lawyers, engineers but artists, athletes, allies, activists,
Every Chinatown and Little Manila an act of defiance
Every stoic action mistaken for silence
Here we are on the shoulders of humble giants, their guidance meant survival so that we can now speak, so we can now strive, so we can now struggle, so we can now thrive.

When they asked me what I did
I want to tell them:
I tried.

Chris Tse is an artist and social worker from Coquitlam, BC now living in Whitehorse, Yukon. He placed second at both the 2011 Poetry SlamWorldCup and 2016 Rio International Poetry Slam, and is a former Canadian national slam champion. Tse has shared the stage with Martin Luther King III, Shane Koyczan, and Demi Lovato, and his work has appeared on CBC, CTV, and on stages from Brazil to Malaysia. A brown boy with 5th generation immigrant roots on Turtle Island, his work touches on identity, intimacy, immigration, and basketball.

Credit List

Harvey Li: Director/Artistic Director/Key Animator 

Nelson Chen: Illustrator 

Chris Tse: Poet/Narrator/Writer 

Shawn Tse: Producer 

Gabby Moukhaiber: Producer 

Arthur Mah: Associate Producer 

Poem: “A History of Silence by Chris Tse”