Lessons from the past

Understanding the past helps us navigate the present and the future. The past is there all the time, waiting for us to discover the lessons it holds. Our latest feature exhibition, Speed and Splendour: By Sea to Asia, has interesting lessons to share.

The exhibition is a display of vintage posters promoting travel to Asia. The posters themselves reveal a lot about Western perceptions of Asia. There are posters from a Canadian company, CPR, and a Japanese company, NYK. The NYK ads have accurate depictions of Japanese culture while the CPR ads tended to employ stereotypes.

A fascinating part of the narrative is the “why” of these posters. Why were there so many ads for leisure travel to Asia during this period?  

Ocean travel was changing. A new category of travellers was on the rise: the tourist. Changes to ship design left more room for things like ballrooms and large dining rooms.

Another agent of change came in the form of racist policies. In the late 1800s and into the 20th century, ships travelling between Canada and Asia transported many immigrants. That changed after the 1923 Asian Exclusion Act and the limitations on Japanese immigration. The Asian Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration except under special circumstances. The Act was repealed in 1947 because it didn’t align with the UN Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The limitations on Japanese immigration took the form of agreements between the Japanese and Canadian governments. But the rationale for limiting Japanese immigrants was no less racist.

All of this meant that the steamships that transported Asian immigrants had extra room for passengers in the early 20th century. And so second class passage on these vessels became tourist class passage. 

It’s disturbing when you think about it. At the same time that Canada was telling Asian people they weren’t welcome, Canadians were encouraged to visit Asian destinations. In the CPR ads, Asian culture and “exotic otherness” was a selling feature. While it was likely not the intention of the companies behind the ads, the positioning of Asians as “other” contributed to an environment in which anti-Asian sentiment was acceptable.

Anti-Asian sentiment is not a thing of the past. This year Bloomberg and the Guardian published articles identifying Vancouver as the “Anti-Asian Hate Crime Capital of North America.” A survey by Insight West found that 43% of Asian British Columbians have experienced racist actions.

As a society we need to examine how we got to this place. We need to know how we got here so we can move past it to a point of understanding, of equity and of mutual respect.

The travel posters in Speed and Splendour are beautiful, and in some ways are a celebration of Asian culture. But when you consider them in the context of the policies in place at the time, they have a complex lesson to share.

Speed and Splendour is on view until February 27, 2022.