Pour Regarde les Chinois cette semaine, on a parcouru la ville en métro-bus-pied avec Robert Parungao, un Vancouverois de quatrième génération, d’origine chinoise et philippine, maintenant étudiant à la maîtrise en sociologie à l’Université Concordia à Montréal. Fondateur du Projet Nouvelles Voix à Vancouver (et maintenant à Montréal), on a parlé d’histoire Canadienne Chinoise, bien sûr, mais également de jeux vidéos (Robert a fait une thèse là-dessus au 1er cycle), du groupe punk rock duquel il a fait partie, de propagande olympique, de végétarisme.
For this week’s Regarde les Chinois, we went around town in metro-bus-walk with Robert Parungao, a fourth-generation Vancouverite, of Chinese and Filipino origin, currently a masters student in sociology at Concordia University in Montreal. Founder of the New Voices Project, we of course talked about Chinese Canadian history, but also of video games (topic of Robert’s undergraduate thesis), the punk rock band that he was part of, Olympics propaganda and vegetarianism.
Language of the interview / langue de l’interview: English / anglais
Comme les Chinois : You started the New Voices project in Vancouver. How did it happen?
Robert Parungao : Well, it started off, interestingly enough, in a Chinese restaurant. I had the idea of just getting some of my Chinese Canadian friends together and talk about the notion of Chinese Canadianess and what it meant to each person as an individual. And as we went through the conversation, we realized that there was a wide variety of what Chinese Canadian meant. We then simplified it into two camps: that of Chinese Canadian in terms of my background, called the Railroad Narrative – for instance, my family was here for a long time, and we went through the trials and tribulations of racism in North America – whereas some of the others were more from the “Hong Kong background”. Three of them were pursuing literature B.A., and they were talking about how Chinese Canadian literature was mostly dominated by the Railroad Narrative, like, you know, books that are talking about how it was to grow up in Chinatown in the 40s, and how the more recent generations, the “new voices” were not as well represented in Canadian literature. We thought that rather than sitting on our hands and lamenting about it, we would actually do something, and decided that we would put together a book!
CLC: Where did your interest stem from. Were you doing other projects before New Voices?
I always had interest in Asian Canadianess. I used to work at a place called S.U.C.C.E.S.S., which was like a Vancouver version of the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal, and I would work with youth, teaching them English, and mainly helping them to acculturate into Canada. Then after that, I used to work in an organization called the English Language Institute, where I was teaching English to international students, and again, talking to them about their experiences of living in Canada as an East Asian person, or any sort of person from other diasporas, like Mexican, German. And I used to be president of an organization called Colour Connected Against Racism at UBC.
CLC: Woaw, you’ve done a lot of things recently!
I like keeping myself busy! But this was over the course of my B.A.
CLC: Were you in a school where you were the only Asian, that kind of stuff?
Oh, no-no, it was an interesting situation: I went to an all-boys catholic school… My (filipino) grandmother more or less said that I had to go to a catholic school, because I was baptized united. Probably wouldn’t go to hell unless I do something catholic! The thing with private schools was they were constructed to be “better” than a public school system, at least from a lot of Chinese families’ perspective. So, a lot of Chinese people pushed their kids to go in, so there was a large population of Chinese, catholic or not. High Filipino population, the Philippines being a catholic country. But other than that, White Irish catholics. I would say that it was a diverse community, but in other ways it wasn’t. There were no South East Asians, nobody who could not speak English – they did not have an English second-language program.
*** We are now walking into the metro at Guy-Concordia
CLC: You moved to Montreal a year and a half ago?
Yes, almost two years, to do my M.A. in sociology. I did my honours bachelors in East Asian History, and I did another honours in representation of Asians in video games…
CLC: That’s pretty cool! Tell me about this story of you and Gamespot, when someone there picked up your undergraduate thesis.
So, I wrote this thesis on representation of Asians in video games. I got a pretty good mark, and it was presented at a conference. So, someone at UBC media relations contacted me, and contacted me saying that they wanted to write a press release on my paper. And for about month, I was bombarded with e-mails, phone calls, and I was on television shows…
CLC: And that was in Vancouver?
I was also on radio shows in Toronto… And I was also in the Montreal Gazette. I wasn’t even able to follow all that was happening, and it was told me that I was in the Gazette (Editor’s Note: actually through CanWest’s media empire), and the day later, there was an editorial piece saying how wrong I was! Which is fine, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion!
CLC: (laughs) What were you saying in your thesis anyways?
I started off wanting to do a research paper on how representation of Asians in film progressed, moving your Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, very racialized stereotypes of Asians, into your more progressive ones, like Lucy Liu, that don’t necessarily play their Asianess to get a role, but rather just by being a good actor. And I thought that the same would happen in video games.
And as I was doing my research, I realized the representation of Asians in video games has not changed at all. It remained relatively static in this depiction of Asianess, playing on very common, stereotypical lines: bad accents, martial arts, stuff like that. Everybody knows these stereotypes. So I said to myself, that rather than having like the religious right come down on video games, and saying why this is another reason why video games are sending our children to hell, I would like to see the industry think critically about how we depict people of colour in digital games. Looking at how these stereotypes emerged from, looking at how the industry may or may not be able to think about these things in a different light than they have been for the last twenty years.
More or less though, when you send out a press release, based on something very academic, thoroughly into theory, most newspapers don’t like that, and go with the tagline: “UBC researcher says games are racist”.
CLC: Haha, of course! So, do you play video games? What do you play?
I do play video games, an unhealthy amount of video games. I play World of Warcraft, which is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.
CLC: What’s your character?
Haha, you want to talk about WoW now? I am a Gnome Warrior, level 70. I grind a lot, I used to play a lot… But I mean, even in games like these, you can still see hidden elements of racialization. But it’s different, it’s never cut and dry, “Are games racist or not racist”, it’s fluid and meanders…
*** We have now boarded the 80 bus bound north from Place-des-Arts metro.
CLC: You went to China for the first time last year or so?
Yeah, first time I ever left North America. I went to China on this trip that was kinda politically-driven. It was talking about the Japanese war legacy in their military action during World War II, on the Chinese people, and we got ot listen to the experiences of comfort women. You sit down and listen to this story of a woman being tied down. It was heart-wrenching, it was painful times.
CLC: These people are in their 70s, 80s, right…
These people are 70-80, don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, but a dialect of a dialect. Listening to this story of an old man, who was a boy during the Rape of Nanking, which was this…
… But you know, it’s actually interesting, because when I try to talk about my thing here in Montreal, people don’t know what are comfort women, the rape of Nanking.
CLC: Or even things like the head tax, the redress…
Like the head tax, even that, people don’t really know about. I’d say that the new Chinese immigrants generally have little issue or care with the head tax, because it is not part of their history. It is part of the history of Chinese Canadians in general, but they don’t have the same affinity to it the way that I would, knowing that my great-grandmother paid the head tax to come into Canada.
My (maternal) grandfather grew up on a farm in what is now Richmond, and formerly Lulu Island, built his way up by becoming a carpenter. My mom was the first Chinese baby born in Langley. I remember, my grandparents used to tell me this very funny story about she was born, all the Caucasian nurses ran into the delivery room, just to see what a Chinese baby looked like! As if she’d have an extra tail, or something, a third eye! My family has a big legacy, interest in Asian Canadianess. My mom runs an Asian Canadian book club, for instance.
My dad was an accountant in the Philippines, and then when he came to Canada, his credentials were not recognized. He understands that Canada has different tax laws, and it’s a hard long process to get your education recognized. And when you just immigrated, it’s kind of hard to go back to school! You probably live off someone’s good-will. Now, owning his house, having kids who are off to university, he can take time off to help new Filipino immigrants who are accountants to figure out what to do to get recognized and not go through the same stuff that he had to.
CLC: How do you deal with your dual origins?
How do I deal with it… Maybe that’s why I like hybridity so much! Interesting… Well, you float, float between identities. When I am with Filipino, I am Filipino, I say that I am Filipino, not even Filipino-Chinese. When I am with Chinese people, I turn on the little Mandarin that I have and I become Chinese. Even then, Chinese people, like Rita (on New Voices) for example says that she knew right away that I was not Chinese.
CLC: Or just last name, Parungao, sort of gives it away.
Yeah, exactly, or that my skin is darker. When I am with Chinese people, they will always construct me, maintain the fact that I am Filipino. And when I am with my Filipino cousins, to them, I am Chinese. My dual background will always play into how I present myself to others. And in mainstream communities, I have to think about how I identify myself, being a fourth-generation Canadian.
I have this ongoing joke with my drummer who is Italian, this big white dude, and he is first generation – his parents were born in Portugal and Italy. I am more Canadian than those white people that I know, but I’ll be the first one to get deported!
CLC: Hey, so we are walking on Bernard, towards the Drawn & Quarterly shop.
And I am kind of excited, because I’ve never been to D&Q, and I love their comic books!
CLC: What have you read from them?
Louis Riel and Shortcomings. I am a big comic book fan, and got into them about two years ago.
CLC: The American kind, or the Japanese manga type?
The American kind – I am not really into the Japanese kind, even though I am doing my thesis on it!
*** We enter Drawn & Quarterly, and start chatting with the clerk lady, and browsing a bunch of comic books, such as Guy Delisle‘s Pyongyang and Shenzhen books. Robert talks about how grad school means permanently having 100$ in your bank account. We walk out, and start working our way down Parc…
CLC: We were talking about something serious here?
Youth and propaganda in China? Oh yeah, what (1960s communist) propaganda would be today. I had this very 1960s perception of China, walls painted, vans filled with people chanting that would drive by and whatnot. That is not China today at all. It is the equivalent of medieval China. But I find equivalents of propaganda in things like Olympics ads. Big banners that say “Support the 2008 games in Beijing” and just slogans like “Supporting the Beijing Olympics will help our economy”. Huge big claims about how great the Olympics would be. And then I started thinking, coming from Vancouver, at how the Olympics were promoted there, and it’s more or less about the same way! It’s all propaganda! In Vancouver, they have these stickers that you put at the back of your car that says “I am backing the bid – 2010″!
And I didn’t back the bid, mainly because I was thinking that we should spend this money on health care or education. But no, skiing and developing the highway to the ski resort is more important than saving people’s lives!
The way that the media portrays the 2010 Olympics and the way China puts forth the 2008 Olympics is strikingly similar!
CLC: Hey, so you were in a band?
Yes, we played punk rock.
Three Asians and two whites, because me and my brother were Asian, two of the guys were half-white, half-Asian, and the drummer was fully white. So do the math!
CLC: Was it fun?
Yeah, I really miss being on stage. This type of music that we were playing seven years ago is what’s popular right now, screamo, Alexisonfire. Generally it’s kind of emo, emo-esque. What I understood to be emo music, hardcore music, and post-hardcore looks nothing like what people would call hardcore music. And that is fine. Things change all the time, cycles of popularity.
CLC: Who were your models?
Well, one of my heroes – actually two – is a guy named Mike Park, and he runs a record label called Asian Man Records and he’s been in punk bands all through California, brings in CDs from Japan, China, Korea and tries to sell them into a certain market, punk, ska, indie bands, and tries to encourage people to get into East Asian music. He funds and puts forward ska bands out of California. He’s a small outfit and his office is like his garage, sort of DIY. And I met him once, when he was selling merchandise with Alkaline Trio, that he signed back in the days. I more or less gushed.
And the other was Lance Hanh, was on a series of punk rock bands, who used to write articles on punk rock history for Maximum Rock n’ Roll. He passed away recently. For a community largely homogeneously white, male, heterosexual, to see two East Asian guys really starts playing a difference.
*** We keep walking down on Avenue du Parc, keep chatting with Rob about punk, his green mohawk / new Zellers pants combination, straight edge
CLC: Do you want to go into politics?
I would love too, and it’s one of the reason why I want to get into law. I have little interest in mainstream politics, in terms of provincial or federal politics. I actually really like city councils, especially city council of Burnaby. I just really like working on that level.
CLC: Were you working in Chinatown?
Chinatown Vancouver, as a tour guide assistant, taking people through Chinatown, helping Americans, Westerners continue to exoticize Chinese people! (laughs) That is how you get a big fat tip! So, I was the poorest tour guide!
*** We keep walking down on Parc, where Rob mistakes Jeanne-Mance park for a bridge…
I would tell this story about the Chinatown riots, where a lot of these white people are angry at Chinese, taking their jobs or whatnot. They would attack Chinatown, broke windows, set buildings on fire, beat people and stuff like that. And the anger continued into Japantown, in an area of Vancouver now known as Strathcona, and tried beating up the Japanese people too. But the Japanese, who were watching the Chinese guys getting beat up, wouldn’t let that happen to them, and armed themselves with brooms and stuff like that and beat the crap out of the white rioters! And the white rioters had to leave Japantown! I always thought that this was the most hilarious story to tell!
CLC: Are you into sports?
Used to fence quite a bit. I was fencing internationally for competitions. My brother would always beat me. Sort of embarassing to have a younger beat you all the time!
CLC: Hey, just to tie in the previous question on World of Warcraft, how do you feel about Chinese Farmers?
Oh, jeez, that is a great topic! That was what I originally was going to write my thesis on, coming in to Montreal! But my whole experience as _the_ spokesperson in race and games, because noone really spoke about it before that, in the public media. And a bad one at that, according to all the sites and all the hate mail that I received!
I was going to talk about that for my thesis, because of the very interesting racialization, even the notion of “being Chinese” as something derogatory in gamespace. If you happen to have a name like “Xun Zhou” or something with an X, like “Xiao Jiao”, it’s going to be problematic! People will start seeing you as a Chinese gold farmer! What if you are just some Asian dude living in North America with Chinese name and just wants to give his character a Chinese name?!
And a lot of racial slander that happens in text in the game – not necessarily in guild chat – but in-game text, people start yelling stuff at each other, more often than you think, and it is more often than not, derogatory. So, I wanted to look at that, but after having the whole international experience…
I try not to join these conversations. Some people came to my defense, saying that they are Asian, and say that finally someone says something about that these stereotypings that I never was able to put my finger on.
*** We are walking towards Rob’s friend’s place to feed her cat. He tells about a comic book project à la Boondocks.
CLC: Why are you vegetarian?
What is interesting about being vegetarian is that you start off with one reason, and you meet other vegetarians, listen to their reasons, and say to yourself that that is a very good reason, and I am going to take that too. So, when someone asks me why I am vegetarian, I have like a grab-bag of twenty reasons, ranging from ethics to environmentalism, to health, to financial.
But… in terms of the original reason, it’s because there was a pretty girl, and she was vegetarian! She was tabling a booth at the Warped Tour in Seattle, and I wanted to talk to her. At the background, there was a video showing clips of how they were killing the meat. After an hour talking, I came back to the RV, I told them, do you know how much dirt and garbage and fecal matters go into that!
So, from that point on, I saw meat as this gross disgusting thing! I played with the idea of becoming vegetarian, but went to an all-boys catholic school. And if you are a vegeterian, you are a fag and you are getting your ass kicked!
CLC: So, to conclude this, tell me who you are?
I am Robert Parungao, I am a masters’ student of sociology at Concordia University, I was born February 20th, 1983… I currently work on the New Voices Project. I am trying to put together a webcomic on Asian Canadianess, … and that is about what I do right now, and you can refer to previous conversations to find out what I’ve done! Oh, and I am organizing a multi-disciplinary conference for graduate students.
CLC: Well thank you!
You are welcome!