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Alejandro Yoshizawa: Crossing Oceans + Cultures in All Our Father’s Relations

How you identify culturally is almost an internal dialogue with yourself. But an eye-opener for me while making All Our Father’s Relations was how invested the Canadian government was in telling the Grant siblings what their identity was.

In 1920, Hong Tim Hing left his village of Sei Moon in Guangdong, China, for Vancouver, BC, where he found work through his father on the Lin On Farm at Musqueam Indian Reserve 2. Chinese farmers had been leasing land under “buckshee leases” directly from the Musqueam people until the Department of Indian Affairs intervened circa 1906 to formalize the arrangements. Despite divisive and restrictive social conditions imposed by the Indian Act and the reserve system, close, reciprocal relationships were formed between these farmers and the Musqueam community, both peoples supporting one another. Hong Tim Hing met and married Agnes Grant of the Musqueam Nation and although the Indian Act prevented them from legally living together, they had four children – Helen, Gordon, Larry, and Howard.

Unable to share a home, Agnes mostly lived among her own people, while Hong Tim Hing lived in Chinatown, not seeing his children much. In November 2013, many years after both parents had passed on, the siblings travelled to China, retracing their father’s footsteps to Guangdong to explore the homeland they never knew, and seeking to understand their fractured relationship with their father. They were accompanied on the journey by Vancouver filmmaker Alejandro Yoshizawa and producer Sarah Wai Yee Ling, a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian and researcher of Chinese-First Nations relations, who had previously developed multimedia projects with the Musqueam community. The ensuing film, All Our Father’s Relations, will have its world premiere at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival on Sunday, November 6.

Using the story of the four siblings and their search for their shared history as a jumping-off point, All Our Father’s Relations highlights the interconnected histories of Chinese Canadian and First Nations relations along the Fraser River in British Columbia. The production will play an integral role in fostering dialogue, inquiry, and reflection regarding the intersecting histories of First Nations, Chinese, and Canadian issues; both in communities across Canada and in China.

The Bulletin spoke to fimmaker Alejandro Yoshizawa a few weeks before the film’s premiere screening.

* * * * *

You’re written very eloquently about growing up with your Japanese grandparents, and particularly your close relationship with your grandfather. Tell me a bit about the experience of growing up with such a close connection to your grandparents – what you learned and what they meant to you.

We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was 5 or 6 years old, and after that I saw them nearly every weekend – plus camping trips and holidays – until they passed. As you mentioned, I was particularly close to my maternal grandfather. I have yet to meet someone as kind, patient, or gentle. He was a man of few words, but also had a great sense of humour. From him I learned the importance of family, hard work, and respecting and helping others. I can see in my memories of him similarities to my fairly indirect style of speaking, and my respect for elders, traits that are sometimes seen to be typically “Japanese Canadian.” Of course, the former can sometimes drive people mad – “just tell me what you really think!” (laughs).

Oh, and I’ve also been told that especially when I talk to Issei/Nisei, or Japanese elders, I mime their style and mannerism. I guess spending time with grandpa taught me that as well (laughs). I miss those days.

Given your name, I’m thinking you’re mixed race. Tell me about that and whether this influences the stories you choose to focus on in your filmmaking.

My mother is Japanese Canadian, born during internment in Lillooet. My father is from Chile. He is the only one from his family that lives in Canada. People often look at my name and assume it is my father rather than my mother that is Japanese, but I actually have my mother’s maiden name as my surname and my father’s as a middle name. The only other person I’ve met in Canada that is Japanese and Chilean is my sister (laughs).

Maybe because I grew up so close to my mother’s side of the family, in my heart I identify as Japanese Canadian first, even as I know I am also ‘mixed’ or hapa and Chileano. However, growing up, I also lived in a co-op in Burnaby which was organized by the Chilean community. I probably heard more Spanish growing up than Japanese!

When I am with Japanese Canadians I am Japanese Canadian, when I am with Chilean Canadians I am Chilean Canadian, and when I’m in Japan or Chile, I’m just Canadian (laughs). I think it is very common for mixed race people to occupy different cultural worlds or identities depending on the place and time. It’s something we always have to negotiate. Sometimes it can be difficult, but it can also be rewarding and an entry point to new connections and opportunities.

I do not think the experience of being “mixed” has conscientiously contributed to what I focus on in my filmmaking, although I am interested in how people perceive and negotiate cultural differences, so maybe it has! For my work, I am broadly interested in minority communities and histories. I love history and hearing people’s stories. Mixed or not, everyone has to negotiate their identity and place. I’ve learned from my filmmaking with minority communities that this process can be fraught – with injustice, violence, heartbreak. I’d like to get into more dramatic/narrative filmmaking as well, to explore these issues in a different way.

In February 2014, the University of British Columbia (UBC) Senate approved a new multidisciplinary minor program that focuses on Asian migration to Canada. You’re one of the instructors at Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies (ACAM), in the Faculty of Arts, teaching the course ACAM 350 Asian Canadian Community Media. If you had to sum up in one paragraph what students will get from your course, what would it be?

Well, firstly I really strive to make my classes engaging. I think students learn more and are more invested in the course material if they are having fun while exploring their interests in a rigorous and creative way. With regards to ACAM 350 in particular [in the UBC calendar it’s listed as ASTU 401B, which will change in January 2017], the main goal of this course is to critically analyze and create collaborative community media projects. Students learn about various documentary modes – for instance interviewing and subtitling – and talk about issues surrounding ethics, representation, and oral history. We will examine different approaches to consent, trauma, and the notion of authority in community-based media projects. The students will learn about producing a film from inception to delivery, talk about best practices, and participate in several hands-on technical workshops.

This differs from the introductory filmmaking course I teach in the department of Theatre and Film (FIPR 469A), which focusses more on technical filmmaking skills. So, if there are any UBC students out there looking to take a cool elective with a somewhat hip, mildly amusing prof, you have two choices! (laughs)

You studied physics at UBC and obtained a master’s degree in history at Concordia, but found your way to film through interviewing your grandfather in lieu of a term paper – what was it about that experience that changed your trajectory?

In 2008 as an undergrad in physics at UBC, I took a history course taught by Henry Yu called Asian Migrant Communities. Henry is a fantastic, thought-provoking prof, and he allowed students to make films instead of writing a term paper for their final project. I decided to do a film about my grandfather which ended up being my first film, From Issei to Sansei: The History of My Grandfather’s Life (2008). I had never made a film before, which showed! But I learned so much during the process, not only about history, but about my family and even filmmaking and editing. Basically, I learned more doing that one project than anything else during my undergrad degree. And I was actually able to share my UBC work with family members and the broader community, something not typically done with term papers.

After seeing how film can be so powerful, I was hooked. After I graduated from UBC, I sort of considered doing graduate work in physics or getting a related job, but, at the end of the day I followed my heart and went into history. I went to Concordia in Montreal to study under historian Steven High, who was the director of the Centre of Oral History and Digital Storytelling. I was able to combine history and filmmaking there. My master’s paper was called “Pining for Mushrooms: Matsutake Hunting in the Japanese Canadian Community,” and was the basis for my film The Hunt For Matsutake.

The JC community was very supportive of that effort. The NAJC awarded me a SEED grant to make the film and the paper, neither of which would have been possible without the participation of dozens of members of the community, who shared their stories about mushroom hunting. The rest is history, pun intended! (laughs)

Your new film, All Our Father’s Relations, sounds fascinating – how did you get drawn into it?

I worked as the lead filmmaker for the UBC project Chinese Canadian Stories from 2010 to 2012. The main goal of the project, especially the film series, was to tell what we were calling “uncommon histories.” While working on a film called Covered Roots: The History of Vancouver’s Chinese Farms, we went to Musqueam to learn about the history of Chinese market gardens there. It was during the shooting of that film that I first met Larry Grant (who appears in Covered Roots).

Larry is of Chinese and Musqueam decent, and Chinese Canadian Stories ended up doing two short films (edited by Sarah Ling) focussing on his story. Fast forward a couple years, and Sarah and I had discussed doing a sort of follow-up to the influential Cedar and Bamboo (2010) (dirs. Diana E. Leung and Kamala Todd), which was one of the first films to specifically talk about the history of Chinese and Indigenous relations in BC.

When Sarah (who had a good relationship with the Grant family) caught wind that they were going to travel to China to visit their father’s home village for the first time, we both thought this once-in-a-lifetime experience had to be filmed. I threw a camera in my bag – a simple 5DM3 – and off we went. This was in 2013, and was the first footage shot for what would eventually become All Our Father’s Relations (2016).

I’ve heard Larry Grant speak and he seems like a remarkable man – what was it like tracing this story with him and his three siblings?

It is a “Captain Obvious” moment to say that All Our Father’s Relations couldn’t have been made without the family, but it bears repeating! Recounting the family and community history with all four siblings was a fantastic experience. The whole family are very well-spoken storytellers. Larry and Howard really have a special skill in offering their teachings.

Working with each sibling is a totally different dynamic. For example, with Larry, you know you are in for an informative – and long – night! My favourite aspect about recording Larry is he pulls no punches. Absolutely zero. He is such a calm, informative, yet powerful orator. His delivery is gentle, yet his words are incredibly meaningful and thought-provoking.

In All Our Father’s Relations there is a segment which deals with the Indian Act and residential schools in Canada. Larry’s interview on the subject is a sobering must-watch for all Canadians.

The film is a documentary, so by its nature was a journey of discovery – is there anything that surprised you in the course of making the film?

Yes it completely is about discovery – the entire process. But I have to say that even though I thought I knew a lot about mixed-race communities and experiences in Canada, I was really reminded how “mixed” isn’t experienced in the same ways by everyone. For me, and perhaps other mixed-race people today, how you identify culturally is almost an internal dialogue with yourself. But an eye-opener for me while making All Our Father’s Relations was how invested the Canadian government was in telling the Grant siblings what their identity was. It was very interesting to think about this, and to hear how they dealt with it, especially as young children.

What was the biggest take-away from the making of this film, for you?

For me it is the recognition that the prejudice and injustice perpetuated by the Canadian government in the past has a direct and very real effect on people’s lives today. I too often hear two beliefs: that people whose ancestors experienced trauma should “get over it,” and that Canada is a country devoid of racism. I hope All Our Father’s Relations will help everyone to understand how past trauma affects people in the present, both emotionally and physically.

I also regularly see posts on social media proclaiming how wonderful Canada’s race relations are, or that people are surprised when a racist issue makes the news, but I am very aware that racism abounds in this country and that we all need to continue to work to diminish it. Finally, All Our Father’s Relations hopefully demonstrates the importance of listening to one another and, especially, to community elders.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just that I am honoured that the Grant family and Musqueam Nation entrusted me with their stories. I would also love to make another film with the Japanese Canadian community, so if anyone wants to collaborate, feel free to get in contact! I’m also on Twitter @alyoshizawa.


*This article was originally published on The Bulletin on November 14, 2016.


© 2016 John Endo Greenaway

Canada chile chilean chinese canadians community film filmmaker hapa identity Japanese Canadian Mixed Musqueam professor racism