How To Think Like A Historian

An interactive experience that explores research presented on Interracial Intimacies: Sex and Race in Toronto 1910 to 1950.

How To Think Like A Historian

An interactive experience that explores research presented on Interracial Intimacies: Sex and Race in Toronto 1910 to 1950.

Meet Elise Chenier

Listen to Elise Chenier introduce her research and how this research took form.

Click to view thesis.

Master's Thesis

Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, 1993-1995

Research on Lesbian Bar Culture in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s.

Click here for an interview with Dorothy Fairbairn, a Continental Hotel regular.

Photo: Dorothy Fairbairn and friends having a drink and a laugh at the Continental Hotel, n.d. [early 1960s?]

From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, lesbian’s main hang-out was a beer parlour in the centre of Chinatown. At the corner of Elizabeth Street and Dundas Street West.

Click on the map for larger view.

It Begins With Discovery

While researching I discovered an interesting connection between lesbians, sex workers, and men of Chinese heritage.

Click to see newspapers.

Getting Started On A Research Project

How to do oral history.

How to analyse photographs.

How to analyse newspapers.

Empathy and Empowerment.

Talk To Experts

Dora Nipp is a well-known historian, lawyer, ethnologist, and activist who I contacted in the hope that she could suggest some community members I could interview. She very kindly put me in touch with a number of people, all of who agreed to be interviewed.

Garfield Chan describes the presence of lesbians and sex workers at Sai Woo, the Chinese restaurant where he worked.

Keith Lock describes how his family came to adopt the mixed-race child of a Chinatown sex worker.

Interview transcript.


Alfie Yip describes his observations of the sex workers and lesbians who hung out at the Continental Hotel and in nearby Chinese restaurants.

Interview transcript.

Mah describes how she came to write the first historical study of Toronto's Chinese community.

Interview transcript.

Valerie Mah

Undergraduate research essays.

The bachelor society: a look at Toronto's early Chinese community from 1878-1924.

An indepth look at Toronto's early Chinatown, 1913-1933.

Hired Research Assistant:

Bradley Lee

Wondering if it might not be better to hire an Asian male to get this next story, I hired journalist and researcher Bradley Lee to conduct interviews for me. After completing three, he decided that the project did not really speak to his interests and suggested I hire Kenneth Huynh.

See Bradley's research on Chinese railway workers.

Hired Research Assistant:

Kenneth Huyhn

Kenneth Huynh, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, conducts interviews over the course of a year.

Steve Young describes the difficult circumstances under which many men of Chinese heritage lived. Young’s father owned a fruit and vegetable market in the suburbs. A well-respected and literate man, he helped illiterate men write and read letters from home, and to send money home. Near the end of the interview Young mentions that some of the elderly men who fell ill were “taken to 999.” This refers to Toronto’s notorious institution for the mentally ill located at 999 Queen Street West. Rather than receive medical care, the men were institutionalized in a psychiatric facility. This was a direct consequence of being unable to communicate in English, being poor, and having no one to advocate on your behalf.

Interview transcript.

Ed Wong recounts the sex trade in Chinatown

Interview transcript.

Ed Wong Adoption Story.

Interview transcript.

Alice's Story (Interview Transcript)

Discrimation in Victoria and Toronto Compared.

Alan Joe on discrimination in Vancouver and Toronto's Chinatowns compared.

Dora Nipp

Emails me to let me know that Arlene Chan has a new book coming out about Toronto's Chinatown.

Arlene Chan

The thing about oral history is you never really know what you are going to find out.

What I learned from Mavis I discovered only by being open to hearing about something outside my chosen time frame. The information she provided was so historically significant [see the video just to the right of this item] that I set aside my proposed project on the relationship between sex workers, lesbians, and men of Chinese heritage in the 1950s and 60s and decided to explore intimate relationships between men of Chinese heritage and non-Asian women between 1910 and 1950. Being very familiar with Canadian historiography, I knew that this topic would make a greater contribution to the literature than the one I had chosen. It also interested me a great deal.

Link to review her book.

A Significant Discovery

The thing about oral history is you never really know what you are going to find out.

What I learned from Mavis I discovered only by being open to hearing about something outside my chosen time frame. The information she provided was so historically significant [see the video just to the right of this item] that I set aside my proposed project on the relationship between sex workers, lesbians, and men of Chinese heritage in the 1950s and 60s and decided to explore intimate relationships between men of Chinese heritage and non-Asian women between 1910 and 1950. Being very familiar with Canadian historiography, I knew that this topic would make a greater contribution to the literature than the one I had chosen. It also interested me a great deal.

Are photographs reliable sources? Click the method/question to find out.

Video: Mavis Reflects On Her Family Album

Realising that this album was very special, I recorded Mavis going through it to ensure that the information she gave me about the photos, and the photos themselves were part of the historical record I was gathering. After all, who knew if I would ever see her or these photos again.

The Scandalous Tabloids

In my research I discovered that Toronto’s tabloid newspapers were an interesting source of articles on people on Chinese heritage, white women with Chinese men and about sex workers.

Click to view selected stories (45MB PDF).

Click to read the complete archive.

Some of these images may be difficult to read. Click on Method to find out why.

Royal Commission

I read the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration and find Edith Wharton’s testimony particularly intriguing. It shows that at least some white women disputed white people’s characterization of men of Chinese heritage as untrustworthy, dangerous, and a threat to white women’s “honour.”

Click to see Emily Wharton's testimony to the commissioners.

Click to read the full report.

Alice Grady and Kwan Sue

In 1911 20-year-old Irish immigrant Alice Grady married 27-year-old restaurateur Kwan Sue. By 1919 they had five children. Frank was the fourth born and does not appear in this photo. Shortly after Alice had Frank she and the children moved with Sue from Toronto to Guangdong province, Sue’s place of birth. Alice and the children -- including a fifth born in China -- remained in Guangdong, but Kwan would return to Toronto, open a new restaurant, work for a few years, sell it, and return home. He did this repeatedly, though how often is not known. It appears to have been a very successful strategy: he built a large dailou (pillbox home, see photos) in Fuheli Village where many of his family members also lived.

Sadly Alice died in 1921 of unknown causes, possibly smallpox. As the eldest son, Frank was expected to travel to Toronto to assist his father with opening and running a new restaurant. He remained living in Toronto for the rest of his life.

Due to racist laws prohibiting people of Chinese heritage from entering Canada, Frank was not permitted to bring his wife Molly with him. She and children Ken and Susan finally joined Frank on December 31, 1948 when prohibitions against Chinese immigration were relaxed. Once the family was settled in Toronto, Molly had two more children, Linda and Bill. In 2004 Frank's children travelled to Fuheli Village where they were able to see for the first time the home their grandfather had worked so hard to build.

Video: Interview

In this clip Susan and Linda share the few details they know of their grandparent’s life as a young married couple.

Interview transcript.

Click for larger view.

Marriage License and Passenger List

This passenger list shows that Alice Grady sailed from Ireland to New York and was sponsored by her Uncle. She arrived on Oct. 24, 1906. See entry # 26.

Velma Demerson

I get in touch with Velma Demerson whose parents had her incarcerated because she was dating a man of Chinese heritage. She wrote about her experience in her 2004 autobiography Incorrigible. Demerson’s devastating account received a great deal of media coverage at the time it was published.

Link To Velma's Book.

Read Velma Demerson's letters to Elise Chenier.

Video: Interview With Velma Demerson

In this clip Velma talks about how she came to meet Harry, her desire to remain a virgin, being raped in St. John, and her later intimate relationship with Harry. As you can see, Velma is at once very forthcoming, offering some of the most intimate and terrible details of her life, but she also gives very short answers. This conversation occurred at the beginning of our first interview. Over time, even over the course of this interview, she became much more relaxed and would offer longer answers. She also has a lovely and warm smile that you are more likely to see when chatting about more happy times.

Interview transcript.

Click on photos to view slideshow.

Chinatown Around The Time Velma Met Harry

The 1921 Toronto City Directory is a useful tool for finding out where people lived and what businesses were in what neighbourhood. Looking at the listings on Elizabeth Street, notice that sometimes residents of Chinese heritage were listed simply as “Chinese,” whereas other people were listed by their names. Why do you think this might be? What else can we learn about this neighbourhood based on the Elizabeth Street listings?

Link to 1921 Toronto City Directory (Hint: use the magnifying glass icon to enlarge the directory image).

1915 unpublished manuscript describes “Life in the Ward”.

Velma Gave Me This Newspaper Clipping

The clipping tells me that the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Society had an interest in relationships between white women and men of Chinese heritage. I hire Anne Toews, a former grad student now undertaking her PHD at York University in Toronto, to search the Presbyterian Church archives to find out more about their interest in the issue, and she strikes archival gold.

Click to see the documents (PDF).


Presenting your research findings at conferences is an important way to communicate with other experts and get feedback on your interpretations and arguments. I presented my findings at the 5th WCILCOS International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies on Chinese through the Americas held May 16th to 19th, 2012 at the University of British Columbia. This was my first time attending and presenting at a conference about people of Asian heritage.

Click to see presentation (PPTX).

Click to see presentation (PDF).

Click to see transcript (PDF).

Video: Interview With J. Rosenthal

J. Rosenthal talks about his mother Rose, the daughter of Jewish migrants who lived in Toronto's Ward district, and being raised by Chinese stepfathers.

Click on photos to view slideshow.


Video: Interview With Tony Chow

Tony Chow discusses the race-segregated labour market.


Gordon Chong in front of Lew's Barbershop in Toronto.

Video: Interview With Gordon Chong

Gordon Chong describes the isolation and depression his white mother experienced as the wife of a man of Chinese heritage.

Video: Interview With David Jean

David Jean is of Chinese, African, and white descent and grew up in the Ward on the edge of Chinatown. He had close social relationships with the lesbians who hung out there. In this clip he paints a vivid picture of life in that neighbourhood.

Additional Resources: 1921 Census

Anne Toews moved back home to British Columbia to begin writing her dissertation and recommended a replacement, Anne Cummings, to look at marriage certificates from the period. Cummings had done her MA at SFU with Anne, but I had not met her.

I was excited to learn that marriage certificates contain a lot of valuable information about the marrying couple. The age, place of residence, declared employment, declared religion, and birth place was documented on the back of each license. This helps us get a sense of the class and heritage of the people involved.

Click to view marriage certificates.

Additional Resources: 1921 Census

Many years ago I happened upon this report and had used it as teaching material at McGill. I dug it out of my files -- finally! A use for it in my research.

Burton Hurd, Origin, Birthplace, Nationality and Language of the Canadian People 1921 Census monograph. Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Ottawa: King's Printers, 1929.

The Toronto Star And Globe And Mail

I had thoroughly reviewed the tabloids, but not the mainstream press. Doing this research was much easier because both papers have been digitized. Take note, however, that words searched are not always captured by a newspaper’s search engine. Old-fashioned indexes should also be consulted. For Canadian historians, an excellent resource is the Canadian Periodical Index.

Click to see newspaper clippings.

An Intriguing Story

Was it murder or suicide? In the Toronto Star, we find the story of Margaret LePage and George Quong.

Click to read article.

Click the method/question to find out why historians like murder, and how sometimes a lead takes you to dead end.

MURDER! Or Suicide?

I have my research assistant Anne investigate further by looking at the annual constable reports to see if she can find out anything more about the case. The hunt for more info is a dead end.

Click to see our access request.

Click to see constable reports.

These reports reveal information about people of Chinese heritage and the sex trade in Toronto. I have marked these sections with a red square. The full reports are available in the Archives section of this site.

Secondary Sources

This link takes you to my Zotero bibliography of sources for this project. Some of them I read many years ago, and some I read for the purpose of this project. Scholars usually have some familiarity with a subject before they begin research in a given area, but they also have to read new material to bring themselves up to speed with the most current literature. They might also want to engage with new theories and methods, which will also require more reading.

Link to Zotero bibliography.

How do you know when to stop researching?

Your argument has to have enough evidence to support it, but how do you know you have enough evidence? Click on the Facebook image to see what other historians had to say.

Click to see a Facebook conversation on this topic.

Call For Papers

Editors of books and journals are constantly soliciting papers for publication. They send out a “call for papers,” which is an invitation to submit a proposal for an article. The editor then selects from the proposals a set of articles that fit best with their theme, and with each other.

I know that if I submit a proposal to a call for papers and it is accepted, I will have a firm deadline to work to, and since a deadline is my best motivation to finish an article, I send in a proposal in response to a call for papers.

See the call for papers.


I complete the first draft of my submission.

Click here to see the review.

Editor's Feedback

Comments from the editor.

Click here to see the review.

Mavis's Feedback

Mavis read every version of my article and provided feedback. Initially the article was titled “Bachelors and China Dolls.” Bachelors refers to the men of Chinese heritage. They are known as “bachelors” in the historical literature because so few women of Chinese heritage came to Canada; most men were believed to be living without female companionship or sexual contact. I remembered having come across the term “China Dolls” back in the 1990s in one of the tabloids I read for my Masters research. Mavis challenged me on this term. She had never heard it, she said. I reviewed hundreds of articles to find the reference to China Dolls but had no luck. Instead I found a reference to “consent girls,” which I liked even more since it was an effort to distinguish those white women who freely and willingly chose to partner with men of Chinese heritage from those who were supposedly lured against their will into the arms of a “Chinamen.” “Consent girls” really captures the sexual politics of the era.

Anonymous Reviewers

What makes a scholarly journal scholarly is the fact that it is peer reviewed. What this means is that the journal’s editor sends copies of an article submission to two or three experts in the field and asks their opinion of the article.

Click here to see reviewers comments.

More Research

Click on the link below to see a bibliography of the books and articles I read to address Reviewer B’s suggestion that I place my article more squarely within the literature on the history of emotion. After reading the article and having taken the suggestion very seriously, I felt compelled to re-write the entire article! That was not very practical since the deadline was looming. After consulting with Nicolas Kenny, the editor of this special issue, I chose to suggest ways that the evidence I had uncovered could be addressed from a history of emotion perspective. The editor found my changes acceptable and the revised article was handed off to the copy editor to prepare it for publication.

Prompted by the reviewer’s suggestion to think more about the literature on the history of emotions, I read over one thousand pages of text. In the end, my revised and re-submitted article included only one and a half new paragraphs to address the critique.

Click here to see bibliography of additional research.

Revised Draft

When an article is returned to you for revisions, you are given a strict deadline to meet. Getting your article in late means holding up the publication process for everyone involved.

Copy Editing

Your article was accepted, your revisions are done, but it is still not over. Your article now will be copyedited. Language is political, therefore even the copyediting process can have its challenges.

Click here to read final article.


After 3 years of fascinating research and countless hours of writing, feedback and revisions my article is published.

Published Thesis Click here to read final article.


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