The Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org) is an initiative that aims to record and preserve memories and stories from the Chinese Jamaican community in Toronto. It includes (among other things) audio-recorded oral history interviews, narrator portraits, an interactive timeline, archival materials, and links to additional resources.

Ray Chen. (Image via Jamaicans.com.)

The project began with the vision of the late, great Chinese Jamaican photographer Ray Chen. In August of 2015, he organized several interested parties — including Jeanette Kong, Loraine Lee, Patrick A. Lee, Carol Williams-Wong, Roger Chen, Robert Hew, Jennifer Chin, Dr. Anne-Marie Lee-Loy, and Stephanie Lyn and her partner Daniel Clarkson Fisher — to discuss the possibility of undertaking a community oral history project.

In an email to the group, Ray stressed the importance of doing something to “document our history and our culture.” He went on: “Make no mistake: we are now the ‘older generation’ and the very last generation to hold this knowledge. Therefore it is up to our generation to document our elder’s experiences and ours before it is too late. Our sons and daughters will have their own story, some of which we should include to show the continuity of our forefathers generation. We should also include the arrival of the new Chinese [immigrants] to the island [of Jamaica] and how they see themselves as a part of this document.”

Jeanette Kong leading a workshop on digital storytelling at the Tsung Tsin Association of Ontario on January 21, 2017. (Photo by Daniel Clarkson Fisher.)

During conversations about what form the project should take, Stephanie noted “the potential for breadth, depth, scope, and reach offered within the digital landscape,” emphasizing the internet’s possibilities for “achieving and furthering the aims of collecting, preserving, and sharing our culture beyond physical, geographic, and temporal boundaries.” Similarly, Jeanette, a renowned documentary filmmaker and strong advocate for digital storytelling, suggested the idea of a “digital exhibit” akin to Brandon Stanton’s popular photoblog Humans of New York.

Then, sadly, Ray passed away in February of 2016. As he was the driving force behind the project, it seemed to die with him.

However, when Daniel was accepted into Ryerson University’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Documentary Media program in the fall of 2017, he saw an opportunity to revive it. As he explains it: “I always believed in Ray’s idea, as well as those of Stephanie and Jeanette. When I got into the MFA program, I realized that it offered many of the things that were needed to make a digital-first oral history project a reality: time, equipment, supervision, etc. So I jumped at the chance to get things going.”

Image from CJOHP.org’s presentation at the 6th Emerging Scholars Symposium on Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Creative Practice on March 22, 2019. (Image via the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University.)

Supported by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Daniel set out to build a website for the project, fill it with an initial set of interviews and portraits, and contextualize them with interactive documentary storytelling features. During production, he also presented about the work-in-progress at the 6th Emerging Scholars Symposium on Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Creative Practice at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

The Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org) debuted online and as an exhibition of digital stories on June 19th, 2019.  The events were parts of DocNow 2019, a documentary festival featuring work from graduates of Ryerson’s Documentary Media program.

The website and exhibition opened with a total of twelve narrators: (in alphabetical order) Brian Chang, Suzanne Kong, Patrick A. Lee, Dr. Anne-Marie Lee-Loy, Dr. Keith D. Lowe, Eustace Lyn, Joan Lyn, Stephanie Lyn, Kay Moosie, Jenna Tenn-Yuk, Carol Williams-Wong, and Tony Wong.

Page about the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project in the 2019 DocNow festival program. (Designed by Daniel Schrempf.)

“I like to think Ray would see the work that’s been done so far as a very solid start toward his vision,” Daniel says. However, he acknowledges that the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project is at present more of a cross-cultural oral history project than a community oral history project. “At the moment, I’m the only interviewer and curator. And I’m a White settler who has married into the Chinese Jamaican community, but is not of it. The next step, then, is ensuring that the project becomes truly community-based in the way it was originally intended. I’ve tried very hard to honor the ideas and opinions of those in the community as I’ve gotten the project started, but that’s not the same as community ownership of the project; at some point, a hand-off needs to happen. I certainly hope to stay involved in some capacity, but ideally as one participant in the kind of robustly community-based undertaking that Ray envisioned.”

Produced in the Documentary Media Program (MFA), Ryerson University, 2019.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.