The Tibetans of Belleville

Below is an article that was written over three years ago in the Toronto Star that I just rediscovered. It’s an article that includes the stories of three of my uncles and how my family ended up where we did in small-town Ontario, Canada. This may clear things up for some, since growing up, I always got asked the question, “Why Belleville?!” like it’s so outrageous that our Tibetan family would choose this small city of all places.

I’m not sure how interested all of you will be in this topic, but I know I’m always intrigued in hearing about how, when, where, and why ‘pioneer’ Tibetan communities set up in whatever corner of the world they end up in. Even more interesting to me is the types of actions small Tibetan communities take to ensure their spirit of Tibetan-ness continues and is passed onto the next generation in exile. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments section below!

Yeshi Wangkhang remembers the day, some 50 years ago, when Chinese troops stomed into his mountain-top monastery and rounded up his Tibetan spiritual leaders. “They put all the lamas in one room and sent us students back to our parents,” Wangkhang remembers. He was barely a teenager when his parents sent him to Palcho Monastery outside his hometown of Gyantse to study to become a monk. Forced to return home, he found Chinese soldiers in the streets and two officers following him to his parents’ house.

“My mother said, `They are going to ask you about your teacher. Don’t say anything bad about your teacher,'” Wangkhang recalls.

Crying throughout the interview, Wangkhang insisted his teacher was a nice man, allowing only that the lama sat at the head of the table during meals. “And one of the officers said, `See, he was not so nice.'”

Wangkhang laughs at the memory, finally finding humour decades later in a very different place.

Today, instead of being a monk, Wangkhang is head of Canada’s oldest Tibetan community. He is also a small-town restaurateur whose Oriental Wok and Himalayan Cuisine in downtown Belleville serves Chinese and Tibetan food.

“We put Chinese food on the menu to get people in, but then introduce them to Tibetan food,” he says, sitting in the restaurant he opened 20 years ago. “Now, most of my customers prefer Tibetan.”

Wangkhang’s story mirrors that of his people. Born in the isolated mountainous nation where a boy could become a monk, he and is family were forced into exile in India in 1959 as the Chinese army suppressed rebellion.

The early years in India were hard. Life was put on hold, as families clung to the hope of returning to Tibet. But as he grew into adulthood, Wangkhang began to look abroad for opportunities.

In the early 1970s, Wangkhang’s brother Tsering and another man were the first of their community to move to Canada, after then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau agreed to open the door to Tibetan immigrants. The two men moved to Trenton, where they had jobs at the Bata shoe factory after the company sponsored their move.

Wangkhang followed. Then more Tibetans came, following friends and relatives, inspired by tales of a welcoming Ontario city where jobs could be found in shoe and car parts factories. Many chose nearby Belleville, which, by the late ’70s, was home to one of Canada’s few Tibetan communities. In its heyday in the 1980s, the city boasted more Tibetans than larger centres such as Toronto or Montreal.

There were language and dance classes for their children, a basketball team for the teenagers and big parties around major holidays, such as the birthday of spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Tsering Wangkhang, who had worked in the Dalai Lama’s New Delhi office before coming to Canada, set up the Canadian Tibetan Association in Belleville, establishing a vital organizing tool for the fledgling community and remained a leader in the community until his death eight years ago.

The Belleville Tibetans organized annual protests outside the Chinese embassy in Ottawa to mark the 1959 uprising. They co-ordinated the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Canada in 1980 and, using Tsering Wangkhang’s connections, established vital links to the Tibetan government in exile that kept the culture alive in this country – including the first Canadian chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress.

“I learned more about my culture in this country than I did in India,” says Yeshi Wangkhang’s friend and fellow Gyantse native, Goekey Rhidar.

In 1992, the Belleville Tibetans organized and hosted the first North American Tibetan Youth Conference, bringing young Tibetans to their small city from across Canada and the United States.

Their presence in Belleville was never huge by any measure – rarely more than 100 or so and now closer to 70 or 80 – but in a city of just 49,000, it could remain cohesive, Rhidar says.

Rhidar and Yeshi Wangkhang knew countrymen in larger centres back then who complained about being disconnected from other Tibetans and feared their culture was being lost in the melting pot of the big city.

“Here, we could be distinct,” Rhidar says. “We could stay together and get organized.”

As such, he says, Belleville provided the vital solid foundation the fledgling community needed to establish itself in Canada – and become the strong presence in this country that it is today as it pushes the Tibetan cause in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

“We Tibetans owe Belleville a lot,” Rhidar says. “This city has been good to us.” But much has changed in the last 20 years. As Tibetans moved to Canada by the hundreds and then the thousands, only big cities such as Toronto could absorb their growing numbers, displacing Belleville as a destination of choice.

Meanwhile, the children of Belleville’s early Tibetans did what many small-town children do – they grew up, went away to college and never came back.

Yeshi Wangkhang’s daughter, Dasey, who lives in Toronto, loved growing up in Belleville, taking weekly Tibetan classes after school and dancing every summer in the city’s annual cultural festival, where her father’s momos – a type of dumpling – were always a big hit.

“It was a chance for us to display the Tibetan culture to the Belleville community,” she says.

Dasey Wangkhang grew up hearing the stories of her family’s escape from Tibet, exile in India and the eventual move to Canada. In just a few short years, she says with amazement, they went from the isolation of Tibet to living in the modern, industrial world – and managed to keep their culture alive throughout.

“It’s as if they lived many generations in one lifetime,” she says.

Today, Belleville’s Tibetan community is not what it once was. There are too few children to keep the language and dance classes going and dancers have to be brought in from Toronto every summer for the city’s annual cultural festival, once dominated by local children. The community is aging and few young families are moving in.

In Toronto, the community is thriving. It numbers 3,500 and, last fall, opened a community centre with the Dalai Lama officiating at the ceremony. But for Rhidar and the Wangkhangs, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t the big city that provided a foundation on which the Tibetan community could grow and prosper.

It was small-town Ontario.