Dasey Wangkhang Silva is worried.
Her oldest relatives are getting on in age and soon they will be gone – taking with them the stories of an important chapter in her people’s struggle to survive.
“Their memories are too important for us to lose,” she says. “I want to keep them alive.”
She has already lost her uncle, Tsering Wangkhang, who died 10 years ago. He was one of the first two Tibetans to come to Canada at the invitation of Pierre Trudeau and Bata Shoes in the 1970s. She fears the story of how this country opened its arms to the followers of the Dalai Lama will soon be forgotten.
So Wangkhang Silva, who lives in Toronto with her husband David Silva, is setting about to tell the story of the early and small Tibetan community of Belleville, Ont., as seen through the eyes of her family.
It’s really the story of the early Tibetan community and its struggle to survive following invasion by the Chinese in 1950 and a failed uprising nine years later that led to the Dalai Lama’s self-imposed exile.
“Dasey’s father and other relatives were in Tibet when the invasion occurred and fled over the Himalayas with the Dalai Lama,” says Dermod Travis, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee.
The committee has been trying for the last several years to preserve the stories of the community’s oldest members, with volunteers recording their stories and gathering documents.
“This is a very important issue for us right now,” says Travis, who is looking for a secure place to store the documents so they are not lost to fire or other disaster.
Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis wants a copy of Wangkhang Silva’s family story, saying it’s an important chapter in his city’s history.
“They called Belleville their home,” Ellis says.
“They’ve added a lot to the community.”
Growing up in Belleville, Wang-khang Silva says she learned to balance the fierce pride that bound her tight-knit community with a very Canadian embrace of multiculturalism – a balance playing out today in her continued involvement in Toronto’s Tibetan community and her marriage to a Portuguese Canadian.
In fact, Wangkhang Silva imagines future generations of her family will be a mix of many heritages.
“One day, my great-grandchildren will realize that their great-grandmother was Tibetan and this (family history) will give them some understanding of what that means.”
Her uncle, Tsering Wangkhang, settled with his fellow Tibetan in the Belleville area, where Bata gave them jobs. Tsering – who had worked in India with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader – soon began smoothing the way for others to immigrate.
Among the hundreds who followed was Tsering’s brother (and Wangkhang Silva’s father), Yeshi.
Belleville was the centre for Tibetan culture in Canada for a time, with Tsering organizing the community to celebrate its holidays and to protest outside the Chinese embassy on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising.
In 1980, Tsering Wangkhang put together the first visit to Canada by the Dalai Lama.
Wangkhang Silva is already familiar with the story of Tibetans in this country.
Her home and family restaurant in Belleville played host to much of the early organizing. She speaks proudly of the day her uncle got his picture taken with Trudeau.
But for details of the family’s travels from the mountains of Tibet in 1959 to exile in India and finally to Canada, she is turning to the handwritten memoirs of her uncle.
In the process, she’s learning fresh details about her family.
“Typing it out, it can get pretty emotional and I just have to stop,” says Wangkhang Silva, who was 18 when her famous uncle died.
The Wangkhangs were landowners in Tibet. Chinese officials tried unsuccessfully to turn local villagers against them. Instead, a villager came to Wangkhang Silva’s grandfather one night to warn him that he was about to be thrown in jail.
Under cover of night, he and Tsering escaped into the mountains. Before long, however, they risked coming back for the rest of the family – including Wangkhang Silva’s father, who was studying to become a monk.
“They said, `We can’t do this alone,'” Wangkhang Silva says.
“And they all left.”
As she works her way through the memoirs, Wangkhang Silva fills in blanks with her own research and details gathered from other members of the Tibetan community.
Since the Chinese have changed many place names in Tibet, a map of the country showing the original names of villages, towns and regions will be included.
Wangkhang Silva hopes the map and her family story will help other Tibetans trace their families’ histories.
“We need to understand where we come from,” she says, “before it is lost.”