South Asians came to Canadian in significant proportions after 1962 when Canada passed new immigration regulations that eliminated overt racial discrimination. The reforms liberalized immigration by eliminating quotas based on national origin, rather assessing immigrants on skill and their experience as laborers. Two years later my baba immigrated from Bradford, UK to Cambridge, ON, becoming the first South Asian to settle in the small town. Sponsoring my bheeji over two years later with his two young boys, they settled down in an apartment building on Clark Street. In a box underneath my baba’s bed, I found an old photo showing my little versions of uncle and dad propped up on a 1964 Mini “Mark I.” Thinking that my grandfather had first purchased an Oldsmobile Cutlass, I showed my grandma the photo, only to find out that I had been staring at their first car. With nostalgia, my bheeji disclosed that she had learned to drive in that car. Clarke explains that the family car enhanced “women’s growing exploration of the possibilities for freedom and control of their own lives.” Giggling and beckoning me to come closer, she whispered, “Sometimes I would drive your uncle and dad driving to the park when your baba was at work.”
My dad and uncle, as much as they might like to think, were not born loving cars. Asking what got them interested in car culture, my dad explained:
It’s not like sports were popular–we had immigrants parents! What were you going to do with soccer or baseball? They weren’t going to send us to any of that, so we did our own thing. It was your grandfather’s car that got us interested. We wanted to paint it a different colour, so we chose the colour and did that. We wanted to put mags on it. We installed a new stereo. It was dad’s car and it became our car. We did all the modifications to it and it became our thing. You know what they used to say, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Thank god we got out of the apartments around then. We moved to Elliot street and life got better. We got our own house and had our garage. Everybody there was immigrant families.
Organized sports were costly for my grandparents. They told me that they would work 16 hour days, sending large remittances back home to Punjab. Despite struggling to earn enough money to support both themselves and their families back homes, they were able to move out of the apartments after raises to the Ontario minimum wage in 1974 and invest in more recreational activities. “We both starting worked at the factory when we were about 12 or 13,” my dad explained. “We moved stuff around, bails and strapping boxes. It was called Canadian Synthetic Fibres. That’s how we got the $800 for the car.” My dad and uncle’s interest in cars were not only driven by fascination. Reflecting on his childhood, my dad recounted the racial violence that he faced growing up in Cambridge, ON:
When we grew up, we were the first Indians here. They didn’t even know who we were. They would just say “paki, paki, paki,” but they didn’t even know who we were. Hey guys, you don’t even know anything to begin with. And then we got into fist fights and it was bad. It was a witch hunt… almost like KKK. You got a group of 15 of them and you only have two of us. Yeah… yeah… it was pretty scary. It happened from 5, 6, 7, all the way up. You couldn’t get away from it. How could you? They were the same age. They didn’t like you. You had a different name. Even our fair complexion didn’t matter–we could barely tell the difference. But they didn’t like the way you looked and they didn’t like the way you smelled. You understand that right?
Recalling my own childhood experiences and the bodily self-disciplining that followed, I empathetically nodded. I inquired further: “How did you get it to stop, dad?”
It’s a lot about race, colour. How do you fit into that society? You got to have something better. You have to have a muscle car, you have to have something–to wed yourself in. So they say, ‘Oh wow, these guys, where did they get that thing? Nobody has that.’ For gore, that’s their dream, and you got it before they got it. There were a couple of gore you had it but only because their parents got it, but we built our car. We bought a car like the one you and me got together that needed to be fully reconditioned. You had to work for it. We used to take parts off the car, take it to our basement in Elliot street. We would have half the car sitting on the concrete in the basement–just like we used to here. Remember when you were little and we would have our stuff laying everyone? We liked doing it. We had fun doing it and putting it together.
Driven in part by fear over racial tensions, my dad and uncle’s muscle car served to bolster their status, levelling the unequal playing field between them and their white peers. In Bodies and Machines, Mark Seltzer suggests that the replacement of manhood–defined against childhood–with masculinity–defined against femininity, facilitated “a relocation of the topography of masculinity to the surrogate frontier of the natural body.” The automobile re-routed masculinity into the technologized body, offering a platform for non-white people to challenge white hegemony. “You have gore who are okay with you and you have some who can’t stand you,” my uncle instructed me, “they start to respect you when look presentable and you act normal. They didn’t mess with us after we got the W30. That might have just been because of our Chinese friend Andy though. You couldn’t mess with him. He would break your neck.” Driving muscles cars served to subvert racial social hierarchies, provided a basis for my dad, uncle and their immigrant “crew” to integrate into North American muscle car youth culture.
In “Autoexoticizing: Asian American Youth and the Import Car Scene,” Soo Ah Kwon explain that the 1990s and 2000 "import scene” functioned as a site for a new generation of Asian American immigrant youth to challenge racial hierarchies. Just as the muscle car served my dad and uncle in “unsettling racial politics” during their youth, other racially-othered immigrant youth have taken to car culture to find a home in North America.
Armstrong, Tim. Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.
Brown, Judith M. Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.
Kwon, Soo Ah. "Autoexoticizing: Asian American Youth and the Import Car Scene." Journal of Asian American Studies 7.1 (2004): 1-26.
Minimum Wage Rates in Canada (April 14, 1975). Ottawa: Labour Canada, Legislative Research Branch, 1975. Print.
Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.