Café Daughter: A Touching Film About The Tragedy Of The Model Minority.

If you’ve ever questioned whether the concept of ‘Microaggressions’ was real or you find yourself asking why can’t racialized people move on from racism, Café Daughter will humble those curiosities with heartbreak and an accurate portrayal of how White Supremacy dismantles families.

Inspired by the life of Doctor Lillian Eve Quan Dyck, Café Daughter follows a Chinese-Indigenous family as they try to survive and thrive in a very racist Canada, circa the 50s and 60s. The Wongs run Happy’s Inn restaurant in their home of Saskatchewan. Charlie (Tom Lim), the passionate chef and patriarch of the family is a Chinese immigrant doing his best to present as a ‘Good Canadian’ and is moulding his children to do the same. Catherine (Sera-Lys McArthur), the heart of the family and matriarch, is Indigenous – of the Cree Nation but is passing for white and has the kids do the same to avoid them being taken or worse.

The beginning of the film prepares the viewer for its devastating tone, opening with a brief history lesson on the reality of immigrants and Indigenous life in Canada. During this period, it was safer for the kids to be considered Chinese rather than Native because, as a colony of Great Britain, Chinese people were considered indentured servants. However, Indigenous people (referred to as Indians at the time) were not considered human and were wards of the state and fully controlled under martial law. Children could be stolen from their indigenous families and placed in residential schools at any point.

Despite its modest budget, Café Daughter does not suffer in pacing, performance or story. With a run time of 97 minutes, we are taken through the lives and experiences of this precious family and every character has their moment.

When Catherine falls sick, the family decides to go to the reserve where she grew up to seek aid from her father Amos (Billy Merasty). This is a better option for them as they can’t afford the medicine she needs but Catherine is reluctant to go. The kids – specifically Yvette (Violah Beauvais) – are excited to meet their family and experience some of their indigenous roots. Although, as viewers, we understand the danger of revealing the truth about their identity, it is also easy to judge Catherine for passing for white and teaching the kids very little about their Native heritage. This is one of the brilliant aspects of the film. Director/writer Shelley Niro is deliberate with how Catherine is perceived because there is are not enough words to explain the impossible choice she had to make for the chance at a better life she has to show us.

Upon arriving at the reserve, we can feel the tension within her family. The men in the family are diseased with alcoholism and they are beyond fed up with the way they are treated and how powerless they are. We learn the superintendent has burned their school down because Amos was teaching the boys some of their old songs and kids are being stolen from their families daily. They have no money, no car, no power and no status has human beings. They are angry and are consumed by their need for justice and vengeance. This is the environment Catherine grew up in and why she left- she resents them- especially her father for surrendering to the powers that be. She feels her father gave up and, by doing so, removed any real hope of a future for them on the reserve. Catherine is disappointed but moreover, she is heartbroken. What’s even sadder is that Charlie shares the anger and sense of powerlessness that Amos and the community does, this whole scene in the film is a masterclass in how White Supremacy strips racialized people of their humanity and choice.

Choice is not a privilege that anyone in this film is afforded, only sacrifice for the possibility of something better and, for the Wongs, that possibility of a normal life is shrouded in constant fear of being discovered, hate-crimed, and having their kids taken away. Charlie loves and misses his country but left because of the level of poverty. Later in the film, we feel how full of grief he is for immigrating to Canada and sacrificing his identity and culture. He is ashamed that he has subjected his kids to this unfair life – his hope is gone. For Catherine, the systemic destruction of her Native family forced her to choose herself or fall victim to the tragedies of life on the reserve. Hope and choice in the parameters of colonialism is a positive spin on the inevitable sacrifice one will have to make for their survival, and no one is spared from the generational trauma these sacrifices bring, regardless of which path you take.

And all of this is felt in the first 30 minutes of the film, so much more happens. Niro packs no punches as she places the viewer in the shoes of each family member feeling their disappointment, their humiliation, their powerlessness, their shame, and at times, their hopelessness. The constant anxiety of imminent danger that all racialized people feel NEVER goes away. Café Daughter is how you educate a generation of the reality of what Canada used to be and in many ways, still is.

There is so much more I can say about Café Daughter. Instead, I leave you with this: please watch this film. Please watch this film with your family and kids if you have them. This film is important and there are so many lessons to be learned from it. I hope it resonates with you the way that it did with me.

Café Daughter is in select theatres on April 12th, 2024.

Leave a Reply