Institutional Adjacencies and Genealogies


I fell into Mass Capture because I wanted to know something about what it feels like to be racialized and severed from citizenship. These were research questions that came out of my previous work on race, affect theory, and Asian-Canadian literature and culture. Most of the Asian-Canadian literary work that I read dealt, in some way or another, with the grief of racial exclusion and exclusion from the sphere of citizenship. Just reading this literature, no matter how carefully, wasn’t enough for the work I wanted to do. Especially not when I was confronted with an archive of grief and loss that was so enormous that it grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

It began in 2009 when, as an experiment, I presented a paper on the relationship between emotion and citizenship based on a reading of the photographs of Chinese-Canadian head tax certificates known as “Chinese Immigration 5s,” or CI 5s. There was an archivist, Johanna Mizgala, in the audience. At the time, she worked at Library Archives Canada, an institution that I would end up collaborating, or conspiring, with – for the next decade.

After my paper, she came up and asked me if I knew about CI 9s. Well, no. A few weeks later, I received an envelope containing a CD-R (remember those?). On the top side of the disc, someone had used a Sharpie to scrawl two letters and a number: “CI 9.” It read like a code to me. When I put the disc into my computer, I found 2,406 certificates unlike anything I had ever seen. For months, I carried the disc around, caught up entirely by the auratic value of the images. I didn’t know what to do with them, or how to think about them. But, even then, I knew that they would change everything for me.

The CI 9s are so extraordinary. They are the most complete collection of Chinese head tax certificates in Canada. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds over 41,000 certificates. In contrast, LAC holds only a couple dozen CI 5s.

Between 1885 and 1923, every Chinese migrant to Canada had to pay a “head tax” under the terms of the Chinese Immigration Act. This legislation was periodically amended to increase the amount of the tax. Initially, the tax was set at $50 per “head,” but it was increased to $100 in 1900 and then again to $500 in 1903. The head tax remained at $500 until 1923, when the Chinese Immigration Act was further amended to exclude virtually all Chinese people from entering Canada. This final amendment led to the legislation becoming known colloquially as the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” However, it is important to recognize both the head tax and this outright exclusion as policies rooted in the same legislation, belonging to a single continuum of restrictive immigration measures levelled at Chinese migrants to Canada. The exclusion of Chinese migrants from 1923 until 1947, when the Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed, was part and parcel of the head tax system.

In order to track migrants entering Canada, as well as those who left, Canada implemented a vast protocol for acquiring detailed personal information about Chinese migrants in the country. The use of identification photographs was a key innovation of the repressive state apparatus that the Canadian government adopted in order to police and enforce the terms of the Chinese Immigration Act. Upon entry, Chinese migrants were issued a CI 5, which functioned as proof that they had paid the head tax. The CI 5s include the name of the migrant and their photograph. In contrast, the CI 9s contain a huge trove of information, including their date of birth, place of residence, occupation, identifying marks, known associates, and, significantly, identification photographs.

While the sheer number of CI 9 certificates held by LAC is notable, it is the demand for identification photographs on these certificates that underpins Mass Capture. The CI 9 photographs make up the largest photographic archive of images of Chinese migrants in Canada. Further, the CI 9s constitute the first mass use of identification photography in Canada. For the first time, the Canadian state attempted to track the identities of thousands of men, women, and children. Unlike any moment in its prior history, the government isolated one specific group of people, purely on the basis of race and ethnicity, in order to identify each individual member of that group through the creation of a massive apparatus that would systematically correlate their identity with a photographic image. What is more, this use of identification photography – what I identify as a technology of mass capture – was used to exclude people from the sphere of citizenship.

The argument of this book is that the CI 9s are a technology of mass capture that produces non-citizens. Citizenship functions through a series of exclusions. However, there is nothing simple about these exclusions. As the cumbersome apparatus of head tax certificates reveals, the state bent over backwards to police non-citizenship. It was an unwieldy system that generated a bewildering amount of paperwork. This paperwork had to be drafted, printed, completed, filed, cross-referenced, verified, filed again. It is a system that betrays state anxiety and the dynamism of non-citizenship.

The non-citizen is not a static figure. They must be constantly regulated and monitored. This project traces the concomitant rise of surveillance and citizenship by following one story of the construction of the non-citizen. The non-citizen is not simply there. They must be made and then made again. Every certificate filed, every form completed, constitutes another instance of their construction.

In order to do this work, I have had to work very closely – what I think of as adjacently –with a number of institutions. When I say that I have had to work adjacently, I mean that I have had to work in ways that recognize the limits and boundaries of the institutions that have been closest to the project. Namely, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), but also, an organization that has since merged with other institutions to form the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN). Canadiana had been contracted by LAC to digitize much of its holdings, including the head tax certificates that are at the heart of my project.

One way to think about the institutional genealogy of mass capture is to think about the process of the digitization of the CI 9s.

When I began this project, these certificates had not been digitized. After a couple of years working with them on microfilm, I realized that I would have to digitize them. But just as I was about to do so, I learned that LAC had contracted with Canadiana to do this very thing, so I put the project on hold and waited for Canadiana to complete its work.

After the CI 9s had been digitized by Canadiana, I realized that the level of digitization was insufficient for my research. The resolution for the images that Canadiana had digitized, and which are now available through the LAC website, were far too low for the photographic and textual analysis that I needed to conduct. Even though the LAC version of these certificates is still the official version, it did not work for me. I had to re-digitize them.

Figures P.1–P.3 are a few examples of the difference between the digitizations completed for LAC and those that were completed for Mass Capture. The digitization of the certificates completed for my project (on the left) significantly differs from LAC’s digitizations (on the right) because Mass Capture treats each certificate as a photographic object.


Fig. P.1 CI 9 No. 16379 [comparison: Mass Capture digitization left, LAC digitization right], Reel no. T-6038.


Fig. P.2 CI 9 No. 22923 [comparison: Mass Capture digitization left, LAC digitization right], Reel no. T-6049.


Fig. P.3 CI 9 No. 21101 [comparison: Mass Capture digitization left, LAC digitization right], Reel no. T-6040.


As I discuss at length in the coda, the original certificates were destroyed by order of microfilm authority M6-62 in 1963. Many of the images were of poor quality even before the destruction of the originals. However, as the work of my project reveals, treating each certificate as a photographic object, deserving of the attention of a professional photographer who would be sensitive to the potential beauty of each certificate as an image in its own right, could and did produce startling results.

Before I could even study the CI 9s, I had to re-create the archive so that the certificates could be fully visible as objects worthy of photographic study. In this re-creation the CI 9s become “activated,” to use Michelle Caswell’s term for record-keeping’s project of continual renewal and community (in the context of the Tuol Sleng archive in Cambodia): “From a records continuum perspective the reuses of the [Tuol Sleng] mug shots highlight the circular nature of the archive. The record isn’t created just once but re-created (as the by-product of the act of witnessing), recaptured (as new records such as tribunal footage, documentary films, and magazine articles), recognized (in internal institutional systems), and repluralized (as it is published and viewed in the formation of collective memory) as it used again and again or ‘activated’ at various points in time and space” (2014, 132). The mugshots in Caswell’s study have a different afterlife than that of CI 9s. They belong to a history of atrocity that has now become part of a physical space of memory, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as well as a virtual memory space through a digitization project. The CI 9 identification photographs no longer exist as original photographs. As the coda discusses, the CI 9 photographs have a different materiality because the originals were destroyed, and these images have been created and re-created many times. They will likely continue to be activated and re-created many times still. In re-creating the CI 9 archive by digitizing it, and by making these images freely available by depositing them in my university’s institutional repository while also connecting them to another public repository (LAC), my project intends for the CI 9s to be records that are continually activated in the service of struggles for recognition and against the forms of discrimination that brought this archive into being in the first place.

This book also traverses disciplinary boundaries. It is adjacent to many fields of study, including history, museum studies, digital humanities, artificial intelligence, information and media studies, Asian-Canadian literary and cultural studies, and photography. It is the CI 9s themselves that have led me to the edge of every disciplinary adjacency in this book. A question about how these certificates were stored led me to consider the implications of the filing cabinet on the ordering of the people who were captured in the CI 9s. Another question about the language of the certificates led me into an investigation of diplomatics. In trying to understand how the identification photographs on these certificates function as a form of surveillance, I was particularly taken by the work of a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, Philip Agre, whose argument for distinguishing between surveillance and capture brought me to the entire theoretical underpinning of this book, as well as its title. I followed question after question about the photographs attached to each certificate, and found myself falling headlong into the study of vernacular photography, family photography, ancestor portraits, and conventions of Chinese portraiture.

The historical value of the CI 9s is readily apparent to anyone interested in Chinese-Canadian history, genealogy, citizenship, and labour. But their artistic value, their value as photographs and images, has been less apparent. As my commitment to re-digitizing each and every CI 9 should make clear, Mass Capture takes the photographic value, the aesthetics, of the CI 9s as its starting point. My analysis of these certificates moves across a number of disciplines and questions, but at the heart of each discussion in the book is a commitment to understanding the CI 9 as a photographic text. Before I could write, I had to find a way to really see these certificates, and to see past their seeming disposability. For this project, re-digitizing the CI 9s meant that each certificate had to be photographed frame by frame by an extraordinarily dedicated professional photographer, Helen Piekosweski, who attended to each one with painstaking detail.

The images in these pages, along with thousands more that could not be included but which were nonetheless essential for the project as a whole, were not generated through a microfilm scanner. Every image was individually photographed. Each one was attached to a lightbox using gaffer tape, the tape folded so that the adhesive would not touch the microfilm itself, and then captured using a Canon 5D Mark III camera with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Manfrotto ball head tripod. This setup allowed Helen to take detailed close-ups of each certificate. After they were photographed, each image was put through a rigorous post-production process in Adobe Photoshop, where Helen adjusted the levels, sharpness, brightness, contrast, highlights, and shadows. She also inverted the colours to create a positive and added a black-and-white adjustment layer to make sure that there were no colour casts. These edits were tested and tweaked so that they were appropriate for the film slides as well. All of this had to be accomplished before my research assistants and I could zoom in on each one to study not only the identification photographs, but also the handwriting, the stamps, signatures, smudges, punch holes, and many other details that became crucial for the analysis of these certificates. From this base of images, Mass Capture examines how the CI 9 photographs function both as individual portraits of individual people, and as a collective portrait of an entire community that had been denied access to citizenship.

I am keenly aware of the moral dilemma involved in focusing this book on documents, rather than the people captured in these documents. I recognize that this difficult choice limits the capacity of the book to address the social histories of the people whose histories can be found in the CI 9s. Still, these documents themselves are, for me, very much alive. Throughout my research for this book, I have had the privilege of sharing my thinking with a range of communities and audiences. Every time, people have wanted to know more, to look for their own histories in the archive, and to look further and deeper into what the CI 9s might tell us about the people captured in them. I hope this book will bring about more engagements with the CI 9s that will extend and deepen the social histories connected to each photograph and certificate.

This book is the story of one historical archive and one decades-long historical moment. But mass capture is also a technology of the present. Because non-citizens continue to be a tragic feature of the current period, mass capture is also about our world now. The final years of my work on this book have seen an intensification of processes of mass capture as a technology of non-citizenship. From the internment of Uighur minority communities in the People’s Republic of China, to the separation of migrant families in the United States, to the closure of international borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of surveillance tools to track migrants for the purposes of excluding them from citizenship has become the de facto practice of a perpetually horrifying new normal.

Even though international charters and laws declare that all people have the right to citizenship, the mass capture of non-citizens continues apace. I write this book in the hope that its arguments will one day be obsolete because non-citizens no longer underwrite citizenship. I hope that mass capture will be an unfortunate feature of a past that is truly past.


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