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Last Modified: May 19, 2023
Graphic with the messaging "Winnifred Eaton Reeve: A Chinese-Albertan Writer in the Era of Exclusion"
Winnifred Eaton Reeve (1875–1954): A Chinese-Albertan Writer in the Era of Exclusion

by Shaun Hunter

“A very interesting little woman, a writer of books … has come with her husband to make her home in Alberta.”

This is how the Morning Albertan introduced Winnifred Eaton Reeve in early 1918, a few months after her arrival. The newspaper summed up her impressive literary credentials—“authoress of fourteen books”—and presented a snapshot of her complicated identity: Japanese penname, Montréal birthplace, white English father, Chinese mother.

Newspaper headline: Onota Watanna Well-Known Writer Lives Near Calgary. Authoress of Fourteen Books is now writing a western story.
Headline, Morning Albertan, 17 January 1918. Image accessed via

This year, as we commemorate the centenary of the Chinese Immigration Act, Winnifred Eaton Reeve’s Alberta years offer us a glimpse into the way our first English-language Asian writer navigated a disturbing era of anti-Chinese racism.

Sharing her ancestry with the Albertan in 1918 was unusual. Unlike her literary sister Edith, Reeve kept her racial identity hidden for most of her career. When she was launching herself as a writer, North Americans were entranced with Japanese culture; they felt mainly contempt for the Chinese.

Onoto Watanna, illustrated.
Onoto Watanna in 1904. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Initially, publishing Japanese romances under the penname Onoto Watanna proved to be a savvy marketing strategy for both Reeve and her publishers. But writing about race and racial passing under the guise of a false persona was fraught. When her masquerade was exposed, Reeve struggled to reinvent herself even as publishers continued to market her works under the name Onoto Watanna.

In Alberta, though she was eager to leave that penname behind, drought conditions and plummeting wheat and cattle prices meant Reeve needed to earn a living with her pen. Colleagues advised her not to rush into abandoning her Japanese brand. And so in 1920, she rented a house in Calgary and wrote Sunny-San, which would be her last Japanese novel. Set in New York, the book signalled her literary shift to North America. One of the characters in Sunny-San is a paleontologist on a dig in the Red Deer River valley.

Book Cover: Sunny-San
The cover of Sunny-San. Image credit: Abe Books.

Reeve became a leader in Calgary’s burgeoning literary community. She championed the formation of a local branch of the Canadian Authors Association in 1921. Weeks before she was elected branch president in early 1923, she delivered a rousing speech to Calgary’s Canadian Clubs: writers, she declared, were key to building the country’s prosperity with their made-in-Canada stories. Reeve did her part by writing fiction and articles set in Alberta.

Meanwhile, the racism Reeve’s family had faced when she was a girl growing up in Montréal had only worsened: Canadian politicians were proposing even harsher limits than the punishing head tax that had been placed on Chinese immigrants in 1885. Most of the seven hundred Chinese in Reeve’s adopted city of Calgary were men, operating laundries, grocery stores and restaurants, performing low-paid domestic work for affluent families, or working seasonal jobs on nearby ranches. Considered second-class citizens, they were not allowed to vote, hold public office, or own property. On 1 July 1923, Parliament replaced the head tax with the Chinese Immigration Act, banning almost all Chinese people from entering the country and imposing fines, imprisonment and deportation for residents who refused to register. The Chinese community called this “Humiliation Day.”

Anti-Chinese racism also infiltrated Alberta’s literary world. In fall 1922, Reeve’s Edmonton-based colleague, author and judge Emily Murphy, published The Black Candle. In the book, Murphy accused the Chinese of corrupting the country’s white population through the drug trade.

Within this context, Reeve saw little value in openly declaring her Chinese heritage, but on rare occasions, she nodded to her ancestry. At a literary gathering in Windermere, BC, she reportedly wore a “beautiful, Chinese costume.” In a letter to a Toronto colleague, she mentioned her Chinese mother, and then cautioned: “None of this is for publication, by the way.”

Book Cover: Cattle
The cover of Cattle, 1924 edition. Image credit: Abe Books.

In fall 1923, Reeve launched her first Alberta novel, Cattle, the brutal story of a rancher who terrorizes his community west of Calgary. A Chinese ranch cook is a minor character but plays a key role in the bully rancher’s demise.

 In mid-1924, a year before the publication of her second and final Alberta novel, His Royal Nibs, Reeve left the province, heading back to the United States of America to make her living. There she quickly found fulltime work as a screenwriter—the first person of Asian descent to do so in Hollywood. Drafts of her screenplays indicate Reeve’s efforts to write likeable racialized characters involved in interracial relationships.

Reeve would return to Calgary in 1931, reuniting with her now-prosperous husband. Writing would give way to private life. A decade later, weeks before Canada declared war on Japan, she told the Herald she was ashamed of having written about the Japanese and a country she had never visited, and again provided some information about her own heritage. “[Mrs. Reeve] is herself partly Chinese on her mother’s side, and very proud of the fact,” the reporter wrote.

The war was turning the tide, and Albertans were showing new tolerance for the Chinese, many of whom were serving as Canadian soldiers. Anti-Japanese racism was now the order of the day.

A decade before Reeve moved to Alberta, she wrote in a magazine essay: “Sometimes I dream of the day when all of us will be world citizens—not citizens merely of petty portions of the earth, showing our teeth at each other … every man with the savage instinct of the wild beast to get the better of his brother—to prove his greater strength—his mightier mind—the superiority of his color.”

Resonant words from our province’s first writer of Asian descent: a complex woman who responded in her own way to a troubling era of Chinese exclusion.

The Winnifred Eaton Archive offers an illustrated biographical timeline of this fascinating writer. This summer, Historic Calgary Week will present several public events as part of the Onoto Watanna’s Cattle @ 100 conference being held at the University of Calgary (the home of her namesake Reeve Theatre) and at the Chinese Cultural Centre. A centennial edition of Cattle will be released this summer by Toronto’s Invisible Publishing.

About the Author

Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene is part of the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at

Calgary through the Eyes of Writers

Shaun Hunter (CA)

Published: Dec 04, 2018 by RMB | Rocky Mountain Books
ISBN: 9781771602730