Keeping Culture Alive at Home
Westman Parent Magazine ~ February 2010
Jamie Stouffer interviews Sue-On Hillman
Robin ~ Bill ~ Sue-On ~ China-Li ~ Soulin ~ Ja-On ~ Angela

An email interview with a voiceless Sue-On Hillman. Thanks so much Sue-On for being willing to contribute to this issue! We hope your voice is healthy and strong in time for the work  you will be doing as MC at the Chinese Pavilion this weekend!

(To give the perspective from the Hillman Anglo-Saxon side of the family I submitted a bit more information to be added to the interview – but my submission missed the magazine’s deadline – so I’ve integrated it here into the text that had already gone to press – Bill)

What are your ethnic backgrounds?
Sue-On: I was born in Toisan, China and was smuggled out of Communist China at the age of 2 by my mother’s friend. I lived in Hong Kong with my maternal grandparents until my mother was released by the regime and joined me five years later. In 1958, my mother and I immigrated to Canada. My father had come to join his father in Canada in 1923 at the age of 14. My mother and I were able to join him in Newdale, Manitoba when immigration laws were relaxed to allow families to join husbands and fathers.

Where were you raised?
Sue-On: I spent my first eight Canadian years in the rural town of Newdale, MB. After Bill and I were married in 1966, we moved to nearby Strathclair, Bill’s hometown. We lived on the original Campbell/Hillman homestead where our three children were born. In 1992, we moved to Brandon when we took over the family business - SOO'S Restaurant (Soo’s Chop Suey House) on 10th Street.

Bill: I was born in Strathclair of English and Scottish lineage. We still own the heritage home situated on the land my great grandfather Campbell homesteaded in 1878 -- and it was here that Sue-On and I spent the first 25 years of our marriage. It was from this home base that we raised our kids, commuted to music gigs locally and across Canada, the USA and the UK -- and I taught high school for three decades. Music has always been one of my main inspirations in life. When Elvis and all the Sun Records artists surfaced in the mid-'50s my dad showed me a few chords on his guitar and there was no turning back. One-nighters, bars, TV, film, tours, etc. followed.

Following our marriage in the mid-'60s, Sue-On joined me in these musical pursuits and we waited for 10 years before starting a family so that we would be in a better position to spend more time with them. Our country and city homes are both overflowing with instruments, records, videos, computer technology, comics, games, magazines, books, Eastern and Western art . . . and good food. This seems to have left its mark as all three kids are very creative, capable, and are excellent musicians. When we moved to Brandon to take over the family restaurant the kids took on key roles in the business -- and when we moved on to resume teaching careers at Brandon University all three kids followed us there as well. They have embraced modern and traditional Western cultures wholeheartedly -- but their pursuits are flavoured with an appreciation of their Asian heritage.

What connections, ties or understanding did you have of your heritage growing up?  What did your parents do to maintain a sense of your culture?
Sue-On: My mother maintained all the activities pertaining to Chinese traditional festivals: specific foods for Lunar New Year, Dragon Boat season, Harvest Moon, birthdays. These also included burning of incense, offerings to the ancestors. My parents and I spoke our village dialect - Toisanese at home. On special occasions such as birthdays, other Chinese families from our village who had also operated restaurants along Highway 16 (Yellowhead Route) would gather to enjoy an evening of food, conversation, catch up on what’s happening “back home”, and reminisce about the old days. As children, we were able to gather some of the history and traditions of our culture by listening to these stories.

Bill: Ancestors from both sides of my family were Scottish/English prairie pioneers and settled in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 19th century. As a child I was made very aware of this heritage and we even wrote and recorded a concept album in an English studio during one of our music tours: The album was "Prairie Saga" and included songs such as:

"John Campbell: Pioneer"

Westward bound the year was '78
John Campbell - Pioneer
Steamin' by train and rolling by wagon
To Manitoba's wild frontier

His daddy built a house of sod just for the winter
Come summer built a house of stone
Cleared the virgin land and they did it by hand
Workin' aching fingers to the bone

He met my Nanny in a country school house
Where they danced the night away
Bought a gold band and asked for the hand
Of pretty little Katy McKay

Green Bluff girl then moved into Maple Grove
Just a little south of town
Helping in the fields and cooking all the meals
And watching little babies run around

Now I walk the same fields and the forests
But it's not as it once used to be
And I realize with tears in my eyes
Time fades their memory

'20s brought good times, '30s took them back
'40s called the second son away
Winter '55 took and old man's life
And a woman's will to live another day

But the house still stands to the memory of a man
Who settled on this prairie land
Trees a-blowing in the wind are still growing
Planted by a woman's loving hand

Ref: www.hillmanweb.com/cd
All three kids picked up and ran with the torch to some degree. Daughter China-Li studied highland dance, bagpipes, harp, fencing, etc. and I had the pleasure of accompanying her to many Robbie Burns nights where she performed. The boys developed an appreciation for our family's military heritage and spent, as had I, many years in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. Seven of their great uncles had served in WWII and three of them lost their lives as RCAF bomber pilots. My dad had served as CPO on HMCS Prince Robert, which freed the Hong Kong prisoners and accepted the Japanese surrender. I believe that this background has provided the family with special disciplines and deep roots.

How many children do you have?
We have three children:
Ja-On Hillman, massage therapist who owns and operates a therapeutic massage clinic in Brandon (Reactive Massage), married to Angela Patton Hillman, son Soulin
Robin Hillman, software architect with Tactica in Winnipeg
China-Li Hillman, medical student soon to graduate from University of Manitoba School of Medicine

As parents, was it important to share your culture with your family? If so, why?  How did you do this?  What are you most proud of when you think about your parenting?
It is important to share my culture with my children. It is part of them. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles from both sides of our families surround them. My mother especially has helped in maintaining the “Chinese-ness” with our children. She often spent weeks with us in Strathclair, cooking traditional foods such as joongzi (sticky rice in bamboo leaves), which is a favourite comfort food for our kids. Along with the food, she also told them the history behind such foods as joongzi. My mother, who is now 101, speaks only Chinese. Through her, the three kids have learned a few phrases, and have kept the connection with this part of their heritage.

Through Bill's side of the family, the kids have also learned the Scottish and English parts of their heritage. Music played an important role in the Campbell/Hillman side. All three kids play instruments and have performed with us at one time or another: Ja-On - sax and clarinet, Robin - trombone, drums, bass guitar, China-Li - our most Scottish offspring, plays bagpipes, Celtic harp, piano, and is an accomplished highland dancer.

You were a bi-racial family living in Brandon Manitoba before that became something we frequently see.  What was that experience like for your family?  What advice would you share with other couples of mixed heritage who are raising young families in the area?
Bill and I were married in 1966, so definitely, we got a lot of attention wherever we went. I think the mix of our two cultures was better accepted than some. I don’t feel there were any "bad experiences," more of curious looks than anything. This was especially true when we traveled in the USA on holidays with Ja-On when he was about 6 months old. This was shortly after the Vietnam War. Many American soldiers were returning home with Asian wives and children. There was a lot of curiosity as to what their grandchildren would look like.

Our kids spent their early years in a small rural community. They mixed in well with everyone. Our kids look more Caucasian than Chinese, so they blended in well (smile). Even when we moved to Brandon, they had no problems because of their Chinese heritage. They were raised Canadian.

Advice to other mixed marriage parents: Share your history and culture with your children. Food, language, festivals are great teaching tools. Our kids look forward to celebrating traditional Chinese festivals as much as Christmas and Halloween! Bill and I both have black belts in Asian martial arts and we involved all three kids in this discipline.

I know you are heavily involved with the Chinese Pavilion, how did that happen?  What do you want to share with the Westman Area about the Chinese culture?  What do you feel is most important for others to learn/understand/experience?

The Chinese Pavilion was Westman Chinese Association's first action to introduce our culture to the rest of the community.
Since Maple Leaf recruited over 400 Chinese workers, Brandon is seeing many more Asian faces in the stores and on the streets. In introducing the pavilion, we wanted to introduce different food, entertainment, and never-seen-before aspects of our culture, but more importantly, to show our new citizens what the community of Brandon is about. Food and entertainment play an important role in every culture. Is there a better way to “make friends” and promote understanding among people?

You have travelled the world, what were the best lessons you learned from spending time in other countries?
Our music careers, our work as university educators and researchers, as well as Bill’s work for the Edgar Rice Burroughs company in California, have led us to many foreign countries. We’ve always looked upon exploring different cultures as a wonderful adventure. We took our kids along on many of these adventures which has served as a bonding experience. We have found that there is good in every culture. Always look for the good in people. "Never judge a book by its cover" – an old proverb but it still holds true.

What message would you impart to parents regardless of their cultural ancestry about sharing their culture/heritage/ancestry with their children.  Why is it important?  What is there to be gained?
We might try to teach our kids the language (which can be hard to maintain once they start school!) and traditions of our culture. But, we should also teach them that all cultures have the same basic values - good manners, respect for others, help others when in need. Regardless of where we come from, if we can live by these values, we would get along with each other regardless of heritage.

And what about understanding other cultures? What is to be gained from experience / knowledge / exposure for children?
If kids learn to respect others, then they would accept the differences in different cultures. Perhaps then there would be less discrimination.

Some of our Web references that have been referred to in the interview

The Hillman Eclectic Studio I

The Hillman Eclectic Studio II

Bill & Sue-On Hillman: A Musical Odyssey

Sue-On’s China Roots

Hillman Family Stories

The Hillman / UK Connection: The Performance Tours

The Recording Years: 12 Albums

A Sampling of Music Influences

The Chinese Pavilion at the Lt. Gov.’s WinterFest

Hillman Pages on the Brandon University Website

Bill's work for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. in Tarzana, California 
as official editor and Web master for over 10,000 of their Web pages.
Current projects: 
Phil Collins' Tarzan the Musical in Europe
Disney/Pixar’s next major release: ERB's John Carter of Mars




Many more spread across

See Hillmans In The News 2010: Part I

Bill & Sue-On Hillman