Bill Dong

Paper son on his own in Canada at 17

Family gone, Winnipegger Bill Dong remembers the early years

“He told me, because of my nationality, you can only go so far. It hurt me. He’s a white guy, but he was my guidance teacher in high school. He was saying there was a limit to what I can do because of who I am. Geez, I was so surprised. You’re a guidance teacher and you utter these kinds of words to me.” – Bill Dong, recalling advice given to him by his high school counsellor.

“The apology and compensation was a half-measure. It was window display or dressing. The country looks nice and there is no discrimination.” – Bill Dong, on the 2006 apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper

WINNIPEG – It was 1953. Suddenly, Bill Dong found himself alone and a bit lost, following the death of his uncle from a heart attack.

Only two years into his foray into Canada from the small village of Bakshan in southern China, the 17-year-old teen no longer had direct relatives in his newly-found home of Canada. Bill Dong realized he had to strike out on his own in a foreign land to keep his promise to his family.

Bill Dong in High School (3rd row, 2nd from the right); Photo: Dong Family Collection

That promise was to send money home to his impoverished family of two brothers, a sister, numerous relatives, and his parents who had picked him to help the family, sending him to Gold Mountain or “Gum San” as the Chinese called Canada then.

“That was the purpose of my life in Canada,” recalls Mr. Dong, now 76 and recently retired in Winnipeg. “I was supposed to help my family, so I sent home money. That was the Chinese way then.”

His uncle, Bo (Happy) Young Dong, was also very young when he came to Canada, paying the Chinese Head Tax of $500 before 1923. Then, he became stranded in Canada, as the federal government imposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, stopping Chinese immigration and separating families in China and Canada.

Mr. Dong returned to China three years after the Exclusion law was repealed. In Canada, he owned a local hotel and ran the Central Café in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. It had taken him many years to pay his $500 Head Tax back to those he had borrowed from, as it was a sum representing two years of salary in the 1920s. But by 1951, by all accounts, Bill’s uncle had done well for his years spent in Canada. Others in the family from China wanted to emulate his success.

Happy Bo Young Dong had come back to China to find a relative to be his son and help him in Canada and their extended family in China. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, his real daughter and son died tragically when Japanese war planes bombed their small village near Hong Kong. “The Japanese – they were barbaric people. It was a small market town and not a military target and yet they bombed it,” recounts Bill Dong.

“I don`t know why they hated the Chinese. In China, they raped the Chinese women and then they would bayonet them there. Only animals do that.”

On January 11, 1951 – after his family raised $1,000 for the flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, Bill Dong arrived as the “paper son” of Happy Young Dong of Esterhazy, Saskatchewan.

In the 1950s, there were many “paper sons” and “paper daughters” arriving in Canada from China. “Many families did it this way back then,” observes Bill. “After the Second World War, people in China were very poor. We were just peasants. In those days, the age limit to come to Canada was under 18. And every year that Chinese man from Vancouver [Foon Sien Wong] went to Ottawa to raise the age limit. He was a great man,” notes Bill.

Bill was one of 12,000 “paper sons and daughters” to arrive in Canada with false immigration papers in the 1950s and 60s as a result of the federal government’s intransigence in not liberating its immigration laws against the Chinese.  Children under 18 were only allowed in then, along with spouses. On compassionate grounds, the federal government would subsequently announce the Chinese Statement Adjustment Program from 1960-1973 to allow those who had purchased false papers to regularize their citizenship status. Bill Dong would take advantage of this policy and become a naturalized citizen.

The Dong family in China also resisted the changes imposed by a Communist government, which won China’s civil war in 1949, headed by new leader Mao Tse-tung. Their dreams of a better life turned to Gum San or Canada.

Uncle Bo Dong (R) with friend at his store in Esterhazy 1951

The 14-year-old’s first impression of Canada while riding the train from Vancouver to Esterhazy was that it was such a vast country. Accompanying him for the ride was Sam Dong, a friend of his uncle who had come to pick him up. Bill adopted his uncle’s deceased son’s name of Wei Toy Dong. In Brandon, his uncle asked someone to find an English name for him and “Bill” or “William” became a name that stuck with him.

After his uncle’s death, young Bill moved to Winnipeg. It was 1953. He was 17, deciding it was best to go to high school while working part-time as a waiter to send money home to his family in China.

At his part-time job at the venerable Exchange Café, established in 1910 in Chinatown, he would make about $25 per week. By having the benefit of eating at the café, he was able to save much of his money and send it back home. For every $1 he made waiting on tables, 75 cents would be sent home after rent and living expenses.

“I had two months holidays during the summer. I could make more money, but I sent most of it to my family,” he recalls. “They needed to be helped. I had two brothers and sister-in-laws and they had sons and my parents. I think the money I sent home helped them greatly I think. It was too costly for them to come,” says Bill.

By the 1950s, the Chinese in Winnipeg no longer simply had to live in Chinatown, segregated from the white population. Many Chinese newcomers would rent single small rooms with communal bathrooms in rooming houses. The cost of renting monthly then in 1953 was about $20 a month, which Bill happily paid as landlords discriminated against renting to the Chinese. “Some would ask if you were Chinese, and say it was rented. Or they said it was only for women,” recalls Bill. “A German Canadian finally rented to me. They were a little more friendly. ” For $20, tenants could cook on an old stove and share a bathroom in the house.

Young Bill would take a commercial program of studies in school, something which he regrets very much. As he found he could not afford higher education or even to finish high school, given the demands of helping his family in China, one day in 1957, he recalls seeking the advice of his high school counsellor in Grade 11. “He told me, because of my nationality, you can only go so far. It hurt me. He’s a white guy, but he was my guidance teacher in high school. He was saying there was a limit to what I can do because of who I am. Geez, I was so surprised. You’re a guidance teacher and you utter these kinds of words to me.”

“That shows you there was this discrimination at that time even then, how they looked at the Chinese people then. White kids, he told them they could do anything,” recalls Bill, who was voted one of the brightest students in high school by classmates.

It wouldn’t be the last time Bill Dong would encounter prejudice against Chinese Canadians in Winnipeg. Bill would do what other Chinese would do in the city, working as a waiter in one of the cafés.

He recalls working at the Chance Café on Main Street and 4th in 1958. “It was a hard life. Many people were very racist. They would say: ‘Go, back to China!’ It was different from Esterhazy. In those days, they seemed to have a sense of superiority – the white man you know,” reflects Bill.

“They had this over the Chinese. Because of them, we were second-rate citizens – inferior to them. That’s how I feel about them. Not my classmates – but when I worked in the restaurant – the customers, they make you mad.

“That’s why I say now the white people treat us with more respect due to Mao Tse-tung, the communist leader in China. That’s one thing he brought to the Chinese people – he gave the Chinese people respect that we ought to have,” declares Bill.

Since those days in the ’60s, Bill says the overall treatment of Chinese has improved in Canada and Caucasians have accepted the Chinese here a lot more. “I think they saw China as stronger and we were better for it,” he says.

Asked if China will soon become an enemy of the West, Bill believes the days are long gone when his former country could be dominated by any foreign country. “They can’t do that anymore. They will have to agree to disagree – China and the West. Each has a different dream.”

In 1958, Bill’s young dream took a different term. He began working and gradually managing the New Canton Chop Suey House in Chinatown for a man, who would later become his father-in-law. At the time, there were only a few restaurants serving Chinese food, and 12-hour days, 7 days a week was the normal work routine.

Although he continued to send money back to the village of Bak Shan, by 1966, Bill had decided to marry his boss’ daughter – Suzanne Chan – and started his own young family. His parents died in the early ‘60s and his remittances helped his brothers emigrate to North America to Chicago in the 1970s. “When I had my family, it was too much to keep sending money back.”

William Dong in his Winnipeg home. Photo: Gary Gee

Bill finally went back to the old village three years ago, 62 years after leaving at the age of 14. He had wanted to go back, especially when he was homesick in his first year, but as he grew older there was less desire to do so. “I had no urge to go back to China. You can’t afford to go back. When you look back at being here so long, you think of Canada as your home. My house is here. I’m comfortable. When I went back to China, I feel kind of strange even though I come from there.”

After building his own home in a new part of Winnipeg in 1968, Bill Dong has learned to live with how life has turned out. “I remember the village but it’s hard to go back to live there once you get used to the way of living in Canada. Most of them, yes, are gone [from the old village].”

Asked if he finally felt like a Canadian, he says: “I don’t know what a real Canadian is. Nowadays, I feel different.” As for how his neighbours relate to him, he says not many are too friendly. “It’s not that you don’t want to be friendly, they just don’t seem to want to. I keep to myself, they keep to themselves. Our generation just didn’t seem to mix,” he notes. “I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me.”

It isn’t likely his neighbours know much about the history of the Dong family. But Bill also says the 2006 apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Chinese-Canadian community, acknowledging the racist and discriminatory measures by the federal government, did not really affect his life. “This is not a solution to the tax problem. You could do better. . . It was too late; they only compensate the surviving ones. How many is that? That’s no compensation for head tax victims. That’s how I look at it.

“Remember they compensated not that many people. Could be four or less here. It’s the past, and nobody can do anything about it. We had a Chinese MP over the years, and none of them raised the question. There were a lot of Liberal MPs from Vancouver then. Even the Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson – could have used her influence. We had a Lieutenant Governor in B.C. This was all window display or dressing. The country looks nice and there’s no discrimination,” concludes Bill.

Recently retired as a cook from the Shanghai Restaurant, a renowned Chinese restaurant where people would line up for blocks to get into in the 1950s but closed last year, Bill Dong chooses not to look back. “I’m an optimist. I’ve had good times and bad times,” he smiles and chuckles.

His wife suffered a stroke last year and Bill attends to her at a nursing home every day. His son Erasmus, whom Bill named after a Dutch scholar, says his father has been steadfastly strong – helping the family adjust to their changing life circumstances as he did for his family in China in the early years.

“While everyone was pretty much burning out and not handling her condition well, my dad was steady as a rock. Once I became an adult and had the context of how hard it must have been to come here alone at that age, I had a greater appreciation for him,” says Raz.

“I also think that the discipline they instilled on us gave us the drive that made our generation much more successful. That is their gift and sacrifice. They had huge challenges also with the blending of Chinese and Canadian cultures and learning to navigate within.

“Through all the rough times, he didn’t give up though there were bumps with the bottle in the early years. He put up with things that many today would have just walked away from.

“But he was always very generous with what he could and when he did have times of prosperity, he shared it with many. One of the things I appreciated is that he is an amazing cook and that was his way of taking care of us was that we always ate well,” adds Raz of his father’s 30-year career as a cook.

From teenager to grandfather, Bill Dong survived the early years in Canada on his own as a young man determined to fulfill the promise he made his parents in China – to take care of them and the family. Fifty-five years later, he looks back knowing he made good on what he promised – taking care of the family in the old country and his own in Canada.


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