George Yee

Loh Wah Kiu pays high price for life in ‘Gum San’
Alberta’s George Yee never saw his family again in China

EDMONTON – It was a call for adventure that young George Mun Yee heard as a young boy in 1923 when he was chosen by his village elders to go to Canada from China.

Just 13 years of age, as the strongest young man in the south-central village of Dip Sack, he was chosen as the one who would make everyone proud. No other members of his extended family had ever been to Canada, so the chance to do so carried a heavy burden to bring home riches.

Like others before him, George’s family and friends hoped the young boy would find his family’s fortune in “Gum San” or the land called Gold Mountain by the Chinese people. From a poor peasant family, George swam to Hong Kong to start his journey of finding a better life for all. As tradition went, he was expected to return to China with money to help not just his family but to help improve life in the village.

George landed a month before the Canadian government put into law the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. This law would serve to close the door on Chinese immigration to Canada for the next 24 years, with less than 50 Chinese allowed into the country.

George would pay a Head Tax of $500 to get into the country in 1923, a large amount of money equivalent to two years of wages then. A waiter in a café at that time generally made about $20 per month working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. It would take George almost 13 years to pay the Head Tax off. He would have little money for a voyage back to China to see his family again.

Chinese in Canada were allowed up to two years for overseas visits under the Exclusion Act, but many poor workers could not pay for the $15 one-way berth on the Empress of China steamship travelling across the Atlantic Ocean.

George Mun Yee was part of the generation of Loh Wah Kiu overseas Chinese who became the early generations of pioneer settlers in Canada from the Chinese community. They came from a life of toiling in the rice fields in China for little reward except to keep their families alive. Most young people like George Mun Yee never had an education and were illiterate when they arrived in Canada. The generations before him were recruited as labourers to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States and then the Canadian Pacific Railway in Canada.

In 1885, the Canadian government accepted a Royal Commission recommendation and responded to anti-Chinese sentiment by enacting a $50 Head Tax law to restrict further Chinese immigration. The Loh Wah Kiu experienced the racist attitudes and overt discrimination and few had the education or the language skills to communicate with the dominant English population in Canada.

In fact, George never learned English, says his son John, who is based in Edmonton. “He only knew a few [English] words most of his life. He was only 13 and there was no formal schooling here for him, and no social programs for new immigrants. He just wanted to earn a living,” noted John.

Recently, John and his siblings decided to retrace their father’s history, as he never talked about himself or his life to his children before he died in 1978. “That was the Loh Wah Kiu, though. You don’t ask those questions and the parents don’t talk about themselves to their children in that way,” said Tom, another son.

They knew early in his time in Canada, their father worked as a labourer in lumber yards and camps to pay the debt incurred from the Head Tax. He would also find work in market gardens. That was fortuitous as learning that business would help George Yee support eight children later in life. Market gardens, where farmers sold their produce door to door, was a popular business in the Vancouver area – mostly run by Chinese and Japanese.

It would take George until 1936, then a man of 26, to pay off his debt from the Head Tax and his voyage to Canada. During this time, there was apparently no communication with his family in China, and because the Sino-Japanese War cut off communications for most of the war years. From that time on, separation from family was the norm for many Chinese in Canada like George Yee.

In 1941, George’s luck would change. He was given an opportunity to have an arranged marriage with a Canadian-born Chinese woman from Cumberland, British Columbia – a rare chance for any Chinese man, especially with the Chinese Exclusion Act limiting family formation in Canada. He followed the family traditions and married Yuen Lim on November 15, 1941 and together, they made plans to start a family. His wife did not know English either. It was only by chance that Yuen Lim would marry George Yee, as she only returned to Canada in 1941.

In 1928, she was five when she and her mother Chan Shee returned to China following the death of her father in Canada. His remains were to be returned to China for final burial, following Chinese custom. Yuen would come back to Canada 13 years later as an 18-year-old. But her mother had been away for more than two years and had to remain in China, despite spending almost 20 years in Canada and bearing nine children. Yuen’s married sisters and all the children who were born in China also could not enter Canada.

The newlywed couple moved back to Black Diamond, a small town of 1,000 in southern Alberta just as an oil boom hit the Turner Valley area. With his meagre savings, George Yee bought three acres of land in Black Diamond, started growing crops, and established the town’s first and only market garden business. It would be in place for the next 40 years. The business, which had a greenhouse, would help pay for the costs of raising eight children in the next 20 years.

Every day for almost 40 years, George Yee would travel to the communities of Longview, Turner Valley, and around their home town of Black Diamond to sell fresh produce, vegetables, and fruit. “He learned how to drive. He was the only truck farmer. My mother told me he went around with his truck and sold his vegetables and fruit from door to door in the middle of the Depression,” said his second-oldest son Jim, who was born in 1944. With eight kids to take care of in 20 years, it was difficult for their mother to handle all of them. “She told me sometimes father would ease her load by taking one or two of the babies and putting them in a box in the back of his truck,” said John.

The kids would grow up working in the market garden, after school and on weekends. ”We had to come back home to move vegetables, move rocks from the field, all sorts of chores,” said daughter Dorothy.

“Yes, the chores. We had a market garden, so we had to plant and fertilize, weed, do whatever. That was the lifestyle. We were sort of cheap labour in a way,” recalled John. “Mother would work outside and help sell the plants. I think we sort of resented doing all the chores when all your friends get to go out and play and you have to go home. Now that we’re older and learned the hardships he went through, it’s sad we didn’t appreciate it.”

“I don’t know how he did it. It took him 13 years to pay the Head Tax. Then, he married late and had eight kids, running a business. He had two cars and he had horses before that. It was a busy life,” says Jim. So busy, that it appears their father could not figure out how to reconnect with his long, lost family in China.

As teenagers, John and his siblings encountered some prejudiced attitudes in Black Diamond, a town of only 1,000. “They would start yelling ‘Chink’,” recalls Dorothy, who grew up in the ‘50s. “But that’s about all.”

It was schoolyard hi-jinks, not the kind of daily, virulent racism they believed their father endured while living and working in Victoria and Vancouver in the 1920s and ‘30s, observes John. “During his time, they didn’t allow the Chinese to go beyond Chinatown. There was segregation and all that stuff, so he had to be subject to quite a bit of discrimination.”

The family, however never discussed their parents’ past as the Yee children found they were accepted in the community, joining cadets and Brownies and later, the Armed Forces reserve unit. By the ‘60s, the Turner Valley area was in a downturn economically as the oil boom fizzled. And so did the family business as the children began looking towards higher education and other vocations than what they grew up with. Ironically, the plot of land in Black Diamond which was sold to George Yee in 1935 turned out to be the wrong one when he tried to resell it decades later. Instead, it was the town’s land he had mistakenly farmed on for decades, as he was unable to read the English on his buyer’s agreement.

“But the city let him farm anyway. No one else was using it, so the city was really nice about it for a long time,” said Jim. The plot of land he actually bought was deemed worthless and not farmable.

In 1960, after decades of silence, his father received a letter from one of his sisters who had moved to Hong Kong. “I remember when I was 10, his sister wrote him and he took a plane to meet her. She came over to Hong Kong and she wanted to meet our Dad. But the family [from China] never came over,” said son Tom. The kids, in their teens and younger, never heard his father or mother discuss the journey.

Near the end of his life, their father apparently tried to make it into China in the late 1970s from Hong Kong but was stopped there after he did not know that his passport was not enough to get him into the country. “He needed his visa, so he never made it,” said son Jim.

“He tried to apply from Hong Kong and he didn’t know where to go. So, he never got it [his visa], and he was disappointed he couldn’t go back. Then, he contracted gout and he had to deal with that,” said Tom. Whether it was fate or chance, it would be the last time that George Yee would get any opportunity to reunite with his parents or any other family members in China after almost a half-century of separation. In 1978, and after 55 years since he left the old village, the last time he saw his parents and most of his siblings, George would pass away.

“His nature was to work. But he made a special trip 60 years ago to go visit her [his sister]. And you can bet he wanted to reunite with his family in China. But he only had one opportunity,” noted John.

George’s widow, Yuen, who outlived her husband by 30 years, would receive the ex-gratia payment of $20,000 from the federal government in 2008 and this only occurred after the children realized a few years ago that their father must have paid the Chinese Head Tax.

George Mun Yee’s Head Tax certificate in 1923 after coming to Canada as a young boy photo Yee family

John Yee, who was former president of the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Association, shakes his head at the lack of educational material on the Head Tax and Exclusion Act. “You know I grew up here and went to school here and this is the first time I hear about it? Why isn’t it taught in school in the social studies program? They have a section in Grade Six or Nine about studying China. That study of China should emphasize the immigration to Canada, about the Canadian Chinese and the turmoil that happened,” said John, who believes that each descendant family should also get compensated for each head tax certificate paid.

As for what his father would feel had he heard the Prime Minister’s 2006 apology to the Chinese-Canadian community, John wasn’t really sure. “They seemed to want to forget about it. I don’t think our father understood why the law was in place. Like some, he may have been ashamed.”

“We’re pretty proud of what he did in overcoming that. We never knew about it. We didn’t even realize what he’d done. It’s how the Loh Wah Kiu are. In the Chinese culture, they just don’t talk about themselves.”

In 1998, the family did finally visit their father’s birthplace, only to find the Yee village home abandoned. They found an uncle who told them about their grandmother’s wait for her son, George. “An uncle told us that my father’s mother looked out for him to return every day, and he never got back. She looked for him every day, for 35 years, and never saw him again,” said Jim Yee.

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