Jack Yee

Community leader Jack Yee recalls 16-year family separation

CALGARY – Jack Yee’s father never paid a $500 Head Tax coming into Canada – one of the few Chinese immigrants of the peasant class who bypassed the infamous tax. His family’s story is part Chinese good fortune and a measure of fate.

Unlike other Chinese immigrants, his father Sam Yee arrived by ship in North America as a young man of 20 in 1914, but took a circuitous route. The ship did not land in Victoria but instead ended up at Angel Island off San Francisco Bay, one of only two ports into North America. This is where many Chinese coming to America were detained for months, and even years, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of the United States. That law excluded most categories of Chinese coming to America and had been in effect since 1882.

Sam Yee was one of the lucky ones though. He told immigration officials he was only a temporary visitor and was headed to meet relatives.

“They [friends] told him to keep walking,” says Jack, now 78. “Go through the mountains to get into Canada. I don’t know why he did that – we [as a family] paid the head tax, so why did he come and go through the United States? That’s something I don’t really know.”

His father did have a relative in Canada – it was his brother. It was he who had paid the infamous $500 Head Tax that took years to repay. The tax amounted to about two years of wages in Canada back in 1914.

After reaching Vancouver from San Francisco, young Sam Yee worked in all sorts of jobs to save enough money to buy a café in Sihole, a town located near Moose Jaw. Like other small towns, it is one of the many in Saskatchewan no longer on the map, a ghost town by the 1950s after all its inhabitants moved away.

After their reunion, his father’s brother moved on to work elsewhere and they lost contact. But Jack’s father would spend almost 30 years in Sihole, operating a small café by himself in a town of less than 100 people. He remembers his father telling him it wasn’t that difficult to operate a café on his own. There weren’t a lot of customers coming in to eat every day, especially during the Great Depression when it was hard for families to put food on the table. “I think it was lonely, but he was a one-man operation all the time,” says Jack.

One way for Sam Yee to survive the “Dirty Thirties” was to close his café for a year. In 1934 at the height of the Depression, he scrounged up enough to go back to his Taishan village in southern China for a year. Under the Chinese Immigration Act brought in by 1923, all Chinese nationals had up to two years to return to their place of origin lest they be barred from Canada. Some Chinese men were able to save enough to see their families once or twice during 24 years of exclusion against Chinese wanting to come to Canada.

Sam Yee, at 40 years of age, was ready to marry when he returned to China in 1934 and he took a bride named May Wong. During that year, Jack was born, but his father left – travelling the steamship across the Atlantic and by train back to Sihole.

It would not be until 1950 that little Jack Yee would finally meet his father, after the Chinese Immigration Act or Exclusion Act – as it was known by the Chinese community in Canada – was repealed in 1947. He would be 16.

“I never saw my Dad until I came over here. I was a baby when he left [in 1934]. I used to ask people, who came back from Canada, what my Dad looked like. When I was a kid in China, I was really curious.”

While the Japanese were brutally murdering the Chinese population in other parts of China, Jack says he, his mother, and sister were mainly preoccupied with not dying from starvation. Their plot of land to grow rice was small. Just to eat, they harvested before the rice was mature. “We didn’t have much. We were very poor when I was young. And we were always short of food,” he recalled.

When the Japanese arrived in their village, Jack recalls that they took their grain harvest, their two ducks, and one pig. The family left the village shortly before it was overrun by the Japanese Imperial Army and made it to Hong Kong by boat. Luck had found them again.

Jack Yee

Because many Chinese live for generations in their villages in China, those who stayed were able to re-establish a traditional network of communications with their overseas relatives after the surrender of the Japanese and the end of World War II in 1945. As a result, sometime in 1946, Jack and his family not only received a letter from their long-lost father in Saskatchewan but a remittance to help sustain them until he could figure out how to reunite with them. One year later, the Canadian government repealed the reviled Chinese Exclusion Act. It had been eight years of silence and a 13-year absence but Jack’s father was determined to bring his family to Canada.

That reunion happened at the end of 1949 on a chilly and snowy day at the railway station in Moose Jaw. Like his father, the family came through from San Francisco but only because the boat ride was $400 cheaper than the plane ticket. At the end of the station was a lone figure.

“My mother said, ‘that’s your Dad.’ He was pretty happy to see the family because he missed the family, too. We’d never seen snow before, either.”

The family took up residence in Morse, Saskatchewan – a short distance away from Sihole. Sam Yee had earned enough money to buy the Exchange Café. He and the family would live there for 20 years before retiring and moving to Calgary,

Morse was a railway town. Like many across the Prairies, it was these towns where the Chinese migrated after building the CPR in 1885. Many more would come after the Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted in 1923. In nearby Moose Jaw, the Chinese used to live, work, and sleep in the sunless small hovels underground below the streets of the town, next to the railway. They would work in laundries and other service jobs to pay off their $500 Head Tax and as labourers on the CPR as it was extended in railway towns across Saskatchewan.

The Chinese lived across from famed gangster and bootlegger Al Capone, who had his own tunnels. Jack doesn’t think the Chinese crossed paths with Capone. More and more Chinese came to work in Saskatchewan, following the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923.

“It’s quite a story… one tunnel is for the Chinese, the other is for Al Capone. Al Capone used to make whiskey in the tunnel and then he shipped it. His office was across from the railroad station on Main Street. His office had a fireplace. From his fireplace, if you pushed it, it turns around and there’s a stairway that goes downstairs into a tunnel.”

“The Chinese tunnel is different… it’s a separate tunnel. We don’t know [if they knew Al Capone],” said Jack.

At the Exchange Café, they would serve only Canadian fare on the menu such as small steaks, hamburgers, sausages, and pork chops. The meals were all-inclusive, with the main course plus soup, drinks, and dessert for about $1. “I remember coffee was only 5 cents and cigarettes were 35 cents. We didn’t serve Chinese food because in a small town there was no supply for groceries. We didn’t even get Chinese groceries for ourselves. We had to get it from Moose Jaw,” recalled Jack.

Morse was a town, very tightly knit, and even in the 1950s, Jack considers his family extremely lucky because townspeople were so neighbourly in the railway town. “They accepted us. We never suffered any discrimination. They were friendly to us. We were very, very lucky. People are so close and so helpful,” said Jack, who returned for the town’s 100th anniversary in 2007. “They still remember us,” he recalled.

Jack would leave Morse after 10 years. He enrolled in the University of Calgary to study commerce and specialized in his profession, auditing oil companies until his retirement in 2004.

He had become president of the United Calgary Chinese Association (UCCA) – an umbrella community organization representing 29 local Chinese organizations since 1969. By 2005, it had been 120 years since the passage of the Chinese Head Tax. That federal law and the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1923continued to dog succeeding Canadian governments as Chinese-Canadian families and groups continued to lobby to force some kind of closure and resolution on the issue.

By chance or fate, Jack Yee knew the Calgary Centre Member of Parliament– Jim Prentice – who was the Conservative party’s point man on the issue.

The Conservatives sought advice from Yee and other community leaders in a number of private meetings.

“We said no we don’t want money compensation, but an apology to recognize the hardship for people and we also recommend money be given to any organization should they apply for a project that was cultural or educational,” said Yee. The new government agreed, but also decided to offer direct financial redress to the few Head Tax payers still alive or their surviving spouses.

Jack Yee works at Calgary’s Bowside Manor, a non-profit apartment complex photo Gary Gee

The UCCA also urged the Conservatives to nix a $2.5 million agreement from the Liberal government to a group called the National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC).

“The guy representing Calgary wasn’t even born in China, he was born in Indonesia,” said Jack. “But they were really happy to accept the government money. We thought it was a good thing that the Liberal government was giving money to the Chinese community. They sent us money to go, including bus money. When we got there, the NCCC told us to have a good time and tour the city, everything had all been decided. We said the $12 million was to compensate the stakeholders, like the people who paid the Head Tax, not to give the money to the Congress. We raised heck over that,” recalls Jack. The board elected apparently did not include established Chinese community organizations.

The legislation to implement the agreement died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved in November 2005 and an election was called.

“The Liberal government just never figured out the Head Tax issue. They didn’t understand it,” said Jack.

The irony of not having his father pay the Head Tax while influencing the outcome of the Head Tax issue is not lost on Jack Yee. Both events seemed to be a lucky outcome for his family – through chance or fate.

“This stretched out over a period of more than 100 years. It must have been pretty rough if you were by yourself here,” he acknowledged, remembering his uncle who had paid the Head Tax.

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