Norman Tan and Sid Chow Tan

Head Tax activist recalls lessons of Prairie life from feisty grandfather

“If we don’t show strength, and we show we can’t unite over our history over honour and over justice, we deserve to be chinks, don’t we? We will be chinks all our lives in Canada.” – Sid Chow Tan

“I always knew I was Chinese. And I always knew I was different. I just tried to survive that. There was no getting away from the fact you were different. We were different simply because we lived at the back of the store.” – Sid Chow Tan, on growing up Chinese in Battleford, Saskatchewan.

“She said what if the greencoats (immigration officials) come in the middle of the night and knock on our door? Take you away, tie you up and throw you in the river, then what will I do? We are a family. Then where would the family be?” – Sid Chow Tan, on how his 95-year-old grandmother worried about Sid’s involvement in the Head Tax campaign.

BATTLEFORD, Saskatchewan – As a teenager, Sid Chow Tan always wondered if there was more to life than living in the small west-central Saskatchewan town of Battleford.

“I thought I was being hidden. I just couldn’t believe my destiny was tied up in Battleford. But it seems like it is,” he says. As he discovered, the bright lights of the city have never replaced the lessons of life he experienced in that Prairie town, especially what he learned from his mentor and hero – his late grandfather Norman Tan.

It was in Battleford from the 1950s to the ‘70s that the future Head Tax activist learned the meaning of suffering and being treated unfairly just because someone looked different.

Head Tax Activist Sid Tan

Racism didn’t just raise its head in Battleford, it was prevalent for much of his grandfather’s time – the 1920s to ‘60s – an era that many Loh Wah Kiu (old overseas Chinese) families who lived in Canada do not remember fondly.

As the only full Chinese family in Battleford at the start of the ‘50s, Sid says his grandfather took the name “Norman” to escape or deflect the racism that was directed at him.

His grandfather’s Chinese name was Chow Gim Tan. He took precautions, deciding to adopt an English name. “He took the name of Norman because the Normans were the last ones who kicked the Anglos’ butts,” says Sid, referring to the English people’s battles with Normandy in the 1000s. “He was being mischievous. But most people knew him for most of his life as Norman,” he notes.

When he arrived, Sid Tan would be named after a local lawyer in Battleford, Sidney Waterman – a friend who would help family members emigrate to Canada and whenever Norman Tan would have conflicts with authorities. Over decades, there were many such incidents, says Sid.

Like other Chinese Canadians, the Tan family’s history in this country is a long and storied one, going back to the days of the California gold rush of 1849. Sid Tan’s grandfather’s great uncle’s father passed through San Francisco around that time.

His Chinese name is unknown but his adventures would bring him to Barkerville and Victoria where his son Chow Sing joined him later to help build the most dangerous and difficult portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. An estimated 600-1500 Chinese railway workers would die building the CPR from 1881-1885.

Chow Sing would help Sid’s grandfather Chow Gim Tan – 19 at the time – emigrate to Canada by helping him pay a Head Tax of $500 in 1919.

Chow Gim Tan would marry Wong Nooy, Sid’s grandmother, in China in 1926, but they would be separated for a quarter of a century by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Sid Tan’s maternal grandfather, Wong Mon Sang, would also pay the Head Tax. He was a partner in the Four Winds Café in Calgary and was also separated from his wife, Wong Woo, and their children by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion law.

Chow Wing Kong, Sid Tan’s father, would be separated from his father Chow Gim or Norman Tan for 46 years shortly after birth in 1926 to 1972.

Sid Tan, who came as a “paper son” with his grandmother in 1950, would not be united with his parents or siblings for 22 years. In 1953, his grandparents brought another “paper son” to Canada – Sid’s adopted older brother Richard who was named after the town’s mayor at the time, Richard Nelson.

After his arrival in Canada, Norman Tan worked in restaurants in British Columbia and steamers to Alaska as a cook and bottle washer. In the mid-20s, he started Modern Confectionery in Battleford, a sandwich shop diner later converted into a general store.

Sid says his grandfather often talked about how bad things were for him before being able to reunite with his wife and two “paper sons.” His grandfather talked about discrimination and trying to constantly stand up for his rights as a person and a Chinese national, deprived of human rights protection.

“How bad was life then? He didn’t want me to play a lot of pool, not because of people who hung around pool halls. In the game of eight ball, he said the yellow ball is always below the other balls and it’s the white ball which knocks the other balls around all the time. In snooker, the only ball lower in value than the yellow ball is the red ball. It was his way of seeing the world and talking about prejudice. How bad were things to come up with such an explanation?” asks Sid.

Grandfather Norman Tan at a younger age, Photo: Tan Family collection

Sid made peace by telling his grandfather that he knocked the white ball around when he played pool. He could make it spin forward and backwards, and even knock it off the table though there was a penalty. Seems his grandfather was okay with him playing pool after that although grandmother was concerned about the folks hanging out in pool halls.

Their store though catered primarily to the Métis and native community. “The genteel people of Battleford did not shop at my grandfather’s,” recalls Sid. “Only in an emergency did they come, but his place wasn’t the one they went to for their everyday supplies.”

His own experiences in Battleford were not as difficult as that experienced by his grandfather, but his heritage always made him stand out.

“I always knew I was Chinese. And I always knew I was different. I just tried to survive that. There was no getting away from the fact you were different. We were different simply because we lived at the back of the store,” recalls Sid.

Sid says the people of Battleford were forced by default to get to know his grandfather Norman because he was a local businessman in the community who stood up for his rights. Although his English was not very good, Sid calls his grandfather a “straight-shooter” when speaking his mind. “He had a business, he had rights. Perhaps more than any Chinese people did during his time he knew what not having rights was about.”

On numerous occasions, Norman Tan was the subject of town council meetings for violating Sunday shopping hours and being open at night after 6 p.m. And many times, lawyer Sidney Waterman was there to help him. “We were different then in the 1950s and ‘60s because our store opened on Sundays and late at night. But my grandfather was just trying to survive. Needless to say, he probably made the news with this all the time,” says Sid.

The most notorious incident in his grandfather’s early years in Battleford involved an attempted robbery at the cafe turned store. “My grandfather ran this place by himself. Two tough guys came in and tried to rob him. They hit him from behind. They kind of beat him up a bit and wanted money. The way grandfather tells it, he thought he was going to die. The opportunity arose to grab a knife. As it turned out, he got them both and sent them out in the snow bleeding.”

The police followed the blood and caught the robbers but Norman Tan ended up in court for his aggravated assault on them. The case didn’t go to trial after his lawyer – Sidney Waterman – determined that the two robbers were thugs and had long criminal records.

But from that time on, Sid says his grandfather cultivated the persona of the “Crazy Chinaman.” When trouble started brewing, particularly with members of two local gangs, Wong Nooy would call Norman from the back of the store. He would come sharpening a long knife – almost as big as a machete. “He would shout out: Is something wrong, is something wrong? I remember him chasing these guys out of the store. His reputation was that he was a stubborn and mean-assed guy. He was stocky,” notes Sid, although Norman Tan only stood 5 feet 4 inches.

Much of Norman Tan’s troubles would come in 1949 when the Communist government took over in China and seized all of his property, land, and assets in his home village. Most of it came from his 30 years of earnings in Canada at the Modern Confectionery store.

“He had to start over at the age of 50 in Canada. He had lost everything he had saved for after putting it all in China,” notes Sid, adding the family fled to Hong Kong with what they could carry.

Norman Tan, who did not speak the English language that well, decided to bring over Sid and his adopted brother Richard after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947. “We were chosen because he hoped that my brother Richard and I would succeed in uniting all of their extended family by understand and adopting the laws and customs of Canada,” recalls Sid.

Running the store was never an easy life for the Tans. Sid recalls his grandmother just always working. “She worked from morning to night. If it wasn’t cleaning or washing dishes, it was dusting shelves, it was looking after the store or cooking.”

“They just worked. It’s hard to imagine what their life was like. They got up, they got the store going with the early morning trade. They would make coffee and eat, open, stock shelves, and at night wash the floor. It was just a lot of work to do running a store but much easier than a café,” says Sid. The Modern Confectionery was open often from 7 a.m. to 11 at night and seven days a week, closing early Christmas and New Year’s.

The Modern Confectionery was also an informal eatery for some business associates in town. “Grandfather ran an informal kitchen. Our living room and kitchen would be making meals for 15 to 20 people. The local people who we knew would come in and pay a buck or so and get a meal. It wasn’t public. Sidney Waterman would come in. The hardware owner would come, mayor and councillors, and they were all in our living room. There were a few favoured native people as well but it was basically the crowd from Main Street,” he explains. “Many of them would ask grandfather to cater their dinners as well.”

By bending the rules a bit and operating as many hours as possible, the Modern Confectionery lasted almost four decades in Battleford.

“There’s a different way Chinese greet each other now from the old days,” observes Sid. “The new people say: ‘when did you come into Canada?’ The old Chinese would say: ‘what year did you come to the land of perpetual toil?’”

For Norman Tan, perpetual toil lasted until 1972 when he became ill and his grandson would be his main caregiver. Eight years earlier, his grandfather made sure that his two “sons” would not have a future they regretted.

In 1964 at 14 years of age, Sid Tan and his adopted brother Richard were allowed to change their status as “paper sons” and become the legal grandsons of Norman Tan. “China-born and Canadian-made – that’s me. A life shaped by racist laws. Richard and I lived in fear of being deported from childhood to our teens when we received citizenship,” recalls Sid.

Under an amnesty program, initiated by the John Diefenbaker Conservative government in 1960, over 12,000 Chinese nationals in Canada who had false identity papers were allowed to change their status without penalty. It was an about-face as the Canadian government slowly recognized how unequal its race-based immigration policies were, especially when it involved the Chinese community in Canada.

In 1972, Norman Tan would take on his final conflict with Canadian authorities when Sidney Waterman helped him apply to the Minister of Immigration to admit his real son and his family to Canada after 46 years of separation. The family collected signatures for a petition and were successful in gaining a ministerial compassionate permit for family reunification. “I was a University of Calgary student then and we had finally fulfilled my grandparents’ hope to unite us with my biological father, mother, brother, and five sisters,” recalls Sid.

Unfortunately, it was a reunion of strangers after decades – a common occurrence in the Chinese-Canadian community after the exclusion era. Sid would never live with his father’s family and was end-of-life care-giver for his grandparents. By 1987, following his father’s death, the family splintered and he has been estranged from his mother and siblings in what he calls a situation of “moral outrage.”

“It [family fractures] are almost to be expected when you have this kind of situation. The Exclusion Act was the final act of the government’s actions to make sure the Chinese didn’t survive. We get it two generations afterwards. Ours was an echo,” he says, referring to the divisions in his extended family 40 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

Sid’s grandfather would die in 1978 but up until that time he had long conversations with the grandson he thought of as a son. By then, Sid would have his own young family. “It wasn’t clear to me what he was talking about. In fact, it was about 10 years later when I got into the Head Tax movement around 1986 that I finally understood,” says Sid.

In one of those conversations, Norman Tan lamented how he had not achieved much in his life. “He knew he was dying. And he was voicing, here I am dying and I haven’t accomplished anything,” recounts Sid.

“I told him if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. Whatever I accomplished is because of you. In our family, you didn’t get to go to school. I finished university. That was made possible by you. You have great-grandchildren born in this country – the first ever in our family. What do you mean you haven’t accomplished anything?

“He started tearing up and said: Now, I know you’re Chinese. That was one of the nicest things he ever said to me.” After his grandfather’s death, Sid Tan would take Norman Tan’s real name Chow adding it to Tan as his legal surname to honour his grandfather.

By the early 1990s, Sid Chow Tan – a self-taught cameraman and producer – had moved from reporting about the Head Tax issue on a weekly Chinatown community channel to leading the movement in British Columbia, igniting a flame for Chinese Canadians across the country. By then he was divorced and a non-custodial father to two children.

His grandmother, whom he would take care of until her death in 2001, did not know much about the Head Tax issue. She suggested he do nothing about it for the family. “She said what if the greencoats (immigration officials) come in the middle of the night and knock on our door? Take you away, tie you up and throw you in the river, then what will I do? We are a family. Then where would the family be?” she asked.

“When I heard that, I said I was in. And I never told her anything about it (the Head Tax campaign) after that,” says Sid, who moved with his grandmother until she died at the age of 97.

Asked why he thought Canadian society would make the Chinese community suffer through so many decades of racist laws and prejudice, Sid believes it has always been an attitude of superiority over the Chinese race. “It was a patronizing British thing – we know what’s better for you, we know what’s better for this country. . . that kind of attitude.”

“The oppressors needed the Chinese for cheap labour. Who’s going to wash and iron their clothes? Who’s going to make chicken chow mein? It was similar to like we have now with migrant and temporary seasonal workers. They work their asses off and you don’t give them rights.“

He and the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, based in Vancouver, and as national chairman of the Chinese Canadian National Council continue to lobby for redressing Chinese-Canadian families whose Head Tax payers have died. They would like to see each family who paid the Head Tax compensated, rather than the Canadian government’s plan in 2006 to compensate only a few survivors and living spouses.

However, he says it’s important for the government to look at the separation of families and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act as the most devastating impact of its once racist laws against the Chinese in Canada.

“The government has never recognized exclusion. They kept us on the Head Tax. Exclusion was way more insidious. And there are still people alive who suffered under exclusion and they deserve recompense. That’s the point.

“The other point is – if we don’t show strength, and we show we can’t unite over our history over honour and over justice, we deserve to be chinks, don’t we? We will be chinks all our lives in Canada.

“This has never been about the money. That came from our opponents. When we win this, I don’t want the money. I’m not going to take the money. I just want it offered. That’s the way I’ll finish it,” he says.

Asked how his grandparents would react to his activism if they were alive today, Sid remarks: “I think my grandfather would be quite proud. My grandmother would ask me how much money I have in the bank,” he laughs.

Almost 40 years since he left his hometown for Calgary then Vancouver, the memories of his grandfather and grandmother’s lives in that Prairie town still resonate with Sid Chow Tan. The lessons he learned about racism, discrimination, and tolerance, he tries to apply to his life today at 63.

“Even though my grandfather never learned to read and write Chinese well, he taught me all people have equal rights and deserve to be treated fairly. So he fought the racist laws enacted by gwei lo or the white devils.

“His life is a victory for loyalty, righteousness, and perseverance,” declares Sid.


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