Ping Ting Ma

“Paper daughter’’ finds her freedom after surviving years of toil in Canada

“I work for 40 years. I never asked for any help, even from my husband. I still want to work, but my sons won’t let me.” — Ping Ting Ma.

“We were very lucky. My family was the only one able to leave the village.” – Ping Ting Ma, on the good fortune of escaping communist rule in China.

CALGARY — For 55 years, Chinese-Canadian elder Ping Ting Ma concealed her true identity in Canada until only two years ago.

Ping Ting Ma and Yook Shew photo Terry Gee from Gee family collection

Now 78, she hopes that by using her real name — Ping Ting — she will reach friends in Canada and overseas whom she has lost contact with in the last 58 years. Since she came to Canada in 1956, Ping Ting has been constantly working as a waitress, cook, and garment factory worker, and taking care of her children.

Two years ago, she reunited with two of her cousins in Toronto, 60 years after they had gone to school in China and then escaped to Hong Kong following the communist takeover of their country. “Before, I had no time for friends,” says Ping Ting. “I had to work to feed my family.” Unlike many Chinese-Canadian families, Ping has been the main caregiver and breadwinner in her family, a result of unfortunate family circumstances.

In 1956, Ping Ting came to Canada as a 20-year-old “paper daughter” — one of the many Chinese who came to Canada using fake passports and identification wanting to reunite with family members, or in her case, to marry.

She married her husband two weeks after emigrating to Canada under a federal provision to allow overseas fiancées into the country provided they marry within a month. Failure to do so would result in loss of a marriage deposit and being sent back home.

Many women were “picture brides” whose families in Hong Kong would arrange for them to be married to Chinese bachelors in Canada after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, legislation which caused an extremely high ratio of men to women in the community.

Ping Ting was not a picture bride, having met her future husband only once by chance at a family dinner in Hong Kong. Like other Chinese women of her time, she had no choice when the families arranged her marriage. Arranged marriages between families was a tradition from feudal times in China and still the norm in the 1950s.

Chinese bachelors in Canada took wives from families in Hong Kong and overseas countries after pictures of young women were sent to them or they came overseas to find out who they could marry.

Being a dutiful daughter and bound by her Confucian teachings, Ping Ting lived in a patriarchal society where little value was placed on Chinese girls and women or their right to make free choices about their lives — particularly marriage. Ping Ting was not surprised that her family had arranged her marriage to someone she had met only once. “When the old people say you go to Canada and marry, I have to obey,” recalls Ping Ting. “My groom’s father told him to send a little money for me, buy some moon cake, and tell my father to tell everyone his daughter is to marry this guy in Canada. They thought he was very rich.”

Her journey to Hong Kong, then Canada, began seven years before in 1949 at the height of the communist takeover of her village in China.

“I come from Hoi Sun Hoy Yin Mak Lin Ye, far away from Canton, near the ocean,” says Ping Ting. As schoolchildren, she recalls playing in the river and tall trees while riding large tortoises at her cousin’s mother’s place.

The only disruption to that life was in 1939 when Japanese war planes dropped their bombs in nearby villages. It was the start of the Sino-Japanese War and Ping Ting was only 5 years old. “It was far away from my village. [But] everybody [would] go to the farm, or go to the hills hiding.”

Her idyllic, peaceful childhood life would be shattered by 1947, as ordinary Chinese in the countryside knew the communists were winning the civil war against the Kuomintang government. By 1948, the communist presence was everywhere in rural China and Ping Ting’s family began making secret plans to leave their village.

One day in 1949 her mother told her that her father expected her to stay in the village and take care of four teenage domestic servants. Most of her family had gone by then. She was 15 and had been abandoned. Fortunately, by chance one month later, her American uncle showed up to visit. Finding her alone, he urged her to leave her village, telling her it was likely the communists would put her in jail because her father was on a watch list of business people sought by the government.

Ma Tat Shu, her father, had become quite successful in transmitting money and goods to villages across southern China from relatives overseas. By 1944, he had started a grocery in the village, run by Ping Ting’s mother, Joe Jeam. Such capitalist activities contradicted the socialist principles of the new regime. “They killed a lot of people,” recalls Ping Ting. “My aunt [was] still in China. Anything we owned, the government would take away, including the rice from the farmers,” she says.

Ping Ting would deceive her communist monitors by telling them she was visiting family in Macau. Her cousin would spirit her away by bike with only the possessions on her back. They would pay money to board a small, rickety boat that somehow navigated the waters of the South China Sea and she would land in Macau, before moving on to Hong Kong.

“It was scary. The boats were very small, high waves. Some didn’t make it and they would drown,” says Ping Ting. “We were very lucky. My family was the only one able to leave the village.”

In Hong Kong, Ping Ting’s father set up shop to run a garment factory and employed four of Ping Ting’s uncles to run it for decades. Over time, his remittance business would gradually die out but Ping Ting says her father took care of a large family for most of his adult life, an example that she would follow in her years in “Gum San” or Canada.

Only three months into her stay, after surprising her family by showing up in Hong Kong, Ping Ting had no choice but to do as her father wanted again. He sent her to boarding school to learn Chinese and English — a necessity to get ahead on the British-ruled island.

To make sure this would help her get her into higher education and compete for a job later in life, her father and uncle also decided she would have to change her name.

It was 1950 and for the next 60 years, Ping Ting would submerge her identity using a different name. “The white people would know me with a different name. My family and Chinese friends always knew me as Ping Ting,” she says. Her children though were kept from knowing her real name.

False identities were common during the 1950s to 1970s as many Chinese were still restricted by Canada’s immigration law that allowed only spouses and children under 18 to join relatives in Canada.

Over 12,000 Chinese would get an amnesty starting in 1960 and ending in 1973. It was the government’s gesture of compassion after decades of unjust immigration practices by successive Canadian governments, primarily directed against the Chinese community.

Ping Ting would learn enough English in Hong Kong, graduating at the junior high level that would serve her well later in life. But a university education was no longer part of those plans.

A further change to her identity took place. Her uncle helped alter her passport to appear two years younger because her future Canadian husband didn’t approve of marrying anyone older than he was.

She would travel to Edmonton, Alberta in “Gum San’’ and marry within two weeks of her arrival in 1956.

Ping Ting would also discover that her husband Yook Shew was not well off at all. His father — Gee Yen You — had come to Canada in 1919, paying a $500 Head Tax, and for decades struggled to make a living in his adopted country. He was a young man of 17 when he came to Gold Mountain, as the Chinese called Canada then.

The family Ping Ting had married into had exaggerated their wealth as she found herself working for her father-in-law for the next seven years for just room and board.

Gee Yen You was the cook at a café, called the Belmont Café, on 101st Street in downtown Edmonton near the old Eaton’s Centre. Exactly one day after she arrived in Edmonton, Ping Ting would get her first job handling the café’s cash duties.

Meanwhile, the newlywed couple would reside on the top of a store owned by Stanley Gee, a generous benefactor in the Chinese community for decades. Ping Ting’s in-laws and their other young son —Yook Jew — would live nearby in Chinatown’s tenement rooming houses until the Belmont Café closed in 1959, after one of its partners died.

Gee Yen You was able to scrape together enough money to buy the Fort Road Confectionery, primarily with a contribution from his wife, Gaye Hang, who worked washing dishes at a coffee shop for $130 a month, and a generous loan from a cousin — Gee Gok Gong.

Located in north Edmonton in the industrial area of town at 125th Avenue and Fort Road, there were no neighbours for seven years. A meat-packing plant nearby brought in some regular customers to the café, with other drive-in customers.

Ping Ting, with two young sons by 1959, would work the next five years in the Fort Road Confectionery. Meanwhile, her husband would find work as a waiter in Edmonton at popular Chinese cafés such as the Seven Seas Restaurant and the Blue Willow. By then, though, he had a gambling habit.

By 1963, the family had grown to four boys and the nine-member family were still living in the small three-room addition behind the small confectionery and café. Her oldest children slept on a desk and small couch while her youngest slept in a tiny closet. She remembers an old stove to keep everyone warm. “I remember getting up every night and I [had to] pour water into the old furnace downstairs to keep it going. And we had to light it with matches.”

The café did not provide an easy living for the extended family. Although a good meal with soup and dessert could be bought for 75 cents or less, the café’s good days would bring in only about $80 a day. “Sometimes we make $30 or $40. Not that good,” says Ping Ting. “We ate leftovers at night.” The young boys would scour the park across the street for pop bottles to be cashed in for a nickel a bottle.

The Fort Road Confectionery also served some Chinese food — basically sweet and sour ribs. But within a few years, the meat-packing plant had its own cafeteria and business gradually slowed.

Gee Yen You was 46 when he finally reunited with his son and wife in 1948. His son was a teenager by the time he met him, due to the 13-year separation caused by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. By the time the family emigrated to Canada in 1953, his son Yook Shew was already 18. He did not finish his schooling — ridiculed for his size after being put into elementary school.

Yook Shew would strike out on his own during those early years. By 1964, after a disagreement with his father, he started working in High River as a waiter for the Seto family at the New Look Café. (The café would be frequented by Joe Clark, a teenager then. Mr. Clark would become prime minister of Canada in 1979 and remembered the café in a 1994 media interview with Yook Shew’s son who became a reporter.)

For the next 40 years, Yook Shew spent most of his life wandering Alberta working in small towns and in Edmonton. Those towns included Nanton, Claresholm, Valleyview, Drumheller, Peace River, Jasper and McLennan. He would set up cafés using the same name: The Blue Eagle Café.

During his absences in the ‘60s, Ping Ting learned a lot about her father-in-law’s life in Canada and what happened to his wife, Gaye Hang, and Yook Shew in China when the three were oceans apart.

“The only thing he knew how to do was peel potatoes when he came,” recalls Ping Ting about their conversations. But Gee Yen You learned to become a cook and, at one Vancouver establishment, was known to make about 60 pies per hour.

Times were tough in the 1920s and ‘30s and Gee Yen You felt the sting of being poor and Chinese. “He had [a] hard life,” recounts Ping Ting. “The white boys would throw eggs at him. So, he quit English school after 3 months. He had no money. Sometimes he would wait for a relative to throw their shoes away and he would put them on.” She believes he slept in one of the community shelters during the many cold Canadian winters he was alone.

Although he would marry Gaye Hang Chan after one trip to China, their first son — whom Chinese parents place their future hopes on — would die tragically at 5 years of age. Yook Shew was born in 1935 on another visit.

His wife and son would almost starve to death in China during the time the Japanese army invaded and occupied the country from 1937 to 1945.

Gee Yen You had lost track of them because overseas mail and communications to relatives in China were abruptly halted by the Japanese for the remainder of the war.

“He thought they had died and no money could be sent back to them. His wife [would] carry rice bags about 300 miles each day [to] sell for a living. Yook Shew had nothing to eat all the time and lived outside [with] no home. He herded cows for his uncle, then begged on the street. He was about nine then.”

Meanwhile, Gee Yen You had found a girlfriend in Canada, believing his wife had died. She married someone else but he would move to Edmonton to work as a cook at the Belmont Café for a Gee relative. After a friend returned from China, he was told his son and wife were still alive in the old village. Gee Yen You packed his bags and returned to China in 1948 to find them.

Ping Ting’s father knew Gee Yen You and provided him with housing after the reunited family moved to Hong Kong in 1950 and the two families — one a Head Taxpayer from Canada and the other a merchant from Hong Kong — would become one after the marriage of their children — Ping Ting and Yook Shew in 1956.

Their lives, however, would be affected by the long separation imposed by Canadian authorities.

Gee Yen You had a fractious relationship with his first son. Yook Shew became unreliable in supporting the family because of his gambling habit. While in High River, Ping Ting High saw a newspaper ad seeking workers for the Great Western Garment factory in Edmonton.

“I not know English that well. But I wrote a letter, just a few sentences that I would come to Edmonton and work. They wrote back in a day they would hire me,” she says. She informed her husband in 1964 that she was leaving for a job in Edmonton and would take the four boys and for much of the next 8 years, they would be separated as the boys would grow up with their mother.

Although the job paid only 65 cents an hour, she worked hard enough to earn $3 an hour. “GWG was the best job I ever had. It was the most important,” says Ping Ting.

Meanwhile, Yook Shew wandered Alberta working as a waiter or managing small one-man cafés in Nanton, Claresholm, Valleyview, Peace River, and McLennan.

With her job averaging about $l30 a week then, Ping Ting struggled but managed to save enough money to buy a house in northeast Edmonton with a $1,500 down payment. “There was no money. The boys shared the same coat year after year to go to school. I had to make more money,” she said. Ping Ting would take a second job cleaning houses.

By 1972, the family would reunite with Yook Shew, following the death of Gee Yen You and the close of the Fort Road Confectionery. Her husband’s gambling problems couldn’t be controlled even though Ping Ting says she would follow him to gambling houses around Edmonton and tell the gamblers not to take his money.

After taking over a restaurant together in 1975, Ping Ting and her husband would run the Sun Wah Gardens in Edmonton’s Beverly district for five years. But gambling debts and a recession forced the closure of the restaurant in 1980. Ping Ting would lose her house but continued working as a short order cook for 13 years at the Sands Hotel on Fort Road. She would separate from her husband for the next 25 years.

Yook Shew would continue his wandering life by working in Drumheller, then Jasper before spending most of his next 20 years in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He died in 2008 of a stroke. Although he wanted to get his father’s Head Tax back, the government made only ex-gratia payments in 2006 to living Head Taxpayers or surviving spouses. “The government was lying,” says Ping Ting. Before his death, the family would lose Ping Ting‘s youngest son in 2005 at 42 from surgery complications. Ping Ting‘s own youngest brother died of stroke complications in 1972.

Although both Ping Ting and Yook Shew would return to their home villages in China in 2007, they found few relatives they knew back there, except for Ping Ting’s cousin. China had changed dramatically. “It is not my country anymore,” says Ping Ting. Ping Ting’s mother, Joe Jeam, would die in 1984 and her father — Mah Tat Shu — would pass away in 1988.

For most of her adult life, Ping Ting supported her family like her father. “He used to have 10 red envelopes for 10 of us each month and sent to all his children and relatives through high school,” she recalls.

She remembers her peaceful early life in China, but says: “Canada is my home now.”

Often, Ping Ting can often be seen reading her Bible on the bus during the early morning when she goes swimming five times a week. “I pray my family has good health and we have enough money. That’s all.”

Asked if she ever knew that the Chinese community was given an amnesty in 1960 to come forward and change back to their real names, she says: “I never knew. I couldn’t read the news. It didn’t matter, I was too busy working.”

For Ping Ting, like many Loh Wah Kiu descendants, coming to Canada turned into a similar life endured by the generation that paid the Head Tax — a life of hard work and sacrifice. They didn’t have enough of an education and worked in the lowest-paying jobs. Many did not learn any English to adjust to life in Canada and many have still not adjusted well.

Ping Ting was the last of her family to leave China, and the first to arrive in Canada.

She was a paper daughter, became a single mother, sole caregiver, and main breadwinner for her family. Ping Ting says she knows that is not a traditional role played by or expected of women in Chinese society. “I don’t care. I work for 40 years. I never asked for any help, even from my husband.”

Ping Ting retired in 1993 after almost 40 years of continuous working. She had one vacation in that time, but takes annual ones with her family, now that life has changed for the better.

“I still want to work, but my sons won’t let me,” says Ping Ting.

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