Sam Gee

86 year-old activist fights for community justice

“It is not that interesting. Just a simple Chinaman’s life.” — Sam Gee.

REGINA — Sam Gee has fought against injustice most of his life and at 86, he continues that fight today.

A 1939 picture of the Gee family in Hong Kong without their father photo Gee family archives

A proud, robust, and outspoken man, despite a recent heart operation, the Chinese-Canadian elder continues to make the case for a final resolution to Canada’s Chinese Head Tax issue.

As probably the eldest activist speaking out on the Head Tax, Sam has been at the forefront of the revived Head Tax grievances for the past two decades that brought generations of the Chinese-Canadian community together.

More than likely, you would see him in a march or protest over the issue in the past 10 years. “I like working in the community. I like to help the people and want to help my community,” he explains.

Since 1983 when Vancouver elder — Dak Leon Mark — approached Vancouver Kingsway MP Margaret Mitchell and wanted his Head Tax back, Chinese-Canadian community groups across Canada have demanded that successive federal governments take action. The newly-elected Stephen Harper-led government finally agreed to do so in 2006.

But Sam Gee says the apology by the prime minister in 2006 was a half-measure because his government acted unilaterally without negotiations with the community. The government announced then it would pay only Head Tax survivors and their spouses and apologized to the community for past racist legislation.

“I want the Head Tax paid to the descendants. They [the government] won’t answer you. They already play the political show. That’s the game to play. They learn to speak a little Cantonese. Say Canadians are sorry.

“But at the meetings, they don’t mention that [the descendants]. They just talk about the families, how bad it was separating families. The guy gets married, left the wife, left the children behind. That’s all,” he says, bluntly.

As chairman of the Saskatchewan Head Tax Redress Committee, Sam Gee would speak at meetings for the elderly widows and few Head Taxpayers left in the province, but he also spoke for people his age. They are the generation of descendants of the Loh Wah Kiu pioneers.

Most of the Loh Wah Kiu in the Chinese-Canadian community have passed on. For Sam, elderly pioneers like his father did not have a voice most of their lives or were afraid to express their opinions, believing Canadian authorities would deport them at any time.

One reason, he says, is that some Loh Wah Kiu were here in Canada as “paper daughters and sons.” They came over with false immigration papers and identification even before the 1923 ban on Chinese coming to Canada for 24 years. All came over and paid the $500 Head Tax to help their poor families in China, but they also arrived as sons and daughters of such people as uncles or friends from the same village. It was a common, often desperate, practice to get into Canada.

“The old Chinese don’t understand much English. No education. . . Because they had no education, they worry about something like their pension. You try to straighten it [the Head Tax] up. They don’t want it.”

Sam Gee’s efforts, though, would help some elderly widows in the Saskatchewan community receive the 2006 ex-gratia payments of $20,000 from the Canadian government.

He brought seven Chinese seniors, a few who were 98 years old, by plane to the House of Commons on June 6, 2006, to hear the prime minister apologize to the community for more than 62 years of government-legislated discrimination.

Sam doesn’t mince words when he says the apology by the prime minister left him with a bitter taste of how government works in relation to old grievances for prior government actions that are still considered the present government’s moral responsibility.

“I went to Ottawa 2006. There were only 14 survivors left who paid the Head Tax,” says Sam, although almost 700 widows received the compensation offered by the government for the Head Tax and the separation of their families for decades.

He has been involved in seeking redress for the Head Tax for more than 20 years, particularly the Loh Wah Kiu Head Taxpayers who were still alive in the 1990s when they numbered in the thousands.

Before the announcement, Sam already knew what would happen.

“My father died in 1975. I don’t feel good that way. They don’t mention paying the descendants. I already know this is political. Goddamn it, no wonder. They [are] still holding us down. We are treated as second- and third-class citizens,” says Sam, whose daughter and niece were present at the House of Commons that day.

Since 1991 when he began raising awareness about the need to redress the Head Tax and the separation of Chinese families in Canada by the government, Sam had been writing Chinese newspapers.

He would write letters to the nationally-distributed Ming Pao and Sing Tao to demand Head Tax compensation for descendant families since most Head Taxpayers had died by 2006. “I said you have to pay the survivors, the spouses but you also should pay the debt to the descendants.”

Three generations of Gees at the Head Tax apology in Ottawa in 2006 photo Gee family archives

In 2005, Sam confronted a rival group called the National Congress of Chinese Canadians. The group, which had no major Head Tax community groups in their organization, attempted to speak for the Loh Wah Kiu community. It sought no apology and a $2.5 million commemorative fund to be administered by its own organization.

“The president — Ping Tan, he’s from Malaya. I told him: ‘Your father, your grandfather didn’t pay Head Tax, that’s why you say no. He said nothing.’

“I asked him — ‘how come Saskatchewan didn’t have a seat?’ He said Saskatchewan had no people. I said: ‘Who am I then?’ From that time, he knows who I am,” remarked Sam. The NCCC would strike an unpopular deal with the Paul Martin government but it died in the House of Commons when an election was called in 2006.

Sam says Canadians should remember that the Head Tax payment of $500 from 1903 to 1923 was a huge hardship for those coming to Canada such as his father who arrived on Dec. 18, 1913.

“At that time, only $5 a month was what you got paid. The Head Tax was worth a lot of money. When you pay a $500 Head Tax, you know how much it’s worth. You can work to buy two houses,” notes Sam.

His father — Gee Chan How — came to Canada like many Chinese as a young man of 18 in 1913, entering the port of Victoria on a ship called the Tamba Maru. He was preceded by generations of Gees including Sam’s grandfather — Gee Yell Yin — who worked in Canada for 40 years, including the gold mines and, later, on the Canadian Pacific Railway steamer. He died in 1932. Sam’s great grandfather, however, was likely the original pioneer of the Gee clan to come to Canada, arriving before 1885.

In 1924, after a few years working on a chicken farm in Moose Jaw, Sam’s father purchased the Rex Café in a small town called Yellow Grass, about 100 kilometres from Regina on Highway 6. Four years earlier, he had gone back to China and married Sam’s mother, fathering a son.

Sam says his father — known as Gee How — would run the café for some 21 years until 1945. He would bring Sam over by 1952 and put him to work immediately as soon as he got off the train, recalls Sam.

In Regina, his father ran the 5th Avenue Tea Room, which was a way to keep operating after hours without legally running into problems as grocery stores were not allowed to open at nighttime.

“Only Saskatchewan had tea rooms,” he explains. “Edmonton just had grocery stores, confectioneries. It was law. If you are a grocery store, you cannot open at night. But a tea room, you’re selling coffee, soft drinks, and a little bit confectionery. You bend the law a little bit. What you’re not supposed to do, you do,” he explains.

Sam was 26 years old and helped his father run the Tea Room, which opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 12 midnight. Despite the long hours, Sam says he was happy to be with his father. It had been almost 20 years since he had last seen his father.

Their separation and that of his family’s was caused directly by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese from coming into Canada except for a few exceptions such as diplomats, merchants, and students. The family was further separated for years after the communists overran China by 1949.

Born in 1926 after a brief visit his father, Sam, would finally meet his father 7 years later in 1933. Again, his father took advantage of a two-year provision, allowing Chinese in Canada to return to China and back within that period. Sam’s father had saved enough money for his passage across the ocean, returning to see his son for the first time.

Sam recalls the moment to this day: “I was 6 years old. I had just come home from school. I was playing in the garden beside our house in Canton, China.

“I heard some noise. I looked up. I saw a well-dressed man coming towards me. Who was this stranger? He was dressed in a western suit. . . I did not know this stranger. I was a little scared.

“Is this the house of Gee Jean Hoy?” asked the tall stranger. ‘Gee Jean Hoy’ is the name my father used after he was married. Why is this stranger looking for my father?

“I could not find my voice, so I just nodded, yes. The stranger smiled and asked who I was. I answered politely: ‘Gee Gwang Thleng’. He smiled. “Oh, then you must be my son, my boy.”

“My heart stopped and my stomach turned a somersault. I could not believe it. I had just met my father for the first time in my life. This stranger was my father. He had a nice smile. He seemed like a giant — but a friendly giant,” recalled Sam of that memorable episode in his life.

Sam’s father would stay for three years until 1936, when he finally had to leave to return to Canada — forced to leave his family behind again because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

A year later when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Canton, Sam’s family’s fortunes would take a turn for the worst. The Japanese would take over their home and force the family to move. They went to their grandmother’s home in another village for several months, then on to his mother’s sister’s place for another few months.

With four young children to feed, Sam’s mother decided to move the family to Hong Kong. They were able to find shelter in a single room with a former tenant that had lived in China with them.

Money was running out though, and while their father sent money home every month, it was not enough. Recalls Sam: “We did not have a home, we had very little to eat, we had no source of making money. These were bad times.”

Only 11 at the time, Sam would go out and try to make money, waking up at 5 a.m. and buy cookies, buns and candy from the bakery to sell for one cent apiece, not coming home until midnight. He would make about 10 to 20 cents to give to his mother.

The family survived in Hong Kong, but just barely, and life would get much worse when the Second World War would begin on Dec. 8, 1941. Sam remembers that day when Japan invaded Kowloon and Hong Kong, and attacked the city.

“I was 15 years old and I was walking down the street to go to school,” as Sam recalls those terrible moments 71 years later. “That is when I heard the shrill of the sirens. These sirens were going off everywhere. This meant that Hong Kong was being invaded. The Japanese were upon us.

“Policemen on the street were chasing everyone telling them to go home. They were yelling, ‘Go home! The war has started! Japanese planes are bombing Kai Tak Airport.’ Everyone was running … running for shelter. I was so scared. The sirens were loud, but we could still hear the bombs going off in the distance. I started running home. I could feel the blood pulsing in my ears,” he recalls.

The Japanese would occupy Kowloon quickly. In just four days, they crushed and killed 400 Canadian troops who were protecting the city. Japanese warships encircled Hong Kong, as British troops retreated to the island of Hong Kong.

Sam recalls a chaotic time where looting and robberies occurred all night. “The night was filled with darkness, sounds of crying, constant roar of bombs, and shrills of sirens. We did not know what tomorrow would bring,” he said.

By Christmas, 1941, the British surrendered Hong Kong and it would be occupied by the Japanese for 3 years and 8 months until the end of the war on Aug. 15, 1945.

Sam’s family, scared to death by the occupation, survived by buying flour as rice had become too expensive. They made pancakes for their meals instead.

By 1942, his mother was able to bring the family back to Canton, and find a place to live. But more dire circumstances would take place, as Sam’s older brother Gwang Thloong contracted tuberculosis. He was so sick he was dying before their eyes. His mother would take him and the rest of the family, except for Sam, to his mother’s village.

Sam says he found a job at the police station and survived on $30 a month until finding another position at a bank. A few months later, however, he received word that his older brother had died. Sam would spend the rest of the war homeless moving from temporary shelter to shelter and trying to find enough work to eat. His mother remained where she was but the family had no contact with their father in Canada, who could not get his letters or money through.

When the war finally ended in 1945, Sam went back to his old home in Canton but it had been ransacked and was nothing but a “broken, empty house,” he recalls. His mother and siblings returned too and finally money from their father helped them partly rebuild the house for them to stay in.

In the next few years, as the civil war in China continued between the Kuomintang government and Mao Tse Tung’s Communist army, it was becoming clear that China was on the path to Communism. Once more, the family had to face the uncertainty ahead as the Communists overran the country by 1949 and Sam’s family was trapped in their Canton village.

“The Communists took over the first and second floor of our house,” recalls Sam, who had an argument with a soldier over what they were doing. “I said to him: ‘Do you remember what Chairman Mao said to the Chinese People? He said that the People’s Republic of China Government and Army will never touch the Chinese people’s things. Won’t even take their needle and thread. Now you are a soldier from The People’s Republic Army and you are trying to take a Chinese person’s property?’” The soldier was mad. He left because I was right. Today, he was trying to steal my house,” said 23-year-old Sam, showing the courage and combativeness that would continue with the Head Tax later in Canada.

During this time, his father kept sending money to the village and in order to take advantage of this, the government imprisoned Sam’s mother for a $10 M Chinese ransom. Sam was forced to almost beg for help to get enough money collected from many relatives. His mother was released after he finally had the money, but the danger told them to move to Hong Kong to escape communist rule.

Sam says the decision was the only one he could make, as he no longer thought of China as his country. “I knew I needed to leave China because I did not believe in the communist beliefs. I knew I could not keep my mouth shut long enough to stay alive. If I stayed, I knew they would kill me. I did not care where I went, I just wanted to go be with my family and make a living. I did not want any trouble. I can live anywhere. This is no longer the China I know and love.”

Sam views were also influenced by a close call, when he was almost inducted into the Communist army in 1949. He was 22 at the time, but was able to out argue his communist recruiters, who were going to send him to Russia for military training.

“I did not want to go, but I had no choice. I told them that I couldn’t go. They asked, ‘Why not?’ I told them that my father was an overseas Chinese living in Canada, and my uncle and cousins were living in the United States.” I can’t join the Army. I can’t go fight against my own family. They understood my inner conflict. They knew my conscience would not allow me to be a good soldier for them. If they trained me to become a communist soldier, and the time came to fight against Canada or the United States, I could not kill my own family members. They said I was a ’bad guy…a bad guy with a conscience. So they released me and I did not have to go to military training in Russia,” says Sam.

Although his mother still considered China her homeland, she moved the family to Hong Kong. From there, she and her younger children — Mary and Moon — boarded a ship for Canada in 1951, leaving Sam behind. Under immigration rules, he had to apply to get to Canada himself.

Sam was overaged at 25 and had to lie about his age to get his immigration papers. He landed in San Francisco, a second port of entry to get into Canada and made it through the immigration office in Oakland, California, where he was allowed to board a train to Vancouver. The year was 1952.

Sam would be taught how to run the 5th Avenue Tea Room by his father, and he would help the business earn a profit in 3 years. By that time, his family wanted him to look for a bride and start his own family.

It was arranged for him to meet a number of girls in Edmonton and he picked Mah Baw Thleen, whose English name was Morly. They were married on Nov. 11, 1956 and she would become Sam’s one true love for the next 55 years until her death in 2011.

Sam would continue to manage the Fifth Avenue Tea Room and raise a family of seven children until 1965 when his father retired. By 1967, he was able to garner a loan to purchase the Parliament Centre Confectionery in Regina and run a much larger grocery operation for the next 30 years.

During this time, he was elected President of the Chinese Benevolent Association in Regina from 1979 to 1994.

Ironically, he would be one of 300 Chinese Canadians invited back to the Guangzhou 50th Anniversary celebrations of Communist rule from 1949 to 1999.

As in 1949, he would have an argument with a Chinese soldier who questioned why his son did not have a Chinese name. “I speak English and say: ‘Officer you born in China, do you have an English name? My children born in Canada, they are Canadian. They don’t have Chinese names,’” he declares.

Sam Gee is a proud Canadian, but also is proud of his Chinese heritage and upbringing that made him the man he is today.

Like many of his era, through tragedy, endurance, and sacrifice, his family lineage has survived through the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the communist takeover of his old country.

As Sam says modestly: “It is not that interesting. Just a simple Chinaman’s life.”

Hardly the case.


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