Wally Mah and Don Mah

‘Feisty’ Wally Mah, 97 to Government: Explain Your ‘Unfair’ Laws

“The government should pay us back. Oh, I don’t care about $500 now. But at that time, it was hard. They only taxed the Chinese. The thing is we’ve got to treat everybody the same. Why did the government do that?”

EDMONTON – Don Mah was born in China in 1949, just as the Communist revolution in the country took hold.

Like his father and grandfather before him, his life and family for many years continued to straddle two worlds – one in Canada where they emigrated, but also in China where they still had strong ties.

It wasn’t until 2007 when he returned for a second visit to his place of birth, that the puzzle of his family relationships and his family’s life in China became much clearer for the 63-year-old Edmonton accountant.

Don’s grandfather – Mah Wing Poy – was a railroad worker in Canada, recruited to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1921, he would bring his son over to Canada from their home village of Mong Lou Gong in Bak Sai, just outside of Toishan city. It was an expensive trip – all Chinese people coming to Canada after 1903 were subject to a Head Tax of $500 upon entry, equivalent to two years of wages in 1921.

Don’s father, Mah Dong Seng, was also known as “Wally” in Canada. At the time, Wally was a young boy of 17 and his father would take him under his wing to learn about how to find his fortune in “Gum San” or “Gold Mountain.”

Within two years, the Canadian government attempted to put a stop to these ambitions of men they considered foreigners in their country, as they passed the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which halted almost all Chinese immigration to Canada.

However, that didn’t stop Mah Wing Poy and his son. The Canadian government offered a period of two years to any Chinese who wanted to visit China or their place of origin before returning. Unlike other Chinese, who couldn’t afford to pay passage to China or earn enough money in Canada to go back, Mr. Mah and his son Wally learned to make it work, just as he planned for his son to come to Canada in 1921.

In fact, despite the period of exclusion that lasted for almost a quarter-century for the Chinese community in Canada, Wally Mah learned a lot from his father who had graduated to running restaurants in Canada.

“I don’t know if he raised money, but he must have been able to come and go. If you look at the back of the Head Tax paper, that was the passport and you could see the stamps on the back as to when they entered Canada. They seemed to always be able to come back,” noted Don. In fact, the stakes were high if they didn’t return on time; it would cost them another $500 in Head Tax.

“He would have got his education in China and he would have found his way working the restaurant with my grandfather. For them, this was the Golden Mountain, Gum San, to find their fortune. Where else were they going to do it?”

But Don’s grandfather also made good work of his time in China. He ran a business in what Don could only describe as a “money trader” which sent remittances to relatives of people in China for a fee.

His ability to use his skills as a businessman gave the family a reputation for being one of the better off peasant families in their village. Most people there farmed the rice fields, but with persistent drought and with China becoming overpopulated and unable to feed itself, many did not survive as well as the Mah family.

“My family was one of the better off peasant families because of my father, grandfather and my uncle who had come to Canada. They were able to bring the money back and build the house they had. They had two buildings and a shop in Bak Sai. They had a large family to feed,” noted Don.

In some respects, it was a double life. While they were in Canada for long periods of time, they made a point of returning to China to continue to play a part in their extended family.

Wally Mah would marry Wong Gat Wah in 1932 during one of his return visits and have a daughter, followed by three other children during other visits.

Not only did Wally and his father provide for their family, they also protected them as best as they could. By 1937, the Japanese had taken over the northern part of China in Manchuria and were annihilating Chinese people on their way to conquering the country. Don recalls from his 2007 visit that his family not only built a two-storey house but one manned with gun turrets and steel doors in case the Japanese overran their village.

“The Japanese came pretty close [to the village] and the villagers were ready to fight them. They had known what they had done to the Chinese in Nanjing. They knew how vicious and how bad the Japanese were in their invasion of China. I remember my Mom saying you always had to be careful and watch for the invasion of the Japanese.”

While the village always feared the Japanese, they didn’t fear the communists until 1949. There was still Chiang Kai-shek, fighting the communists. “When Mao[Tse-tung] did his march, they were up north. By the time, they were marching, my family was coming to Canada,” says Don.

Wally Mah also had his hard times in Canada, although Don says his father spent some of the Depression years back in China on one of his many trips between the two countries. “But he did tell me that there was a lot of rationing of food during the war. When they were in the restaurant, they rationed what they could serve for food.”

Don’s grandfather and his son worked together in restaurants and cafés in Western Canada. After leaving Nelson, B.C., his father worked in Dawson Creek before deciding to go back to the home village in preparation of a family move to Canada. Don was soon born two years after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947.

“My father brought the family over except the adult kids. That was my sister. She was older but came quite a bit later. She was left behind but she was also married and stayed with her family in China,” says Don.

One of the main reasons that it would take much longer for his sister to reunite was that the Mah family decided to help others come to Canada as “paper sons and daughters.” The Canadian government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act but kept its immigration door to Canada slightly ajar for only Chinese wives and children under 18.

“At that time, everybody was coming. What happened was my father was allowed to bring three visas. One of his friends, his son, is a paper son of my Dad because he really took my sister’s visa. My sister came on [someone else’s] visa. For a while there, the immigration people tried to clamp down. They couldn’t figure out even male or female Chinese names.”

“My sister was here, she was so scared she was the paper daughter of someone else. Back in those days, they were still hunting people down. Everything got straightened out. That was one of the things that prevented my older sister from coming; they kind of said you guys are a part of this manipulation of people so how do we know that lady there is your sister. They had a helluva time coming and they took a long time to believe that was our sister,” recalled Don.

The Canadian government eventually provided amnesty for the 12,000 estimated paper sons and daughters who came to Canada from 1947 to the 1960s.

The Mah family found a new life in Canada, beginning in Newburg, Saskatchewan, running a restaurant in 1950. They would remain there for a few years until they partnered up to run the Unity Café and the Paris Café in Unity, Saskatchewan.

In 1958, Wally Mah bought a grocery store and restaurant side by side in Westmount, Edmonton, and they also owned a second grocery in a nearby strip mall. That’s where he worked until he retired in 1973.

For much of his life, son Don never heard his father complain about his life in Canada. “He was a tough nut. He was also pretty feisty. In their own Chinese way, they already said the English people never liked us anyway. They got around it. They hung around in Chinatown, played their mah-jong and gambled. They worked every day and gambling was their hobby.

“In the early part he worked with my grandfather. He was educated in Chinese but he didn’t go to school in Canada. So, he learned his English after work, reading the paper and listening to the people in the restaurant. His English came from being here in this country. And, he learned how to run a business.”

“He didn’t really speak much about his life. When we talked to him, or when my kids were talking to him, it was a pretty hard life,” says Don. “We lived in an area where they knew we were Chinese but I think the people were tolerant. My dad never showed any prejudice as we had a neighborhood grocery store and they all bought from you and they knew you back then. I think by that time – the ‘60s – discrimination was already over. I can’t say for him what it was like in the ‘20s and ‘30s how he faced the discrimination,” says Don.

His father’s life was not easy, notes Don. “You don’t have a social life, you can’t go out. They were in little small towns and were in their 24 hours a day. You get up in the morning, cook seven days a week, work two or three years, save your money, go back to China and come back.”

In 2000, Wally Mah – 97 years of age then – would speak at a forum on the Chinese Head Tax in Edmonton. “The government should pay us back,” said Wally. “Oh, I don’t care about $500 now. But at that time, it was hard,” said Wally, whose father paid the Head Tax.

“They only taxed the Chinese. The thing is we’ve got to treat everybody the same. Why did the government do that?” he asked.

Wally Mah would not hear the reasons why from the Canadian government. He died at the ripe old age of 99 in 2003 before Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the community three years later for laws that – in his words – were “unjust.”

“Our failure to truly acknowledge these historical injustices has prevented many in the community from seeing themselves as fully Canadian,” he said on June 22, 2006. The Prime Minister also paid homage to railway workers like Wally’s father – Mah Wing Poy. Canada was wrong to “turn its back on them and impose the head tax after the Chinese helped build the national railway,” he said.

Although Don Mah hoped his father could see the day that Canada apologized to the Chinese community, he said that wouldn’t seem to change much for his independent father. “He went his own way. He was healthy. He was pretty tough. He never lived in a nursing home; he lived in his own home.

Special occasion for Wally Mah and his wife on right photo Mah collection

“He took his bus every day to come down to Chinatown. Never drove a car, so he always walked or took the bus. He walked every day. He walked until three weeks before he passed away. I can still see him the last time he did that.”


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