Reflection by Albert Lee
My parents were old enough to be my grandparents because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
That point was made to me by May Lui, former president of the Chinese Society of Nova Scotia and former National Director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, back in 2006 when Jason Kenney, then Parliamentary Secretary for the Prime Minister, was visiting Halifax on a fact-finding mission on Head Tax redress. I was asked by May Lui to talk on CBC national television as a representative of the Loh Wah Kiu in Halifax. Up until that time, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that my parents were older than the parents of other children I grew up with, but that remark brought the whole history home to me.
The early Chinese arrivals to Canada paid the Head Tax and endured separation from their families because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1923. Here’s how it all started for my family.
My grandfather, Ngoon Lee, arrived in Halifax in 1906. He paid a Head Tax of $500. Although Ngoon Lee owned agricultural land and rented a store to a shopkeeper in Hoi Ping, a few hours from Guangzhou, China was undergoing political instability, floods, famines, and economic uncertainty.
It took Ngoon Lee nearly six weeks to arrive in Halifax from Hoi Ping. He traveled through mountains and crossed rivers to get to Hong Kong. Then he took a three-week voyage by steerage class across the Pacific. Once in Vancouver, he took a one-week train trip across Canada to Halifax in a box car. There was a population of fewer than 20 Chinese in Halifax when Ngoon Lee arrived.
In 1910, my grandfather set up the Sam Wah Laundry on Bliss Street in a former drafty boat shed. Laundries were one of the few occupations allowed for those early Chinese. Laundry workers would toil 12 to 15 hours a day, earning 90 cents to $1.50 a day. But that compared to 9 cents a day working in rural China.
My grandfather brought my father to Halifax in 1916. He was nine years old and paid the $500 Head Tax. During the long, one-week train ride across Canada, he asked my grandfather why they were going so far cross the whole country. “We have relatives and support in Halifax,” my grandfather told him. So, my father became the first Chinese boy in the city.
Eventually, my father returned to China to get married. He was 18 years old and had never met my mother. It was an arranged marriage and my father’s visit to China was limited to two years under the restrictions of the Head Tax.
So my mother was still in China when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Parliament in 1923. She was not allowed to join my father in Canada.
My parents, who had been married as teenagers, were separated completely for 15 long years. My father sent money to support our mother and sister, Nancy, who had been conceived on one of my dad’s trips home to China.
But I only found out in later years that our mother did not always receive the money. My grandmother intercepted some of my father’s letters and money.
When the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted, my mother and sister arrived in Vancouver in 1948 by plane. My father made the long journey across the country again, but this time to greet them when they arrived with other members of the Lee families from the village. It was one of the happiest days in my father’s life.
My sister, Nancy, was 15 years old and had only seen my father in photographs. It was the only connection they both had during all that time.
My mother had my older brother, Robert, a year and a half after she arrived in Canada. I was born a middle child and Herbert, my younger brother, was born a year and a half after me. So my mother had all three of us boys in rapid succession when she was in her late 30s and early 40s.
Our grandmother arrived from China in 1958, but my mother had never forgiven her for taking the money that my dad had sent. Those were the scars my mother bore. Eventually, grandmother was sent to Ottawa to live with another relative.
As children, Robert, Herbert, and I lived in two worlds and cultures. Our father raised us, based on his upbringing in Halifax by “bachelor men.” As well, he had experienced strict education in China. “Work hard, save money, look after your family” were values instilled in him. My mother, on the other hand, had lived in rural China with a different outlook on the world. She had been a single mother for 15 years. She never wasted anything and she seemed to understand us more when we were children.
My brothers and I only knew Chinese when we started school. English was not spoken in our household.
Our father was the first Chinese graduate from a university in Nova Scotia. He graduated as a civil engineer, but only practised a few years in his profession. He bought an old mansion that was converted to rooms and apartments.
Our father took us to the library on Saturday mornings and got us interested in reading. Afterwards, we went across the street to the Technical University of Nova Scotia and he would show us, proudly, his graduation photo, hanging in the corridor.
Our parents were quite strict and very protective of us. As teenagers, our parents found great difficulty understanding us. When we were children, we were expected to act as adults. When we became adults, we were treated like children.
Now that I have met many of my peers from across Canada, I have compared notes and found many similarities in their families and their upbringing. The many years of separation, hardship, and suffering on the part of families who experienced the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act have definitely left deep marks on many of our lives.