Elwin Xie

Recollections

As youngsters during the 1960s, whenever my siblings and I misbehaved, our parents would reprimand us with comments such as: “you better behave yourself, otherwise the government will round you up just like the Japanese-Canadians” or “our stay here in Canada is very tenuous; just look at the Chinese Head Tax, do you want to live in China or something?” Such comments would put the fear of God into us!

In my early 20s while visiting my mother during her dying days in Vancouver General Hospital, she said, “one day you will learn about our past, don’t forget me.” Since I lost both my parents earlier than most, I had a head start on searching for my roots – a family history that was never explained to me by them.  Without them, I began my genealogical search alone looking for missing pieces of a puzzle in which there were no photographs on the puzzle box as a reference. I would eventually learn of their separation of eleven years due to Canada’s Immigration Act of 1923, known in the community as the Chinese Exclusion Act. My parents never talked about this empty chapter of their past; either it was too painful to talk about or perhaps they were too busy making up for lost time.

In an era when Chinese men vastly outnumbered Chinese women in Canada, my father, at the age of 17 with the assistance of a matchmaker, was matched with my 15-year-old mother living in rural Yin-Ping – one of several counties in Guangdong, China, from which the majority of gold panners, train track builders, and other pioneers in “Gold Mountain” hail.

When the Government of Canada finally re-opened its doors in 1947, my mother was one of the first wives to be re-united with their husbands the next year; my siblings and I were born shortly thereafter. She often commented how she narrowly escaped China before the Communists took over the following year.

Since my father’s side is a long-time farming family from Lulu Island (known today as Richmond), I assumed our family paid the Head Tax. My father was literally born in the family barn in 1920.

In true working-class pioneer Loh Wah Kiu style, my father being the eldest would jump into the farm truck and drive all the way from Lulu Island into the back alleys of Vancouver’s Chinatown to pick up free buckets of slop from restaurants in order to bulk up the pigs. While in town, he would turn around and sell our family’s vegetables and freshly slaughtered pork to the merchants.

Grandfather, sick with cancer in the head, tried cobalt treatment which unfortunately was not effective. Upon his death, the farm was eventually sold.

Following his dream of working with airplanes, my father attended the National Technical School in California. Upon graduation he worked a short stint as an aircraft maintenance technician with Boeing in Vancouver. When my mother arrived in Vancouver, he left his career at Boeing and together my parents purchased Gin Lee Laundry at 274 Union Street, sandwiched in between Chinatown and the black community of Hogan’s Alley in the late 1940s. My uncle Loy meanwhile entered the garbage disposal industry while other uncles got into the restaurant and construction business – always working with their hands

Digging into our family past, I would eventually learn both paternal grandparents were exempt from the Head Tax since they were a merchant and a merchant’s “daughter” respectively. I also learned it was not uncommon for merchants to acquire an amah domestic. Grandmother was born into the Leung family in 1900 in Mouse Village (Low Cee Choon) within rural Yin-Ping County of Guangdong Province.

The details of how the merchant couple of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Fat Yet of Powell River, B.C. “adopted” my grandmother are not clear. Born the second of two girls in an era when boys were cherished and with her mother in chronic ill health there were few options but to give away my grandmother in order to relieve the stress on the family and to provide her with a better life overseas in Gold Mountain North America. My grandmother assumed the new “paper” name of Sam Toon Moy. Whatever happened to the real Sam Toon Moy nobody seems to know.

On August 3, 1905, arriving from Hong Kong aboard C.P.R.’s Princess Line steamship Empress of Japan, she set foot onto Gold Mountain soil in Vancouver. Despite being exempt from the dreaded Head Tax, she nevertheless was assigned a Canadian Immigration reference number of C.I.5-42989.

At the tender age of 5, she dramatically started a new life with new parents, new siblings, new language, new country, new identity, and new responsibilities. When she was finally of marriageable age at 18, she was matched with my grandfather, a Hastings Mill worker, just like his father.

As a teenager I never fully realized the pervasiveness of the Head Tax within my community. Looking back, it would not surprise me to learn if all the Chinese kids in my elementary and high schools likely descended from Head Tax paying families. Slowly, I was beginning to understand how I wound up speaking English to my father, yet a village dialect of Cantonese to my mother while growing up.

One day while riding the bus, I bumped into someone whom I had not seen in several years – Sid Tan. “Elwin, your family paid the Head Tax, didn’t they?  I’m involved with the Head Tax Redress campaign. You should come out to our next meeting, we really could use your help.” Since prematurely losing both my parents, my spoken Yin-Ping Cantonese was getting rather rusty and I saw my involvement as an opportunity to practise my second language before losing anymore of it.

Since my family was Head Tax exempt, some may question my involvement within the redress campaign given that I did not have a vested interest in its final outcome. Although my parents were separated due to the legislation of the day, I felt the Redress Campaign was more about the Head Tax issue rather than Exclusion.  I suppose in a vicarious fashion, I wanted to do something in remembrance of my parents and at the same time express my gratitude to the pioneering Loh Wah Kiu unsung heroes who stoically and humbly helped build Canada but have been all but forgotten in our hurry-up world.

Within the organization, my role was essentially helping out behind-the-scenes. Over the years, I would receive phone calls at all hours of the day and night with requests on short notice. A typical request went like this: “the new leader of the Liberal Party is coming to town, there’s going to be a rally next Thursday; we have misplaced the banner yet again, could you and Fanna make another banner? This time, make the Chinese characters larger with bright red ink” or “our seniors are going to be at the next meeting with their Head Tax certificates, could you bring your computer and scanner in order to scan them? By the way, on your way in, could you pick up two boxes of steamed Bar-B-Q pork buns from the New Town Bakery? I’ll pay you back next week – you know I’m good for it.”

While today’s youth may have difficulty wrapping their head around Canada’s racist past, anybody old enough to remember black and white Wild West shows will not be so surprised. In the past, due to fewer educational opportunities and limited world travel, the general populace was less enlightened.

During the many years of the campaign, many people spoke in favour of redress as well as against. Given the plethora that spoke in favour, I’m surprised nobody outside the Head Tax families ever felt strongly enough to join in the campaign. Given the common place of cross-cultural relationships and the Chinese marrying outside their community in Greater Vancouver, I had expected a better response.

For many years, most politicians did not want to deal with the outstanding issue of the Head Tax redress.  With a minority Parliament, suddenly all political parties were on side to varying degrees.

Unfortunately after many years of foot-dragging the vast majority of the Head Tax payers and spouses had already passed away.

Whereas the Japanese-Canadian community had honourably negotiated their compensation package in 1988, the Government of Canada unilaterally offered an ex-gratia $20,000 payment to each living Chinese Head Tax payer or surviving spouse. Perhaps the Chinese community was too divided over the issue to form a strong united voice.

As children, we are taught to apologize on our own volition after hurting others. An apology followed by years of constant badgering in the public spotlight somehow did not seem sincere or genuine.

In addition, the Prime Minister’s announcement was filled with much legalese: “This apology is not about liability today” and “while the Canadian courts have ruled that the Head Tax, and immigration prohibition were legally authorized, we fully accept the moral responsibility to acknowledge these shameful policies of our past.” Apologies should come from the heart not from the legal department fuelled by poll results.

Nevertheless, the Parliamentary apology is a step in the right direction towards reconciliation. In addition to the apology and ex-gratia payments, the Government also set up the Community Historical Community Recognition Program. This program has several organizations digitizing the stories of our community’s history onto the internet for all to learn and share. These projects will give a fuller and more complete version of our past – the good, the bad, as well as the ugly. Rather than the constant quoting of legal acts, dates, and numbers by academics, we will finally hear our stories in our own voices from the people who actually lived it.

When a more encompassing record of our community’s history is included into the curriculum, future generations will hopefully not only be not ashamed about their oppressive working-class roots but in fact proud to admit this as a badge of honour. If the experience of other communities is any indication, conversations related to Head Tax and Exclusion within the public realm will become stories of triumph within Canadian history rather than a dark chapter of silence within Chinese-Canadian history.

I envision a day in the not too distant future when a high school student steps up to the front of the classroom to share their Social Studies assignment on family genealogy and reports the following:

“In researching my family history, I have learned that my family has been in Canada for many generations. They came here to North America when the Chinese called it Gold Mountain and the long time Chinese pioneers who helped build this country were named Loh Wah Kiu – in Chinese it means “long time Chinese overseas.”

My relatives have included a C.P.R. train track builder, two Hastings Mill workers, an amah great- grandmother with a Head Tax number but did not pay it, laundry workers, garbage collector, pig and vegetable farmers, restaurant operators, and another grandmother who is an Exclusion Act survivor.

I also learned my great-grandfather was literally born in a barn – that’s so funny!

As you can see my family does not come from a family of professionals. Most of my relatives received little education because working on the farm was considered more important than going to school at the time.

I think I have from come from a family of very determined hard workers because even though they faced a lot of hardship and discrimination, they just kept going and going. They never gave up, no matter what the obstacle.

They never gave up because they were always thinking about future generations. My parents said our forebears were not rich but they were rich in history, stories, and memories!

Every year in April our whole family goes to the cemetery to honour our dead relatives during the Ching Ming Festival – that means “Clear Bright” in Chinese.

We honour the dead by sweeping clean the gravestones and bringing food for symbolic sharing with the dead. Then we bow our head three times, once each for Heaven, Earth, and Humankind. Both my grandparents talk to the gravestones as if the dead are still alive. My grandmother says as long as you remember and share the stories of the dead, they are not really dead at all.

My grandfather says I should be more like the Loh Wah Kiu pioneers who possessed the qualities of: hard work, determination, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and giving thanks to those who have made our lives possible in order to live on one of the best places on earth. He says these qualities are still useful in today’s modern hi-tech world.

That is my family genealogy. Does anybody have any questions?”

When my mother told me on her deathbed that one day I would learn about our past, she was absolutely correct.

That day has finally arrived and that day is today; and there will be no forgetting.

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