Aimee Gee

George Gee Family

After several thousand Chinese labourers helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), 15 of whom were from Edmonton’s George Gee family, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885 and placed a Head Tax of $50 on persons of Chinese origin wishing to immigrate into Canada. The Head Tax was enacted in the hopes of discouraging Chinese immigrants from entering and living in Canada. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 just 3 years later in 1903. My name is Aimee Gee and my great-grandfather George Gee was only 17 years of age when he paid the $500 Head Tax in 1919. The Head Tax caused many hardships for my family including: financial challenges, family predicaments, and crises in survival. In addition, the Chinese Exclusion Act caused several years of family separation.

The enormous Head Tax of $500 was equivalent to two years of income for a typical Chinese worker. Just a teenager, George Gee borrowed money from numerous friends and relatives to emigrate. After he arrived in British Columbia, he studied English for three months but had to terminate his studies due to financial pressure. He started working in restaurants earning a mere $5 a month. His first job was peeling potatoes for hours on end and his meager pay only enabled a life of basic survival. The low earnings didn’t even allow him to buy shoes; resulting in him having to search for discarded shoes and clothes. His situation was precarious as he worked endless hours to pay off the Head Tax debt. As he worked through various restaurant jobs, George worked his way up and finally became a cook in a kitchen where he displayed incredible skills. In one hour, George reportedly could make 60 pies for the never-ending line of customers. As a cook, George was earning $17 a month, nearly tripling his original wage; however being Chinese he would experience some grief from white people who were disrespectful towards him and other Chinese immigrants. Strangers would spit at them while passing by on the street or even assault them by throwing eggs at them!

After enduring fifteen years of hard work, George returned to China where he met and married my great-grandmother Gaye Hang Gee. However, due to Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese who travelled abroad could not be absent from Canada for more than two years.
George returned to Canada in 1934; meanwhile, Gaye in China gave birth to a boy – my grandpa Grant Gee in 1935. It would not be until 1948 before George would return to see his wife again and his son Grant for the first time. In 1949, the couple had another son, my uncle Terry.
After the Canadian Government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been in place for 23 years, George would finally reunite his family in Canada. By 1953, they had settled in Edmonton, Alberta. George Gee passed away in 1972 after living a hard life in Canada and his wife Gaye died in 1980.

When my grandpa Grant Gee arrived in Edmonton in 1953, he was 17 years old and already had plans to marry a woman who was living in Hong Kong. He worked three years to save the money for her passage to Canada. My grandpa Gee’s future wife, Har Gee, was born in 1936.

When she moved to Canada in 1956, she and my grandpa Gee married on December 29th. At the beginning of their marriage my Grandpa Gee attended a few months of school before dropping out in order to wait on tables while my grandma Gee worked in the restaurant kitchen. By then, working conditions for the Chinese immigrants had improved and the overt disrespect they sometimes experienced had subsided. Grandpa Gee worked at various places including the Seven Seas, Blue Willow, Belmont Café and the Fort Road Confectionery. He then started to work in small towns but sometimes he stopped working altogether. This forced my Grandma Gee to work even harder. After bearing four boys, life became hectic for my Grandma Gee as she worked long grueling hours in the kitchen while my Grandpa Gee would sometimes squander away his earnings.

Grandma Gee’s earnings were used for basic survival such as feeding the family. But Grandpa Gee would sometimes leave his family to travel to different towns where he would work in restaurants and then gamble away some of his hard earned wages. Relief for Grandma Gee only came when her boys were finally old enough to work and help with the bills.

I believe the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act created many conflicts, which should never have occurred in the first place. After hearing these stories of my elders, I felt sympathetic towards my grandfather. I believe that he made some bad choices in part because of the impact of family separation. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, my family was separated and this created a legacy of financial and family problems. My grandfather grew up in a home in China where he was separated from his own father who was in Canada. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and he finally moved to Canada and was reunited with his father, he was already a young teenager and the crucial bonding years had already passed by. In my view, it’s not surprising that he was sometimes troubled. He never really had a father. Fathers are supposed to love, nurture, contribute, guide, teach, and provide. But my Grandpa Gee unfortunately was never able to experience this. This affected my Grandma and the entire family. The Head Tax inflicted a huge financial burden and the Chinese Exclusion Act caused separation and negatively affected my relatives.

Today, I am thankful that society’s values have changed drastically since my great-grandparents’ time. The Canadian government has issued an apology and offered financial redress to some Head Tax families. The government has at least acknowledged some of the problems they created. In my opinion, these are a few examples of the overt discrimination against us Asians. I myself feel as much an equal as to my white friends. I am thankful to my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents; and am humbled that their hard work and sacrifices have allowed me to enjoy the beautiful life that I live today.


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