Angela Jung

In this serene setting, my grandpa tells me about a dark piece of Canadian history: structural racism.

My great-grandfather, who I call “Bak Gung,” paid the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act separated him from his family for eighteen years. My grandpa talks about the first time he met his father.

“It was kinda great – the first time I met him.”

Growing up, what was it like knowing your father was in another country?

“Well, it was kind of tough because everyone has a dad around them. But my father was away. I’m so proud that my dad was in Canada. He support[s] us, sends money back to China to support the family.”

So how did Bak Gung get the money to come to Canada?

“Oh that was hard. My grandfather had to sold the house to raise $500 for my dad to pay the Head Tax to come to Canada.”

Why was Bak Gung so determined to come to Canada?

“Well back in the Toishan Village, it was kind of hard. So the people had to move there from time to time to look [for] a better life. That’s why [what] he came to Canada for.”

Did he know that if he were to come to Canada that he would be separated from his family for eighteen years?

“Oh yes. It had to be. He had to leave the family behind to come to Canada. That’s my father. Chang Quon Yick. My dad came here December 3rd 1921.”

How old was he in this picture?

“Fifteen.”

So he came to Canada when he was fifteen?

“Mmhm.”

Why did you decide to keep this?

“That was a document. He paid $500 tax. That’s what he keep it for.”

How did you travel from China to Canada?

“I came to Canada by a boat. From Hong Kong to San Francisco. It took us 18 days. Then we arrived in San Francisco, then we took a train up to Vancouver. On the way here, the first time I saw snow in Portland. That was the first time in my life I saw snow.”

* * *

As we walk through my grandpa’s high school, I learned how hard it was for him to adjust to Canadian life. He was 18 and in a grade 10 class.

Were you the oldest in your class?

“Probably. Those Canadian-born were younger because they were born here.”

Did they make fun of you?

“Well, sure they do.”

What did they say?

“Oh. I don’t remember anymore. I don’t remember now.”

What did Bak Gung do when he first came to Canada?

“His friend and three other friends started a restaurant in Vancouver; in Chinatown; on Main Street until 1970. And they tore the building down and we just closed the business.”

* * *

So this building — it used to be the restaurant. Tell me how did the restaurant used to look like.

“Small little building.”

How many seats were inside?

“Oh around 30 some odd seats.”

So why was the restaurant called Sunnyside Cafe?

“Well I believe that because this is on the sunny … when the sun raises up from the east, so this side is nice and bright so maybe that’s why they called it Sunnyside Cafe.”

The neighbourhood is not the only thing that’s different.

[“Lists out some menu items.”]

It’s been 91 years since my Bak Gung paid the Head Tax. My grandpa still doesn’t feel the issue has been resolved.

“Back then, $500 Canadian is about $10,000 now. The Head Tax is really unfair to us Chinese. The government officially apologized and those who paid the head tax or their spouses and were still alive received compensation. Their families received nothing. This is unfair. This is unreasonable.” [in Chinese]

There are many things that I will never fully understand because I am so removed from the experience. The Head Tax and the Exclusion Act are examples of this. But for my grandpa, he waits for the government to make a full redress because he grew up without a father as a result of the former racism. But like a game of Mah Jong he plays with what he is given and he waits.

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