Arielle Quan

Charlie Quan: A Head Tax Story

My family history is closely tied to the history of Chinese immigration to Canada. My great-grandfather, Charlie Quan (Bak-Gung), was one of the last people to pay the Head Tax before immigration was closed to the Chinese with the Chinese Exclusion Act. He and other activists, such as social activist Sid Chow Tan, sought to shine a light to the unethical actions that had been imposed against the Chinese immigrants. The injustice the Canadian government had imposed on him and similar Chinese immigrants was finally addressed with the Head Tax redress in the year my Bak-Gung turned 98 years old. I will never forget how proud he looked when he shook the Prime Minister’s hand.

My great-grandfather was a stoic man, proud and quietly affectionate in his own way. He stayed true to himself by never giving up, even at the end of his life. He carried his memories of racism and hardship without complaint. Considering this, I was surprised that he was comfortable opening up to me about his firsthand experiences with the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

My Bak-Gung came to Canada to find work and to give a better life to his wife, son, and daughter. He decided to borrow $500 from his uncle, an enormous amount at the time, to pay the Head Tax allowing him to immigrate first. However, the Exclusion Act of 1923 was put into place before his family could join him. It was 24 years later before the law was repealed.

It was lonely to be forcibly separated from his wife and to be become virtually unknown to his own children. However, my Bak-Gung was a practical man. He wanted to find a job so he could send home money to support his family. Discovering that there were few opportunities available to a Chinese man in Vancouver, my Bak-Gung traveled by train to Saskatchewan to work at a restaurant. Despite discrimination, he made enough money to pay back his Head Tax loan and to eventually send for his family in China.

Finally, my Bak-Gung was able to send for his son, then his wife and, finally his daughter. They all settled in an East Vancouver home where he and his wife had two more sons, who still live there today.

In the last few decades, Chinese migration and the Chinese community in Vancouver seem to have undergone significant changes. Early Chinese migrants like my great- grandfather encountered much aggression, and derision. Chinatown was a place for the Chinese community to gather together with the acceptance and understanding of a shared culture. Immigrants could often be found reminiscing, gambling and smoking in clubs and associations. However, the end of the Exclusion Act allowed the Chinese community and population to grow and eventually flourish in Canada. The Chinese community has become especially prominent in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond where one can see many Chinese grocery stores, food court stalls, and signs of all sorts.

Two years ago, I traveled to China to the Shanghai World Expo. The attractions were astounding but I was more interested in the people around me. I felt incredibly alienated from contemporary Chinese culture, despite being Chinese and being familiar with its history. I cannot speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Locally, I am not familiar with most Chinese youth culture as where I grew up I was one of the only Asians.
The Chinese culture I know is in Chinatown Vancouver with the smell of burning incense and the deafening clacks of mahjong.

It always shocks me when I see racism in Vancouver, regardless of what ethnicity it is against. However, I feel like there is more discrimination against Chinese people than other ethnicities. I do not feel the effects of discrimination personally but many people shield their ignorance with humour. Derogatory remarks nicknaming Vancouver and Richmond or mocking the sound of the Cantonese language are often treated as being socially acceptable. Newcomers from China are especially targets to this type of casual verbal abuse. Characteristics like a strong accent, social mannerisms, or clothing are easy to make fun of for someone without an open mind. I do not think that most people intend their words to hurt anyone but it still demeans Chinese culture and Chinese people. In Vancouver, generally a tolerant and multicultural city, these forms of racism can be subtle and slippery to pin down.

While the Canadian immigration polices were political decisions, their impact had immediate, emotional, and personal consequences to my family. Though my great- grandfather passed away at the age of 105 years this year (2012), he lived to see the injustice of the Head Tax and the Exclusion Act acknowledged and redressed by the Canadian government. I am so grateful that I had the rare pleasure of knowing my great- grandfather and to learn of his personal journey from China to Canada.


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