Benjamin Gee

In Their Debt

Often when I’m standing in a store debating whether I should buy an expensive pair of jeans, it is easy for me to forget my ancestral past and appreciate where I have come from. My arrogance towards the trials and tribulation that my forefathers endured so that I could have a better life is palpable. This fall I will be attending a university in the America with several scholarships. All too often I convince myself that it was I who earned it on my own; and give no thought or credit whatsoever to those who paved the way before me. I fail to give credit to the men and women in my lineage who grew up without a childhood, without fathers, and without relationships so that I could live a better life. Often I need take a moment to honor my family, to pay respect to the sacrifices they have made, and to remind myself to never forget that I am eternally in their debt.

1919 was the year that my great-grandfather George moved from China to Vancouver, Canada to start a better life. The price however was a steep five hundred dollar Head Tax, the equivalent of two years wages for a white worker at the time. After borrowing the money from friends and relatives he took the long arduous journey to Canada. In Vancouver he worked tirelessly peeling potatoes for five dollars a month, often in brutal conditions. That mere five dollars barely kept him alive much less helped him to pay off his Head Tax debt. My grandmother painfully described how he would search through trash for old thrown out shoes so he could protect his feet. My dear great-grandfather George was essentially homeless but worked hard to pay off this enormous debt. In 1934, he went back to China and met and married my great-grandmother Gaye who gave birth to my Grandfather Gee the next year in 1935. Now with a family to provide for, things became increasingly hard. Back in Vancouver without his wife Gaye, his hard work was getting him better jobs in the kitchen where he worked as a cook earning seventeen dollars a month. He had a reputation of being able to make sixty pies an hour for his hungry customers. By 1953, he again borrowed money to reunite the rest of his family within Canada. His sons were between the ages four and seventeen. In 1972 when he passed away, he left the family with unpaid debts. It is believed that our family never fully paid off the Head Tax debt. The debt was either forgotten or forgiven, but most likely the former. My grandfather was seventeen when he came to Canada and had never grown up with a father. He himself was working to bring his fiancé to Canada from Hong Kong, my dearest grandmother Har Gee. By then the Head Tax had been abolished and working conditions had improved. By the time my grandmother had arrived there was no longer a Head Tax and they chose to settle in Edmonton, Alberta. Things were l starting to look up, but it was far from perfect.

It may seem hard to comprehend how five hundred dollars could have such a drastic effect on my family, but what it did to my family is incredibly apparent. Because of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, my grandfather was robbed a childhood bond with his father. He never knew what it was like to grow up with a dad and never experienced the love he should have experienced. Times were lonely for both my great-grandfather and my grandfather. Devoid of family and loved ones, much time was sadly spent gambling away whatever money they had. My grandfather often spent months away at a time, traveling from restaurant to restaurant making minuscule amounts of pay yet gambling most of it away at night. Meanwhile my grandmother was working herself into the ground to support a family of four growing boys. My grandpa, at certain times, stopped working. Loveless due to his father’s absence, he never stopped to consider the importance of love within his own family. This was a sad stain on a beautiful tapestry of courage and self-sacrifice.

The responsibility of working to pay off the debt and to survive landed solely on the shoulders of my beautiful grandmother. To feed her family, she worked endless hours at the restaurant, working her fingers to the bone, and yet barely surviving. But survive they did. My father, Gordon Gee, eventually worked his way into university and earned a business degree and now is one of the most respected oil and gas analysts worldwide. My grandfather never knew how to be a father and so my father had to learn it all on his own. My father has also worked tirelessly to provide for us. I am so thankful for the steps my dad has taken to be there for us. He has done his best and that is a tradition that I would like to pass along one day. I hope that the generations of pain caused by the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act will be remembered so that we as a collective society never make that mistake again. I believe though, that if I could speak to Grandfather George, he would tell me that it has all been worth it. When I ask my Grandma Gee whether all the painful years was worth it, she says with tears brimming in her eyes that “it was always worth it-for my grandchildren, it was worth it.”

I absolutely love to visit my Grandma Gee in downtown Calgary, where she lives in the heart of Chinatown. The smells, the air, and the mood bring me back to my roots. The culture has changed in so many ways and yet, it remains the same. My grandma still speaks Cantonese to her friends, shops at Chinese markets, and continues to belong to a Chinese church. It is my generation that has changed. I myself don’t speak a word of Cantonese or participate in anything remotely “Asian” – apart from eating Chinese food.

I respect other kids of Asian descent because I know that, more than likely than not, their immigrant parents also experienced challenges. This mutual respect is in the air because no one immigrated here without experiencing some challenges. It was greatly appreciated when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Head Tax and offered financial redress to the Head Tax payers and to their spouses. But what counts more to me is the acknowledgment and recognition of the contributions of Chinese Canadians. While the Asian “smart jokes” can sometimes be annoying, I find that it shows how much Canada has changed in how they regard the Chinese. I don’t know why racism should exist in the first place but perhaps it is due to the fact that the contributions of Chinese-Canadians are not widely known in this country. After all these years, finally there is a recognition of our contributions to this beautiful mosaic we call Canada.

Yes, it has been a painful process, but I’m here now. I may not have felt the heartache and pain directly, but I know that it there for my grandparents. Both my grandma and my father told me that is has been worth it. My grandpa would also agree and I will never forget. The Head Tax was a terrible stain on Canada’s history but now that my family has come through, we are appreciative for the life that we now lead.

All this has been possible because someone before me made sacrifices. This debt is difficult to repay, but I’ll never stop trying.


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