Caroline Wong

Mrs. Sui Chun Suen along with myself (the eldest) and my two younger sisters.

My maternal great grandfather, Wong Chin, was an incredible man. Born in 1890 in the Toishan County in the Guangdong Province, he came to Canada in 1911 and paid the mandatory five hundred dollar head tax with borrowed money he promised to pay back through his work in Canada. Seeking opportunities to make money in the Golden Mountain, he worked all over the West coast of North America, as far North as White Horse and Alaska. He worked on a railroad in Alaska and was paid an extremely low wage. He also worked in and opened restaurants in Whitehorse and Alaska. My great grandfather lived in segregated areas with other Chinese immigrants. He did not have access to medical care and he could not vote in government elections.

In 1930, at age forty, he returned to China and married my great grandmother, Yue Oye Zheung, who was nineteen years old at the time. Their first daughter, my grandmother, was born in 1931, and during the same time, he opened a restaurant in Hong Kong. A year later, when his second daughter was born, my grandfather returned to Canada as his restaurant in Hong Kong had failed. He was able to enter Canada despite the Chinese Exclusion Act since he already possessed a passport and identification papers. However, the wave of the Second World War prevented my great grandfather from sending any money to his wife and children at home. My great grandfather was unable to sponsor my great grandmother and her two children to come to Canada due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and they suffered. To this day, my grandmother recounts horrific stories of fleeing Hong Kong to the mainland to escape the Japanese. She remembers carrying her baby sister while trekking through mountains, paying off bandits and scrounging for food. One can only imagine what it would be like to raise two young children during this economically devastating time.

The war ended and after a prolonged period of separation, my great grandfather returned to his family in 1947 and witnessed the birth of his son in 1948. Due to high inflation and the poor economic situation in Toishan at the time, he returned to Canada again in 1949 after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. In the early 1950’s, he settled in Victoria, B.C. where he worked at local restaurants. In 1956, he sponsored his wife and son to immigrate to Victoria while his two daughters grew up in Hong Kong. My great grandmother along with my great grandfather supported their family by working in restaurants, local farms and greenhouses. They live in an isolated suburban area with other Chinese families in their neighborhood. The family was reunited in the 1980’s when his two daughters immigrated with families of their own. In 1969, at the age of seventy-nine, Wong Chin died in Victoria of a heart attack.

My family tree continues to flourish in Canada and the U.S. Wong Chin would be proud to know that he has fourteen healthy great grandchildren – five of which have received or are pursuing a university degree. Today, Wong Chin’s eldest daughter, my grandmother, is a prominent leader in the Head Tax Families Society of Canada in Vancouver, B.C. She has led rallies and spoken on the Chinese community radio about her experiences with head tax and its effects on families living in Canada today.

There is a strong Chinese Canadian community in Victoria and Vancouver. Over generations, however, language and culture has faded as my family adapted and merged into Canadian culture. The Chinese Canadian community in my eyes surrounds an older generation of immigrants. I, myself am a product of the Canadian-Chinese culture clash and do not speak fluent Cantonese nor Mandarin. Thus, my elders identify with the Chinese Canadian community more so than I do and I cannot relate to new Chinese immigrants unless they are extended family members.

Although there is a language barrier between myself and my elders, I understand the story of my great grandfather and his struggle with racism, head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a third year student studying International Relations at the University of British Columbia, I am lucky I do not face the forms of discrimination endured by my great grandfather. However, although UBC is dominantly populated by Chinese students, I still experience subtle hints of racism through stereotypes and slight barriers to student engagement. Experiencing discrimination fuels a mindset of what kind of the role Chinese culture and Chinese immigrants play in our society, perpetuating certain stereotypes. I believe through education and exploring our history, all Canadians can move towards a more equitable society.

My mother remembers her grandfather as a hardworking man and an entrepreneurial spirit. Though I have never met him, I will always remember the story of my great grandfather and I am grateful for his sweat and determination that led to a better future for our family.

My entire family with my maternal grandparents.

 

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