Jessica (Chan) Douglas

Great grandmother Seto

In the sixth grade, I did a project in history class on immigration. The focus was on my ancestry. On my father’s side, my heritage is Scottish. On my mother’s side, I have Chinese ancestry. The history of my father’s culture is well known and published, especially here in Nova Scotia, where I was born. I decided to research my other half, my Chinese side.

My Chinese ancestors are from southeast China, from the province of Guangdong. Since the 1880s up to the middle of the 1900s, many of the Chinese immigrants to Canada and the United States came from this area of China. My great-great-grandfather, great-grandfathers and grandfather all came from Toishan county of Guangdong province. They spoke Toishanese, one of several Cantonese dialects.

I discovered that great-great-grandfather Fong came to Canada from China in the late 1890s. He arrived in Vancouver with his son who was only eleven or twelve years old. They would have reached Canada by ship after a long voyage. They didn’t speak English but they received help from the Chinese community that was already in British Columbia. They are from the Fong clan and would have been welcomed by relatives already in Canada. This is my Chinese grandmother’s family.

My Chinese grandfather is from the Chan clan. His father did not come to Canada until 1920. Between 1920 and 1938, great-grandfather Chan travelled back and forth between China and Canada several times and he operated a laundry with his younger brother in Montreal’s Chinatown. In 1927, he returned to China and married my great-grandmother Seto. It is her life that I will briefly explore.

The early Chinese immigrants were mostly men. But what I found disturbing was the little information available about the lives of the wives left behind in China. The immigration policies of that time between 1885 and 1947 that limited Chinese immigration to Canada were discriminatory. In 1885, the Chinese immigration Act was passed and a Head Tax was imposed on the Chinese immigrants arriving in Canada. The original amount was $50. This was increased in 1900 to $100. In 1903, the Head Tax was again increased to $500. In 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in an attempt to stop Chinese immigration to Canada. These policies lead to a long separation between families.

After his arrival to Canada in 1920, my great-grandfather Chan returned to China three times. He worked for seven years and returned to China to marry in 1927. Within a year he came back to Canada to resume his work at the family laundry. In 1931 he sailed to China and in 1932 his son-his only child was born. In 1933, great-grandfather Chan returned to Canada and boarded the long train ride back to Montreal. In between his absences, my great-grandmother Seto in China took care of their son and worked the family farm. From 1940 until 1958, she was separated from her husband. Sometime during the early 1950s, she and her son (my grandfather) both left for Montreal. Soon after, the Communists would come and take her home and possessions. Great-grandmother Seto managed to escape to Hong Kong. She was able to find relatives there and with their help and her hard work, she made a simple life. She worked and waited until her husband and son were finally permitted to sponsor her to Canada in 1958. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947.

The reunion was bittersweet. My great-grandparents were now in their fifties. My great-grandfather Chan had developed asthma and had to give up the family laundry. He managed to get odd jobs to support himself. When his wife arrived, she decided to find work in Montreal’s Chinatown. She became a dishwasher and was now the main provider.

For the next 25 years, great-grandmother Seto worked in the restaurant. They live in a single room above the restaurant. The top floor was a residence with four other rooms. All the tenants shared the bathroom and a cooktop at the end of the hall. To access the flat, there was a long narrow wooden staircase, which wound up two flights. As a child, my aunt thought it was a great adventure to visit there. She recalls the excitement waiting for her at the top of the landing. There was always someone else’s grandmother waiting to greet her and her siblings. They were four, five, six and seven years old then. Their grandfather showed off the grandchildren proudly. Their cheeks were patted and candy offered. However the grandchildren rarely saw their grandmother. Great-grandmother Seto would be downstairs working. Even after her husband died in 1971, she continued to wash dishes and attended to small jobs in the restaurant.

Great grandmother Seto worked to support herself and her husband for decades in a new country. She was fiercely independent and resented any help. She only learnt a few words of English. She rarely ventured beyond the limits of Chinatown. When she was in her late eighties, my aunt recalls a visit to her apartment. At that time, my great-grandmother Seto was living in a seniors housing complex. The building was a high-rise with elevators. She shared the apartment with another elderly Chinese woman. They had a common kitchen and bathroom. But they each had their own separate rooms. My mother thought she was content living in the housing complex. But great-grandmother was remembering an earlier time in Montreal. She was thinking back to a day when she walked outside the boundaries of Chinatown and was pushed off the sidewalk onto the street by a burly gwei low. To add to that humiliation, he yelled and spat at her. She was in her fifties then. In her culture, age commanded respect.

My great-grandmother’s life was likely similar to many other Chinese woman with husbands in Canada. Many young men had left China for a better life. The wives and families were left behind and waited. Many had to flee their villages and wait in Hong Kong with an unknown future. Many times communications between the two countries was impossible. These were very courageous hardworking women. I never met my great-grandmother Seto, but I am proud of her.

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