Jodie Leong

The Head Tax and Beyond: Sketches of an Immigrant Family

The first of my ancestors to arrive in Canada was my great-great grandfather, Jang Wong Jerng. Born in 1831 in Canton, he immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1870s, before the Head Tax or Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed. Like many Chinese at the time, he was drawn by tales of the Fraser River Gold Rush and the promise of a better life. He travelled the Fraser River by steamship, and eventually discovered the burgeoning Chinese immigrant community in Fort Yale. After years of laborious migrant work during the Gold Rush, by the spring of 1880 he had saved enough money to settle in Fort Yale, and purchased a plot of land from the Oppenheimer brothers for $800. Jang had a great entrepreneurial spirit, especially for an immigrant at such an early time when racism and discrimination against people of Chinese origin were common, and over the years he developed his property into a profitable family business. In 1881, he built a grocery store with upstairs living quarters, and he also established a bakery. Later, from 1883-1885, Jang constructed a wash house and expanded his grocery store with two additional buildings, enabling him to sell a wide range of products such as groceries, baked goods, dried goods, lumber, hardware, and animal feed. He named his store “On Lee”, meaning “prosperity and good fortune”, but the people of Yale mistakenly believed On Lee to be Jang’s own name. Because of this common misconception, Jang did eventually adopt On Lee as his surname.

During this time, Jang (now named On Lee) met his future wife and my great-great grandmother, Lee Ying, a Chinese immigrant born in 1865. Not many details remain about their meeting and courtship, but the couple was married in 1884 in Yale. The ceremony was officiated by the Grand Master of the Chee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Free Masons. After the wedding, Lee Ying took her husband’s new name of On Lee, and became known as Mary On Lee to the people of Yale. The On Lee family had six children, all of whom were born in Yale. Their second child and eldest daughter, Constance, would become my great-grandmother.

Constance On Lee was born in Yale, B.C. on January 4, 1888. As the eldest daughter of a very traditional Chinese immigrant family, she was raised in a traditional fashion: she was expected to stay home and help her parents with work around the household and in the family business, doing everything from cooking and cleaning to gardening and feeding the animals. Unlike her five siblings, she was forbidden from attending school or learning from the family’s tutor. Sometimes, while working in the garden, Constance would secretly peek into the window of their house to try to overhear the lessons being taught to her siblings inside, but this practice was eventually halted when her parents discovered her and punished her severely for disobeying their will. Despite this strict upbringing, Constance did learn to speak and read a little English, and was the only family member who could speak the tribal language of the local Yale Indians. She conversed with them easily and often.

1907 was an important year for Constance. On August 2, her father and family patriarch Mr. On Lee was suddenly killed when his horse kicked him in the chest. That same year, Constance married my great-grandfather Joe Sing Shek, also known as Stanley Joe. An immigrant from Hock Shan Province in China, my great-grandfather immigrated to Canada in 1878 at the age of 16 to work in the Gold Rush, and crossing the Pacific was a perilous journey at such a young age. The voyage took six or seven weeks, and the Chinese were forced to stay in poor conditions on the lowest decks of the ships. Many became sick and malnourished, and not all survived the trip to Canada. Joe successfully landed in Victoria and took work in the Gold Rush and for the Canadian Pacific Railway. His travels through the Fraser Canyon eventually brought him to Yale, where he met Constance. After their marriage and the death of Mr. On Lee, the newlyweds moved to Vernon. They stayed in a lean-to behind a store called Kwong’s before moving to Mara Avenue in 1908.

Life in Vernon was good for my great grandparents, as Stanley found permanent but seasonal work in the Okanagan apple orchards. He would leave the family home from spring to autumn to work in the orchards, and would return to live with his family in the winter. Although this didn’t leave much time for the family to spend together, the pay was good, and Stanley and Constance had all of their thirteen children in Vernon, including my grandmother.

Mara Avenue was home to a large population of German nationals, and it eventually became known as Vernon’s German District. At the outbreak of World War I, city officials told the Joe family and all other non-Germans to move out of the area. This segregation of the German population paved the way for the isolation of other racial groups in Vernon, and the Chinese immigrants were eventually forced to move to the Chinatown area of the city.

On October 31, 1922, my grandmother Laura Joe, the ninth of the thirteen Joe children, was born in Vernon. Just before Laura’s seventh birthday in October 1929, the stock market crashed. As Wall Street fell into a tailspin, so did Stanley Joe’s pay in the apple orchards, on which the family heavily depended. Falling back on the knowledge she had gained working for her parents back in Yale, my great grandmother Constance started her own business growing and selling vegetables to the locals in Vernon. The children were required to help clean onions and radishes before delivering them to local stores early in the mornings before school. My grandmother Laura helped with this business from age 8-18. In 1935, Constance also started a laundry business to further supplement the family income. My grandmother also helped work in this business, collecting, washing, and delivering laundry six days a week. Her older sister Helen did most of the hard work and was paid $5 each week; my grandmother Laura was only paid $1. The rest of the money, from $25-$35 per week, went to Constance to help pay for the family’s expenses. When Helen married in 1941, Laura took on her work and continued alone in the laundry business, but her mother still only paid her $1 per week.

In her teenage years, my grandmother Laura saw her older siblings either marry and move away or find employment of their own in Vernon. She was unable to leave her family, as her parents needed her to work in the family vegetable and laundry businesses. Despite the long hours she spent working for her parents, Laura showed a great talent for art. In 1937 at the age of 15, she was offered an all-expenses paid art scholarship to attend the Banff School of Art. This was a chance for the future she dreamed of: an escape from the hard work she was doing for her family, and one that could even lead to a career in commercial art or fashion illustration. However, her mother Constance, who had herself been forbidden from studying because of family responsibilities, refused to allow Laura to accept the scholarship; Laura was needed in the family business. The chance of a lifetime was snatched away. Despite the fact that she was unable to pursue her dream, Laura remains a talented and active artist to this day.

Laura would finally escape her cloistered family life by marrying my grandfather, Gunn Wah Fong. Born in Chin Gong, Canton Province in 1905, Fong immigrated to Canada at age 12 and arrived with his father aboard the SS Monteagle in 1918. By this time, Chinese immigrants were required to pay a head tax of $500 each, Fong’s father had already been required to pay a head tax of $500 upon his first arrival to Canada in the early 1900’s.

To pay off the debts from the head tax, Fong and his father took up work in restaurants in the Toronto area. In the 1930s, Fong and his father moved to Vancouver and then to the Okanagan, taking on odd restaurant jobs in an effort to re-pay the head tax debt. During his time in Vernon, Fong became associated with the Joe family, and shared 50% ownership of Joe’s fruit and vegetable market with my great-uncle, Walter Joe. As Fong became closer with the Joe family, he eventually rented the lean-to addition on the property rented by my great aunt Helen. When my grandmother would visit her sister, she would often hear the sound of singing and Chinese harp coming from the lean-to— Fong was quite musically talented. Laura, Fong, Helen, and her husband would often play mah jong games or go to the cinema together. Unexpectedly, Fong proposed marriage to Laura in 1942 after learning of her desire to leave her parents’ home. Unprepared, Laura told Fong that she would not marry until age 21, when she would be legally free to do so without parental consent. On May 11, 1944, Fong and Laura were finally married.

Fong and Laura Gunn, my grandfather and grandmother, had three children in Vernon: my uncle Sean, mother Sharon, and aunt Shannon. In 1957, the family moved to Vancouver so Fong could take a job working for Dominion Vancouver Motors, a job he kept until his retirement in 1978. For most of their life in Vancouver, Fong and Laura lived in a housing project for low income families. Their last home together was a seniors’ complex in downtown Vancouver, where they moved in 1982. Living downtown was convenient for the couple, and Fong was very happy. Unfortunately, he suffered ill health for most of 1987 and his weight dwindled to 80 pounds. The last of my surviving family members to have paid the head tax, he passed away in St. Paul’s hospital on January 2, 1988, at the age of 82.

When Laura and Fong married in 1944, she was 21 and he was 39, and he promised that he would always take care of her. He kept his promise all the way until Laura’s 65th birthday in October 1987, when she became eligible for Old Age Security. Despite his hard upbringing in China where he would beg for peanuts on the street and the seemingly insurmountable head tax he and his father had to pay, Fong kept his promise to my grandmother. Whether by working in restaurants in Toronto, building apple crates in Vernon, or washing cars in Vancouver, Fong managed to build a life for himself and his family here in Canada. He suffered racial slurs and discrimination, sometimes on a daily basis, but remained quiet, soft-spoken, and humble. He never complained or never asked for anything. He managed to keep a roof over his family and take care of everyone.

Fong and granddaughter


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