Jordan Lam and Brandon Lam

Our Family History

I first heard of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act in my grade 10 social studies class. The teacher talked of it as a historical fact and did not leave the impression that there were still many Chinese who feel wronged to this day. She had only mentioned that the Chinese arrived in the 1800’s and that they arrived to Canada to work on the railway to provide a better life for their loved ones left in China. Furthermore, many had died while working on the railway. The railway contractor used the Chinese workers for the most dangerous jobs, such as planting and detonating explosives. The Chinese workers were also not paid as much to as the white workers. She talked about the Head Tax that the government imposed on only the Chinese and that this was enacted because of anti-Chinese sentiment – many people described the Chinese as being dirty and as undeserving of living in Canada. White workers were also upset that the Chinese were willing to work for lower wages. A few of my Chinese students had never heard of this. Needless to say, we were all appalled with the way our ancestors had been treated. I later asked my parents if we were affected in this manner.

In our conversations, I learned that my mother’s family had been subjected to this inhumane treatment. The early Chinese immigrants, including my great-grandfather had to endure many hardships. My great grandfather came to Canada by ship. It was a very long and difficult journey. He had landed in Victoria, but later moved to New Westminster, known to the Chinese as Second City at the time. I believe his original plan was to work for awhile and save enough money to return to China and get married. He had befriended a Chinese man – Mr. Yee – who loaned him the money to pay the five hundred dollar Head Tax to enter Canada.

After settling in Vancouver’s Chinatown, he went to his village association to seek accommodation and a job of any kind. Jobs were scarce as the railway was finished and there was a surplus of workers in town. My great-grandfather had worked at many odd jobs which had paid very low wages, barely enough to survive let alone re-pay the loan for the Head Tax. My great-grandfather had strong family ties. He had searched for his older brother who had came to work on the railway, but unfortunately he was killed during work. With after years of searching, he did find his older brother’s grave and arranged a proper burial.

After years of hard work and living frugally, he finally was able to pay off the Head Tax loan to Mr. Yee. After nearly a decade in Canada, my great-grandfather had compiled enough money to return to China. There he met and married my great-grandmother. My grandfather was conceived on that trip and soon afterwards, my great-grandfather returned to Canada. Some ten years later, my great-grandfather saved enough to visit his family in China again. He was thrilled to see his son for the first time. During this trip, my great aunt was conceived. After a short stay, my great-grandfather had returned to Canada.

Unfortunately, shortly after my great aunt’s birth, my great-grandmother passed away. But my great-grandfather did not have sufficient funds to attend her funeral or meet his newborn daughter. Instead of dwelling on his misfortune, my great-grandfather felt an even stronger will to give his two children a better life. Realizing that his children needed him more than ever, he needed to find another way of making money. He made the difficult decision to move away from Chinatown where he felt most comfortable to reside in Burnaby and to work as a farmer. He kept working hard to earn enough money to bring his children to Canada. After the repeal of the Exclusion Act, he was able to reunite with his son and meet his daughter for the first time. My great aunt Jean was then ten years old.

Although my great aunt did not have to directly pay the head tax, it still had a direct impact on her. The Chinese Exclusion Act separated families and my great aunt describes her childhood years as a living nightmare. Not only had her mother died shortly after childbirth, but her father lived thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. If it had not been for the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, she may have been born and raised in Canada. As a young child, she was already performing many domestic tasks including cooking and washing clothes by hand. On top of that, she was charged with babysitting children and also working in the rice fields. She recalls she had to cross a large and unsafe creek where leaches would cling to her feet; she would have to burn them off with a wooden plank. She also had to fetch water from a large well which was a perilous job. Sometime there were food shortages and she desperately needed to leave China and join her father in Canada.

My great aunt thought her wish was granted when she moved to Canada. With her older brother Harry, who was ten years her senior, they endured a long boat ride to Canada. The water was very bumpy and she remembers vomiting on numerous occasions. During this trip she imagined how much better her life would be when she arrived in Canada. Unfortunately, she would encounter new struggles upon her arrival. Due to the family’s financial situation, she was assigned to live with an Irish family for seven years until she was seventeen years of age. Thus my great aunt spent her whole childhood in Canada with a family which was not even her own. The family treated her as their maid and she helped out with the daily chores and survived these miserable years never once mentioning the hardships to her father. If it wasn’t for the debt from the Head Tax, she would have been able to live with her own family.

Great aunt Jean recalls that at school, she was regularly taunted with the racial slur “chink,” endured discrimination and even racial violence – some children threw rocks at her. It is very difficult to understand the overt discrimination my family members faced. My grandfather, when asked, told me that he is still trying to forget the pain and would rather not talk about the past. My mother also experienced some difficult times as well. Some people would call her and her parents “chinks,” and since they lived such a distance from Chinatown, they felt isolated. Her parents had worked hard to better their children’s lives. They all worked long hours, seven days a week, thus my mother never learned proper Chinese nor did she have a fun-filled childhood. Due to these factors, she is barely able to communicate to those who only speak Chinese.

I am born and raised in Burnaby where the Chinese Canadian population is now significant. Like my parents, I have never learned to speak fluent Chinese although I have met many Chinese newcomers through my school. Although I feel they want to integrate, I find it is sometimes difficult to communicate with them. Through simple words and hand gestures and of course our love to play, we are able to bond as friends. While I have encountered discrimination at times, I don’t see it as a major problem. I have friends from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. However, since neither I nor my parents are literate in Chinese, we are unable to communicate with some of our elders – the very people who connect us to the experiences of previous generations. This is disappointing because my elders are the very people who would be able to provide that vital information to me.

One Response to “Jordan Lam and Brandon Lam”
  1. craig lim says:

    amazing freaking story boys.

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