Naiya Lee Tsang

Love Lost

Walter Lee in 1946

My Great Uncle Walter has dementia; he doesn’t remember much anymore or recognize many people. Maybe he doesn’t want to, or maybe it’s just easier not having to remember the past. I never really knew him, and even though we live in the same city, I only ever met him a few times. Part of the reason is that he had a feud with my grandmother – Lillian. My grandmother was married to my grandfather Wally, who died before I was born. He was Uncle Walter’s older brother.

Walter Lee (left), Wally Lee (right), 1929

Family stories are always complicated, and ours is no exception. My great-grandfather Harry Lee paid the Chinese Head Tax in 1903. He immigrated to Canada to join his brother Cecil, who had come a year earlier. Harry worked as a cook for the CPR and eventually made enough money to settle in southeast Saskatchewan in a one-block town called Stoughton, and open up a cafe. But back in China before emigrating, he had already married a woman called Kung Shee.

Kung Shee in China in 1940 with grandson Jin Hee

As time passed, he became more and more successful in Stoughton, opening a hotel, general store, and saloon as well. He also (non-frequently) visited his wife in China, and had four children – all raised there by Kung Shee. Four children and his wife would have cost him two thousand five hundred dollars with the Head Tax, so he stayed in Canada on his own.

Walter, Harry, Mae and Kung Shee, 1947, Stoughton, Saskatchewan

In 1948, after the Chinese Exclusion Act (put in place after the Chinese Head Tax – a tax established after the completion of the CPR in 1884 in which every Chinese person wanting to immigrate to Canada had to pay a fee, ranging from $50 to $100 and then $500 from 1885 to 1923) was abolished and the Chinese were finally eligible to vote, Harry Lee brought his family over from China. This consisted of his 49 year-old wife, an 18 year-old Uncle Walter, and his 14 year-old daughter, Mae. It must have been quite a shock for them all, as they were all human beings old enough to think and had had their own lives back in China. Nonetheless, they all came. The eldest daughter had already gotten married, and years later moved to New York with her family. My grandfather Wally didn’t come for another year because he was over the age of 18 (he was 27).

Wally Lee at Zhong Shan University in China, 1937

Wally was Harry Lee’s second child, and therefore the eldest son, negating the position of the first (a female). This meant that he got all the privileges; such as Christian boarding school, high school, and a university education. Considering all this, he was expected to have become rich. But instead, after completing his degree, he eventually became a social activist and feminist, and didn’t believe in making money. He opened up a Chinese propaganda store in Vancouver, and married my grandmother Lil. They had four children, the third one my mother Karin.

But with Uncle Walter, he never got any of these privileges. While Harry made enough money to support the family in China, and make occasional trips there, it still wasn’t enough to educate his third child Walter, or the fourth child Mae (who wouldn’t have been educated anyways because she was a girl). Walter was under 18 when he came, and had no schooling. He stayed in Stoughton with his father Harry, who he’d never really known, whom none of them really knew, and worked at the cafe.

Harry Lee’s mistress Miss Weiss and Mae Lee in 1948

But before the rest of the family arrived in Canada, Harry Lee was supposedly having an affair, with one of his white waitresses. According to a 1916 Saskatchewan law, he wasn’t supposed to hire white waitresses, but he did in spite of this. He apparently had an intimate relationship with her for almost 25 years before he brought his family over, as well as while they were there. In Canada, Kung Shee lived in a separate room from her husband, while he secretly shared a room with his mistress. Kung Shee was confined to the back of the cafe as dishwasher, and was not allowed to work up at the front. Harry didn’t fire his waitress/lover, which made things unbearable for Kung Shee. About a year after she arrived in Canada, she committed suicide upstairs in her room above the cafe.

Harry was a great friend of the mayor of the town, so her death was officially reported as a heart attack. Uncle Walter was the one who found her and took her down from where she hung, but he never told any of his children, nieces, or nephews, except for my mom, I think because she asked him. There was so much sadness and shame that even my grandfather never told my mom about his mother’s death. Maybe that’s why he became a socialist and feminist. In any case, there was no reversal, and my great-grandmother died, in part from the exclusionary acts that started with the Head Tax.

Kung Shee’s Gravestone in 2012, Vancouver, BC

So I’m not quite sure what the moral of this story is, or if there is one even, because I find that real life doesn’t seem to have a lot of proper morals, even if this was real life that mostly happened in the past. But things that happened a long time ago effect things that happen now; and when those things aren’t cleared up in the beginning, they tend never to be, passing on from generation to generation, and never really going away.

Walter Lee (left), Wally Lee (right), 1967

The entire point of this story is not to demonstrate the patriarchal dissension of one family, but to demonstrate the effects that the Head Tax and Exclusion Act had on many immigrant families like it. In this case, it was estrangement and discordance; suicide and resentment; confusion and probably mortification. I just hope that eventually, with time, things will heal; not because these are characters in some eighteen-dollar hardcover novel that I have invested my pocket money into read, but because they are people I actually know; who have their own private feelings, and reasons, and concerns, and because I’m sure there are a lot more Harry Lees, and Uncle Walters, and Kung Shees around, and always will be – and that maybe someday, they will find peace, even if these ones have not.

(If you would like to read about the other side of my family please read my sister Sahali Lee Tsang’s story)

One Response to “Naiya Lee Tsang”
  1. Harley Wylie says:

    Very interesting, informative, well written and thought provoking with some good personal perspective and commentary. It provides better understanding of Canada’s earlier immigration policies, namely of Canada’s non-Euro immigrant policies. Well done.

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