Simon Yam, Eric Yam, and Debbie Yam

Our Head Tax Family By Simon Yam (Debbie Yam and Eric Yam contributing)

Toronto. Great Uncle, at 87 years, was the oldest living member of our family in 1995. My older sister, younger brother and I were respectively, 9, 3 and 7 at the time. While interviewing him for her grade four class project, my sister found out that Great Uncle had to pay the Chinese Head Tax of $500 to enter Canada in 1920. Five hundred dollars was a huge sum in those days! He then told her a heartbreaking story of his life in Canada. As that was not shocking enough, our usually quiet dad then told her that his own dad – our paternal grandfather – also paid the Head Tax in 1923! He went on to explain how the Chinese Exclusion Act kept his mom and dad apart for a long time. Intrigued, my sister started asking more questions from family members and after doing some research at the local and reference libraries, a 40-page book was written.

Great Uncle’s grandfather, who worked in a logging camp in northern British Columbia, had borrowed $500 from his Chinese friends to pay for his grandson’s Head Tax. Upon his arrival in BC as a 12-year-old in 1920, Great Uncle was just too young to work in the logging camp and was advised to study English first. However, he didn’t learn much as he was placed in a “Slow Learners” class along with all the Chinese kids in the school. Frustrated, he quit school and started working to repay the Head Tax loan. He lived in a rooming house with other Chinese bachelors in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He tried his hand as a farmhand, bus boy and other odd jobs until a Chinatown chef took pity on him and taught him how to cook.

Thus he began his lifelong career of cooking where he travelled all over BC and Ontario. Because of the imposition of the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1924-1947 that led to a near absence of Chinese women in Canada, Great Uncle had to go back to his village in China to find a wife. He stayed for a bit, but had to leave his pregnant wife and come back to Canada within two years or risk losing his right to enter Canada. Sadly, both his wife and baby died from complications during childbirth.

Needless to say, Great Uncle was heartbroken. He believed that if it were not for the Chinese Exclusion Act, he could’ve brought them over to Canada for proper medical care. After the Act was finally repealed in 1947, he went to Hong Kong in 1959 and married our Great Aunt (sister of our maternal grandfather). Unfortunately, he was too old to have kids and he passed on in 1997, childless.

Our paternal Grandfather came to Canada in his teens in 1923, just before the Chinese Exclusion Act banned the entry of all Chinese. He was initially detained at the Victoria BC detention centre until his fellow villagers back in China were able to send over $500 to cover the Head Tax. He also ended up working in Chinese restaurants all his life as it was hard for the Chinese to get hired anywhere else. He went back to China during the Chinese Exclusion Act years to get married and had to leave his wife and newborn daughter behind to come back to Canada.

After the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he brought his wife over in 1951. Yet their daughter was denied entry to Canada as she was already married and had a child. Our Grandparents settled in Northern Quebec and opened a Chinese restaurant there with some friends. Our Dad was the first Chinese baby born in the mining town! It was a very tough life for them as they tried to raise their 3 Canadian-born kids, while in their 50’s and on limited income and with minimal English or French language skills. They moved to Toronto in 1961 but then Grandfather suffered a major stroke and he couldn’t work. Being the eldest son, our Dad quit school and started to work, thus he was lost a chance for higher education.

Finally, their eldest daughter (our Aunt) was able to come over to visit them in 1982, but by that time our Grandparents had both suffered strokes and they could no longer communicate with their daughter. Everyone just cried.

I feel that our Grandma must have been a very strong individual to have survived all the hardships she endured in her life. Barely one year into their marriage, Grandma had to wait 20 years to see her husband again and had to raise a daughter all by herself in a poverty-stricken village in an often war-torn China. Then, just when she was ready to enjoy her newborn grandson, she was told to join her husband–a man she wedded, yet hardly knew–in Canada. It was devastating to leave behind a daughter whom she lived with for so long. She went from sub-tropic Southern China to frigid Northern Quebec where she spoke neither English nor French. In her 40’s, she had to raise a family of 3 young kids with her husband on very little income. Then when her overworked husband suffered a stroke in his 50’s, their son had to quit school to help out the family. The saddest thing was when Grandma was too sick to even speak with her beloved eldest daughter when they finally met after over 30 years of separation!

The Chinese have been in this country for a long time and were pioneers in opening the West and building the Canadian Pacific Railway. Yet from 1885 to 1923, over 82,000 Chinese – and only the Chinese – had to pay up to $500 (enough to buy 2 houses in Vancouver in those days) to enter Canada in the form of the Chinese Head Tax. Though patriotic Chinese Canadians fought for Canada in WW1 and WWII, they were still discriminated against and then they were separated from their families for years, even decades due to the inhumane Chinese Exclusion Act. The impact of this legislated racism is still felt to this day as the continued efforts for a just and inclusive redress for all head tax families continues.

As young Canadians, we should appreciate what our previous generations have done to combat legislated racism and inequity. Although we are not perfect, we’ve come a long way towards being a more accepting and multicultural country. As such, we should not only be proud of our country, but also be not afraid to speak up to safeguard our cherished Canadian values of fairness and equality for everyone.


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