Vancouver senior describes how Chinese Exclusion Act ripped her family apart

An 82-year-old woman who suffered enormously because of the Chinese Exclusion Act wants to know why Premier Christy Clark and the cabinet minister overseeing an apology to Chinese Canadians for historical wrongs, Teresa Wat, won’t return her letters.

In an interview with the Straight in Mandarin through an interpreter in a South Vancouver care home, Suichen Suen explained how her father paid $500 to come to Canada in 1911, arriving in Victoria.

He worked in the restaurant industry across B.C. and Whitehorse before retiring in Victoria, where he died in 1964.

Suen, president of the Head Tax Families Association of Canada, said that she was born in 1931 when her father was on a brief visit back in Hong Kong. He moved the family back to their ancestral village in Guandong province before returning to B.C.

Under the federal government’s exclusion legislation from 1923 to 1947, Chinese Canadians were only allowed to stay out of the country for two years to visit family members, who were barred from joining them in Canada.

“My younger sister was born in 1933,” Suen said. “She didn’t get to see my father until 1947.”

She noted that when the B.C. Liberal government talks about making an apology to Chinese Canadians, officials should be negotiating with the families that were directly affected.

But she claimed that Clark, Wat, and Burnaby North B.C. Liberal MLA Richard Lee have refused to meet with her group, which includes some 400 members.

Suen said that when she was 16, she was reunited with her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was an infant.

Because they couldn’t recognize one another, a cousin had to be present to introduce them. Her brother was born in 1948, and by 1949, her father was back in Canada.

“My father sent us money to support the whole family,” Suen said. “Except for the money we received from him, we didn’t really know the details of his life and his situation.”

Her mother joined her father in Canada in 1956, but they didn’t have enough money to sponsor Suen, so the family remained separated.

In the 1970s, her husband was beaten and publicly shamed over a four-year period in China after it became known that they were thinking of sending an injured child to Canada. She said that her husband was treated so harshly because he was a Communist Party cadre at the time. He ended up having a bone grafted onto his back.

Suen moved to B.C. in the mid 1980s, long after her father had died.

A spokesperson for the Head Tax Families Association of Canada, Sid Chow Tan, was present in Suen’s suite during the interview.

“The fact is she would have been born in Canada were it not for the exclusion act,” Tan told the Straight. “They keep talking about the head tax; the exclusion act was a much more insidious situation.”

Shortly after taking power in 2006, the Conservative government announced individual $20,000 payments to head-tax-paying survivors or their living spouses. Because Suen’s parents were no longer alive, she didn’t qualify for any direct compensation under the program.

The federal and provincial governments collected approximately $24 million in head taxes from Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923.

Wat has already declared that an apology from the government can be meaningful even if there’s no direct financial redress to head-tax payers or their descendants.

Tan pointed out in a presentation on January 12 at the Chinese Cultural Centre that the B.C. government’s share was $9 million, which he characterized as an “unjust tax to those families who paid it”.

“It is these families who should determine any legacy initiatives arising from the apology,” he said. “What better legacy than an inclusive, just, and honourable redress and closure of the file for the B.C. government?”

Sid Chow Tan speaks about addressing historical wrongs.
Comments (19) Add New Comment
Hang on, I must have missed something in this article. Where's the part about how Canada forced her father to move here? Oh that's right, he came because he wanted to.

Perhaps instead of whining about how some were excluded, she should be grateful that her father was allowed to move to Canada? Apparently it was worth the investment of $500, otherwise he wouldn't have done it. And apparently he preferred life in Canada, otherwise he wouldn't have stayed and would have gone back home to his family.

And apparently China was still such a horrid place decades later than his daughter preferred to move to Canada, where she now lives. You're welcome.
Rating: -17
Sid Tan
The tax and exclusion were racially targeted. They were legal but unjust. Mrs. Suen's family was not eligible for the federal government's unilaterally imposed settlement. The issue is the unjust tax, which all British Columbians benefited from, should be symbolically and meaningfully returned to the families who paid it. Simply, if the government takes a dollar from your family or you unjustly and says sorry, does that mean it doesn't have to give you the dollar back. The surviving head tax payers and spouses of deceased head tax payers have been redressed. Now it is time to acknowledge and recognise the surviving affected elderly sons and daughters of of head tax families who were affected by exclusion. They deserve an inclusive just and honourable redress.
Rating: +10
"Now it is time to acknowledge and recognise the surviving affected elderly sons and daughters of of head tax families who were affected by exclusion"

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that immigration to a foreign country is a privilege, not a right.

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that many Chinese were fortunate to be allowed to immigrate to Canada.

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that Canada saved thousands of families from what was obviously a terrible existence in their own country of China.

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that every country applies immigration rules and fees, and in every case those rules are based on country of origin. China charges different visa and immigration fees to people of different countries today, just like Canada still does and every other country still does.

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that people that immigrate to Canada do so of their own free will, after calculating the pros and cons.

Maybe now it is time to acknowledge and recognize that people should quit all the whining and complaining about things that happened a hundred years ago, and in particular should quit trying to profit financially from it.

Maybe now it is time.
Rating: -21
China currently charges some countries $30 for a visa to enter the country. Some countries are free. US citizens are charged $125.

Sounds like racism to me. I guess the Americans should start petitioning the Chinese government for their racist policies and asking for financial compensation.
Rating: +3
Stealing land is a crime, not a right, and maybe now is the time to go back to Europe if you don't like all this profiting from what belongs to others.
Rating: +11
Charlie Smith
It's sheer idiocy to compare a $125 visa application in 2014 to a $500 head tax in 1911.

According to one online CPI calculator, $500 in 1913 is equivalent to $11,771.16 in 2013.

This fee was only charged on Chinese immigrants. It wasn't imposed on Japanese and South Asian migrants because the Canadian government figured out other ways (i.e. diplomacy and continuous-migration legislation) to prevent them from coming to Canada at the time.

I'm amazed that anyone thinks this type of appalling discrimination is or ever was acceptable.

Charlie Smith
Rating: +17
Having your rights taken away should always be atoned by those who took it away, no matter how many decades or centuries have past.

My great great grandfather came to Canada and was not charged the head tax (1870), but in order for him to bring my great great grandmother and grandmother (1901), he paid a discriminatory tax, only because they were Chinese. My great great grandfather, like every European settler at that time, left their homeland to settle in Canada for a better life. But Europeans were paid to come here, and they were given land, land that was taken from First Nations by the government of the day.

Everyone had the right to come to Canada prior to 1884, until legislated racism was brought in by the government, and they were able to finance the building of the CPR (cost 23 million), after collecting a head tax from the Chinese who entered the country before 1923 (they paid 23 million by 1923).

If your dad came and didn't pay an entry fee, and suddenly legislation was enacted so all women and children had to pay an entrance fee, and you couldn't afford it, you'd be going back and forth to Europe in hopes that someday you'd bring your family over and you would be re-united. This is what happened to only one group of people at a time when immigration was fluid for everyone except the Chinese.

The federal government profited from the head tax. The BC government profited by keeping 9 million dollars. Only one other province benefited from the head tax - Newfoundland. They kept the $300 head tax collected from the Chinese, because Newfoundland had not entered into confederation yet.

This is not about being ungrateful, it's about recognizing that unfair practices towards one particular group was wrong, and that this is a good time to make amends for such a discriminatory practice.

It's time in BC, and for the BC government to put their money where their mouth is.
Rating: +13
Paula Corbett
No matter how it's explained, excused, etc. the whole business of the $500 head tax and later, the Exclusion Chinese Act is nothing more than discrimination and racism at its worst because it was created and enacted by our own government. Not to mention, a kick in the teeth to the very people who were brought here to essentially build our trans-Canada railway under barbarically abusive conditions and then, once the railway was completed tell them they weren't welcome to stay unless they paid through the nose. Nice! I have to say, it takes cojones to sacrifice what these folks did to pay an exorbitant amount of money to do anything and everything to give your family a better life. Let's hope the BC and federal gov'ts pull their heads out and acknowledge this highly shameful past and make amends.
Rating: +20
Jack Arse
Hey Jack, unless you are Native Indian then your ancestors were also Immigrants, which makes you a descendant of an Immigrant. That in turn makes you no better off than these "should be grateful" Chinese that arrived way before you were born! But I understand that reasoning with socially challenged bigots is a lose lose situation.
Rating: -2
It's unfortunate about how she and her family were treated, but the people who instituted those policies are long dead. I don't think we need to pay restitution back, given that today's taxpayers had nothing to do with the Chinese head tax.

Furthermore, let's not turn this into another huge problem with the Aboriginal treaties, where the BC government ended up giving billions of dollars to tribes.
Rating: -4
Richard T Lee
I talked to Sid Chow Tan and Victor Wong many times. I am pleased to have a meeting with Ms. Suichen Suen. My office is always open for meetings.
Rating: -17
I married into one of those Chinese families that was ripped apart by the exclusion act.He owned half of powell street and the rest of the family was just as well off.I'm sure there were families that got a raw deal.I just never met any.They were extremely racist and cut my (white)part of the family off with nothing.There is always more than one side to every story.The Chinese I met were very clannish and never spoke to other races.My wife hated the Japanese and felt superior to the Koreans?I never got it either.Perhaps it was all due to this act?She was born three years after it ended.Still in Kwang Tung,Hong Kong,China.The old guy was in no hurry to repatriate.
Rating: -13
Alan Layton
All of us, including Asians and South Asians, should be prostrating ourselves at the feet of members of the First Nations. We (Europeans, Asians, South Asians) were only capable of having the good lives we have because we came in and took native land for ourselves and destroyed their culture. If anyone is owed an apology AND compensation it's the First Nations. Nobody living here now can escape this duty either, regardless if they were discriminated against by other cultural groups or not. I'd like to see more time devoted to that issue, in this rag, than something as miniscule by comparison as the head tax and the Komagata Maru incident.
Rating: -9
Daniel L
In 2006 our hopes were raised when Harper announced the apology in the House of Commons and then found to our dismay that redress was to be given only to the original head tax payers and surviving spouses.
My mother was fortunate to live long enough to receive Harper's symbolic redress but it was unfair to leave out the remaining 99% who held head tax papers. In all fairness, all head tax document holders should receive redress. The apology in 2006 remains incomplete to this day. Discrimination still carries on.
Rating: +14
Cynthia L
Only 1% of the head tax payers received redress.
The remaining 99% are the families that did not get any compensation.
It's too easy to make disparaging remarks against these folks like the ones posted above.
You have to be in the shoes of the head tax families to understand what their lives were like.
Yes discrimination still carries on.
Rating: +23
Gary Gee from Calgary
Like many others, my grandfather and our family felt the impact of discrimination and legislated racism, paying the $500 head tax before 1923 and forced to have our families separated for some 25 to 30 years by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Separation of families is not a small thing. The impact of that separation, as in Mrs. Suen's case is that it irreparably damages the ties that bind families together. It's not realistic to differentiate between what happened to aboriginal Canadians whose were separated from their parents when they were forced to go to residential school. In both cases, the trauma of separating families - destroying communication patterns and the family identity is one that spans generations.
This is why the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act is still an issue that is alive with the pioneer families in the Chinese Canadian community. Our families were broken up and damaged simply because we were Chinese.
Society's racism at that time prevented us from being given the same human rights as other immigrants in Canada. Politicians then represented the views of many of the race agitators of the past and passed these laws to destroy our community.
The fact is the Chinese persevered and stayed in Canada and demanded our rights after being allowed to fight for Canada during wartime. We raised war bonds and helped in factories across Canada against the Axis powers taking over the world.
The Chinese who were left behind after building the railroad to unite Canada in 1885 are our ancestors. They chose what they thought was a democratic nation which they wanted to raise their children in.
So, it took another 63 years to be recognized as equal Canadians. In the interim, we suffered a lot and this history was swept under the rug until Prime Minister apologized for legislated acts which he called discriminatory by Canada against loyal Chinese. He said it should never have happened.
If that apology is to have any merit, then the families affected by this discrimination should be able to negotiate a reasonable settlement with the government who taxed us -- not to just get into the country but because we were simply of a different color and race.
The PM then called it a shameful act, many historians agree and all Mrs. Yuen is asking is to settle this once and for all. That the BC government which led this legislated racism deal with this in a humane way.
Rating: +23
I might point out that it wasn't the tax that kept families separated for many years - it was the decision of the family member to move to Canada. Returning/staying home would have kept the families together. Your blame would be better directed at the country that treated you so badly that being separated was considered better than being together.
Rating: -12
Daniel L
Jack, why don't you read further on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923?
Spend some time reading rather than making emotional statements.
My father couldn't reunite with my mother over to Canada until 1946 when the law was changed.
Rating: +8
Daniel L - you said "My father couldn't reunite with my mother over to Canada until 1946 when the law was changed"

What utter nonsense. No one forced him to come to Canada, and certainly no one forced him to stay. If he stayed here while his wife stayed in China that was his choice - he could have gone home to her at any point he wanted to.

And really - what's the point of lamenting a document written in 1923? Lots of things were said and written back then that would be unacceptable today. But it was acceptable in 1923 when it was written.
Rating: +3
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