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?”