By Sid Tan
Magnificent Charlie Quan Sang Now, a champion of the mighty Lo Wah Kiu (old overseas Chinese), is dead. The body gave out at 105 years, but his mind and spirit never betrayed him.
Charlie is my hero. A dutiful son, devoted husband, father, patriarch, pillar of the Quon Lung Sai Tong clan association where the centenarian could be found in regular afternoon sessions of mah jong. He lived his life quietly, raised a fine family, and contributed to his community and adopted country Canada where he rests with his wife, Own Yee Lee.
We all stand before history. Charlie will be judged kindly as an immortal spawn of the Lo Wah Kiu. These Chinese pioneers and adventurers not only endured the hardships of the land’s climate and geography but struggled against racism—62 years enshrined in Canadian law. He knew what being called “chink” meant and didn’t like it.
“Chink” is an offensive English word when applied to people of Chinese descent. It would be fair to say almost every Canadian of Chinese heritage has heard and read this word and variations used in an offensive manner.
Charlie and I talked about many things, mostly food while eating. Naturally, strategy, messaging, and moving forward redress efforts always came up. Until I was asked by the family to help with the eulogy, it never sunk in what redress and symbolic recompense meant to him. Simply, it was about being a "chink".
Charlie Quan’s family made the choice of paying a $500 racist—"chink"—tax for him to enter Canada. It was enough to buy more than two housing lots in Chinatown at a time Europeans were being offered free land on the prairies. Upon arriving, Charlie was detained for a month at the immigration centre near the Burrard Street waterfront. He felt humiliation when made to stand naked for inspection much longer than he felt necessary. He called the place the "pig pen".
In 1923, the targeted tax was replaced by targeted exclusion, which separated him from his wife and family for 20 years. The legislation was enacted on Dominion Day—July 1—now Canada Day. For years the day was called Humiliation Day by the Chinese in Canada.
Except for two brief visits to China, Charlie’s life was a bachelor society. He worked, paid his taxes, and with the repeal of exclusion in 1947, gained the rights and duties of citizenship.
I knew Charlie for too short a time in a decades’ old common cause. He was always there, stepping up for head-tax families when most needed. That’s what heroes and champions do. Well into his 90s, he led the movement to a partial redress.
Charlie put a big idea into simple words and passionate action. He was the first to received his $20,000 ex gratia payment. When I visited him at his club the next day, he was beaming, took me aside, and said, “Chink no more. I get my money back.”
We were so happy for him that I did not comprehend the profoundness of his statement. Now, after reflecting on our time together, it was clear to Charlie the apology meant little without individual recognition and symbolic compensation.
He knew the Chinese would always be “chinks” to the remnants of the colonial racist ideology that regulated the Chinese in Canada to second-class citizens for more than a hundred years. Financially comfortable and in that Lo Wah Kiu way of his, he explained he didn’t need the money but it would be fair to get it back.
Simply, if you take a dollar unjustly from my family or me and then apologize, does that mean you don’t have to give the money back?
To this end, Charlie Quan was concerned Chinese Canadians, both pioneer families and recently immigrated, would always be viewed as "chinks". To him, the word was a reminder of times when the Chinese were viewed as “heathens without souls”, a race lacking unity and incapable of strength and fight to demand justice and deserve honour.
Governments have always been arrogant and dismissive to head tax families and are again to a redress based on “one certificate, one claim”.
A few months before his death, Charlie wanted to leave a message for his comrades and the movement, calling for an inclusive just and honourable redress for families affected by head tax and exclusion. We recorded what is known as the Quan Manifesto, which some five years earlier I personally delivered to then-heritage minister Beverley Oda and then-secretary of state Jason Kenney.
We mourn Charlie Quan and must say goodbye. With many Canadians, I will celebrate the man, his long life well lived and generous and guiding spirit. A man with the heart of a warrior and the soul of a poet. A life with no quitting, fence-sitting and freeloading. A man who fought for the return of an unjust tax and got it. How Canadian is that?
Charlie Quan Sang Now, a quietly inspiring man, put polish and shine on the history of the Chinese in Canada. A proud Canadian etched into Lo Wah Kiu history, now being recognized as a distinguished thread in the Canadian fabric. My dear old friend Charlie—always remembered, always loved.
Predeceased by his wife, Own Yee Lee, Charlie Quan is survived by his loving daughter-in-law Chung Yit Quan, his two sons Gary and Wesley, his six grandchildren, and his eight great-grandchildren.
Sid Chow Tan is national chairman of the Chinese Canadian National Council and active in many issues, most notably W2 Community Media Arts Society and the DT East broadsheet, a publication of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council of which he is a founding director.