Sid Tan: Charlie Quan was a Canadian hero, not a "chink"

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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.

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Condolence

Mar 10, 2012 at 1:14pm

Charlie Quan was a pillar to our society and good citizen role model, he withstood and endured rights of Chinese minorities rights and our future generations to come...We appreciate and thank Charlie for his contribution and what represent amongst us all, God blessed.

TrueConservative

Mar 10, 2012 at 1:33pm

"...Chinese would always be “chinks” to the remnants of the colonial racist ideology..."

The last time I heard anyone use the word was sometime around 1967, some eleven-year-old I knew at the time. Never since. I've never heard an adult use the word. Not ever.

Sid Tan

Mar 10, 2012 at 4:25pm

@TrueConservative

I was about 17 in 1967 and was quite common. I'm guessing it's about how one views the world. I call it as I see it! Not sure why you brought up - you feel the words should not be uttered?

GOT

Mar 10, 2012 at 5:32pm

I would second the comment by "True Conservative". I would add that it seems deliberately and unnecessarily confrontational for Mr Tan to use language like this in his article, and attribute his own prejudices against 'the remnants of the colonial racist ideology' to the late Charlie Quan. I don't think it's appropriate to use the unfortunate passing of Mr Quan to apply the 'racist' label to everyone who isn't of Chinese background. The exclusion laws were put in place at one time for reasons that included racism, but may also have included social and economic reasons in the young dominion. The laws were eventually repealed by a more recent generation of 'colonials' when they were indeed seen as being racist - and the social and/or economic issues were no longer relevant. I'd welcome an in-depth study of head tax - who specifically paid it and for what reasons? Was it ever used by a Chinese family to 'buy' an indentured servant, for example? I've heard stories of Chinese farm workers having to labour for years to pay back the head tax that a relative paid on their behalf. When the going rate for farm labourers was $40 per month in 1925 (http://socserv.socsci.mcmaster.ca/maclabour/images/articles/T1-29-453.gif), 'buying' labourers for $500 for five years or more would be a relative bargain (no pun intended)...There is more to the head tax story than has been told - and I suspect that not all of the suffering was at the hands of 'colonial racists'. That said, it is obvious that Charlie Quan was a highly respected and beloved man. Canada was fortunate to have him as a citizen.

Hello

Mar 10, 2012 at 5:40pm

@TrueConservative&Sid Tan......I think a lot depends on the people you run with. If TrueConservative was around people that just did not refer to Chinese Canadians as 'chinks' he wouldn't have heard it. My parents would never have used that term either or the people they were friends with. I grew up in northern B.C. and heard it often enough. I still hear it now in Vancouver once in a while. My condolences to Charlie Quan Sang Now's family and friends.

TrueConservative

Mar 10, 2012 at 8:47pm

Simply trying to make the point that the man's life was a success. Celebrate the man. BC is now a real multicultural community, thanks to him and other fighters and lovers. It really is, and can only get better. Fred Wah, BC writer of Chinese roots is our national poet laureate, after all. His Diamond Grill is only one of many books now that tell the Chinese in Canada story with grace and mastery. Well -- don't they? Come, admit it---Oh yes, we've all come a long way.

Sid Tan

Mar 10, 2012 at 9:23pm

I want to rid Canada of the remnants of colonial racist ideology. Pray tell, how can I put this so it is less "confrontational" and satifies all?

James G

Mar 10, 2012 at 10:40pm

I also found the loaded language unsettling in memorial but I think I understand the rationale. To contrast a fine person against the backdrop of the harshly racist environment in which he lived part of his life lays bare the injustice of labeling people with racial slurs.

If we are to follow the advice of Dylan Thomas and rage against dying of the light, we must then let that light shine on the truths of our lives. Canada today has come far and will go further but many lives were lived well before it retreated from it's overtly racist past.

Michael Castanaveras

Mar 10, 2012 at 11:24pm

@Sid,
Your goal was so wrapped up in a touching eulogy that I had no idea what you were on about.

So I went over to the headtaxfamilies.ca website and tried determine what you goal is. Stating that you want to "rid Canada of the remnants of colonial racist ideology" is pretty vague.

From what I can tell, what you really want is to get the goverment to pay head tax redress to not just direct victims, but their kin as well, presuming the actual payors are deceased.

If that's the case, then first off all, state your goal clearly! Second, I suggest you write a story about someone who didn't get redress because they are kin of deceased, as opposed to somone like Mr. Charlie Quan Sang Now, who did. Finally, make an economic case for it. Their is nothing that can be done now about the "chink" slur. As reprehensible as it was, it shouldn't factor into the redress equation. No amount of redress can cover the hurtful and important stories of early life in Canada for head tax payees. Those were day-to-day personal interactions. But I agree that economic compenstation is well deserved for the head tax itself.

Taxpayers R Us

Mar 11, 2012 at 12:06am

@Sid

When the BC NDP was faced with the replacement of whatever her name was, I came across an article in a South Asian magazine decrying their double-standard on leadership positions where white men were not wanted, while simultaneously standing against gender discrimination.

The columnist said something to the effect of "if you want to stop discrimination based on race and gender, stop discriminating by race and gender."

I haven't heard the word "chink" in over 20 years and had completely forgotten about it till you mentioned it.

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