When Charlie Quan, 99, recently received a $20,000 head-tax payment from the federal government, he decided to throw a feast. Quan is one of a handful of people still alive who paid the $500 Chinese head tax to come to Canada. From 1923 to 1947, the federal government banned virtually all immigration from China, separating families for decades.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that almost 300 head-tax-paying survivors and their spouses would each receive symbolic payments of $20,000. Harper also issued a federal apology but stopped short of providing direct compensation to families of deceased head-tax payers. Ottawa will also spend $24 million for a recognition program.
On December 3, Quan celebrated at the Quan Lung Sai Tong Association headquarters at 164 East Hastings Street, surrounded by more than two dozen family members and friends. Quan and others burned incense to give thanks to the Chinese deity Kwan Kung and enjoyed a sumptuous Chinese lunch, including a whole pig, which is a symbol of good fortune.
Quan told the Georgia Straight that Kwan Kung—the protector of warriors, writers, and artists—gave him hope to continue pressuring the government. “I am very satisfied, very satisfied, very satisfied,” Quan said. “Kwan Kung helped me a lot.”
Sid Chow Tan, cochair of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, told the Straight that the lo wah kiu (old overseas Chinese) look upon Kwan Kung as their premier spiritual helper, admired for his righteousness and compassion. “He is known as the deity who will throw you a lifeline when you have nowhere else to turn,” Tan said.
Tan noted that Quan also called upon Kwan Kung to bring justice and honour to all head-tax families because Harper’s redress package is incomplete. According to the Chinese Canadian National Council, approximately 81,000 Chinese immigrants paid $23 million in head taxes, which works out to about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars.
“The government needs to have good-faith negotiations with head-tax families,” Tan said. “Every certificate should be treated equally.”
Grace Schenkeveld, also cochair of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, told the Straight that her grandfather Wong Hoy paid the $500 head tax when he came to Canada in 1919. Schenkeveld said that her grand parents had three children, born at six-year intervals because it took six years for her grandfather to save enough money to return to China to visit his wife, who was forbidden from immigrating because of the exclusion act.
“He told us when he came to Canada he worked as a houseboy,” she said. “He was this guy who lived in the cellar of this mansion, being paid $3 a month.”
Schenkeveld said her grandmother suffered a worse fate, dying in China during the Second World War. At this time, her grandfather couldn’t send money to the family, which was starving. Schenkeveld said her father still talks about how he was once like those African children with swollen bellies.
“My aunt talks about how she was starving so badly her hair fell out,” Schenkeveld said. “These were also victims.”
She added that she and her family weren’t able to move to Canada until 1971. “My grandfather would say things like, ”˜The last time I saw your dad, he was a six-year-old boy,’” she said. “He said, ”˜Are you sure you’re the same man?’”
Her family won’t receive a head-tax payment because her grandfather died more than 20 years ago. “We believe the Harper government should treat all head-tax families fairly, with dignity and honour,” Schenkeveld said. “And do something that’s right, and be brave enough to do something that’s right. Because a lot of Canadians will feel the same way. This is racism. We have to acknowledge racism, and it’s wrong.”