When Chinese Canadians in Vancouver discuss the impact of a historic head tax, talk sometimes revolves around the prohibitive price their ancestors each paid to enter Canada: $50 beginning in 1885, rising to $100 in 1900, and going up again to $500 in 1903.
The discriminatory tax was only imposed on those coming from China and ended in 1923, when virtually all immigration from that country was banned.
George Jung, however, focuses on the human toll of the Chinese head tax. His brother, who was born in 1937, didn’t see their father for 17 of his first 18 years of life.
His sister, who was five years older, experienced a similar upbringing: a father in Canada while she was raised in China by her mother.
“My mom could not have sex for over 25 years,” Jung told the Georgia Straight at the opening of the literASIAN writers’ festival in Chinatown on November 21. “It was real suffering.”
Jung, who was born in Canada in 1952, was one of several Chinese Canadians that evening who expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the B.C. Liberal government is consulting with the community about an upcoming formal apology for historical wrongs to Chinese Canadians.
In late October, the minister responsible for multiculturalism, Teresa Wat, announced that she will “engage with Chinese community associations and citizens to identify formal wording for an apology”.
Wat, who was unavailable for an interview, has said that an apology doesn't require any financial redress to be meaningful.
Jung fears that the government will focus far too much attention on consulting with newer Chinese immigrants, whose families never paid the head tax, rather than seeking opinions from older Chinese families in Canada.
Sitting beside Jung at the festival opening was Faye Leung, a legendary real-estate agent best known in the community for her flamboyant hats. Leung told the Straight that she can recall her parents and uncles helping the Chinese pioneers in Victoria, where her grandfather cofounded the Chinese school.
She said it was created because second-generation Chinese Canadians, including her mother, weren’t allowed into the regular school system, even though most had never set foot outside of the country.
“Whether it’s Christy Clark or [Stephen] Harper or Tom, Dick, or Harry, I speak for the old Chinese who really suffered during the head-tax era,” Leung declared. “They would save every penny to go home to their ancestral village.”
Leung added that she’s very disappointed in the premier’s handling of this issue, claiming that Clark’s government isn’t talking to the right people.
“How would the new immigrants, whether they’re here 10 or 15 years now, know anything about what happened during that era?” she asked. “Why don’t they ask George?”
Architect David Wong told the Straight that he has about 12 head-tax-paying ancestors. He’s also the author of a graphic history book, Escape to Gold Mountain, that chronicles the history of the Chinese in North America, but the government hasn’t sought his input.
He warned B.C. Liberal politicians not to repeat the errors of a previous federal government. It rounded up Chinese immigrants to endorse Prime Minister Paul Martin’s apology in 2006, which alienated many head-tax families because there was no financial compensation and it wasn’t announced in Parliament.
“They didn’t have the moral high ground to speak on behalf of the descendants of head-tax payers because they had just arrived in Canada from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan—wherever,” Wong said. “They have no connection to the historic past. That’s wrong. Because a person’s ethnicity is Chinese does not mean that person is a long-time multigenerational Canadian.”
Sid Chow Tan, spokesperson for the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, hasn’t been consulted either.
He told the Straight at the literASIAN opening that even though the first member of his family came to North America for the 1849 gold rush, it wasn’t until 1973 that his parents could be reunited with their seven children. He also mentioned that his grandparents were separated for a quarter-century by the Chinese-exclusion legislation.
“To me, an apology is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing that should be redemptive for the giver,” Tan said. “It should be healing for the receiver. And it must have a measure of restorative justice.”
He pointed out that the B.C. treasury collected $9 million in head taxes in the early part of the 20th century because of a revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government. “I feel the message that the Clark government has given is, ‘We can profit from racism and we can keep the money,’ ” he said. “They’re talking about no financial considerations.”
Bill Chu is an immigrant who moved to Canada in 1974, and he agrees that many Chinese immigrants aren’t familiar with the impact of the head tax. Chu, founder of Canadians for Reconciliation, told the Straight at the literASIAN event that many non-Chinese also don’t know the history.
He said that the B.C. government’s failure to consult with the broader community is a recipe for trouble because non-Chinese won’t understand why there’s any need for an apology. Because of that, he accused Clark of doing a “big disservice”.
“She’s abusing this thing called an apology and using it to even cause more harm to our community, more misunderstanding,” Chu said. “Because any sort of reconciliation should involve two parties, not just one.”