Three generations of Chinese-Canadians bare the scars of cruel discrimination
BILL MAH, Journal Staff Writer
The Edmonton Journal
Sunday, May 21, 2000
Ed Kaiser, The Journal / Vince Mah holding a head tax certificate with a picture of his father.
Candace Elliott, The Journal / Kenda Gee plays mah-jong with regulars at the Gee Association.
Head tax payer Wally Mah
Clattering mah-jong tiles swirled by excited Chinese men and women on a nearby tabletop nearly overwhelm the soft voice of Wally Mah.
It's a noise he's heard for most of his 97 years.
But for about two decades, female voices were missing from the sounds of Chinatown.
Wally arrived in Canada as a teenager in 1921 and returned to China to marry and have children. For 22 years, he lived in Canada, an ocean apart from his family, playing mah-jong with other Chinese men.
"Oh, it was lonely, sure it was lonely," says Wally.
The former grocer is one of the dwindling number of aging Edmontonians who paid the head tax. It's unknown how many remain.
"The government should pay us back." His face hardens as he wonders why only Chinese paid to enter Canada.
"Why did we have to pay? That was hard times for $500."
Today, it's the equivalent of $4,341.09.
It was July 15, 1921 when the "Controller of Chinese Immigration" clerk scrawled his signature on the head-tax receipt for Mah Ming Sun, who would take the Canadian name Wally. He and his uncle had just disembarked a steamer from Canton, China.
Wally's father had scraped together enough as a labourer building the railroad near Revelstoke, B.C., to pay their passage and the tax.
The white children taunted him at school in Kelowna, B.C. "Chink-Chong Chinaman," they would jeer.
He never finished school, working instead 14-hour days cleaning house for $5 a month. His father bought a cafe in Rock Haven, Sask., and Wally worked there for 15 years before buying his own place in Dawson Creek, B.C.
Wally's mother in China had found a bride for him and he travelled to meet his fiancee Shirley for the first time. When it was time to return to Canada, Shirley couldn't accompany him.
"They let the man over but not let the woman. I had the money but the government would not allow you."
Wally sailed back to China three or four times to visit Shirley.
"Every time I go back, she was like a stranger."
The couple had four children all born in China, all left behind.
Four years after the exclusion act ended, Wally brought his family to Canada. His two sons helped him run his empire of three grocery stores in Edmonton in the 1950s.
Mah's wife Shirley died five years ago. One son is a successful accountant. The other children are retired.
Wally still keeps the head tax certificate in a box at home, waiting for an apology from the government.
"It's not the money. The thing is doing right."
Canadian law robbed families left behind in China of husbands and fathers.
"I never had a son-and-father relationship, because I had never seen my father until I came here," says Vince Mah, 67, (no direct relation to Wally Mah). Vince came to Canada in 1950 at 17.
His mother saw her husband for the first time in 25 years when she came to Edmonton in 1957. He had suffered a stroke four years earlier. She looked after him until he died in 1962.
"It's not right to have something apply to Chinese people only. It's inhumane to separate a wife and husband and the family. It's the people like me that were affected."
Wiping tears from his eyes, he says it's hard for others to understand the suffering he and his mother Jock Sim endured. They ate leaves and roots to survive drought, disease and Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
His father Jock Mah came to Canada on April 8, 1921 and returned to China four years later for an arranged marriage with Jock Sim but couldn't bring her back to Canada. When Jock returned to China in 1932 for a second visit, they had their only child Vince.
Vince longed to see the father he had only heard about.
"Whenever I was coming home from school and I saw a man in front of our house, I was hoping it was my father. Getting closer, I was always disappointed."
Vince came to Edmonton in 1950. But now it was a Chinese Communist ban on emigration that prevented Vince's mother from joining her family in Edmonton. In the mid-50s, Vince, who had found jobs in restaurants, paid men in Hong Kong to smuggle his mother out of China.
Vince never lived with his father because of work: "He was in one place. I was always in another place."
Neither he nor his mother had ever heard about the head tax or the exclusion act until a public meeting in Chinatown. When he came home, he told his mother and she burst into tears. "She said all her life married to my father, they did not even spend 10 years together. When I heard that, I could not say anything else because I feel so badly."
Jock Sim died in 1996 at the age of 86.
While Vince says "everything is better today," he wants Ottawa to apologize for splitting their family. "It will clear up my head and also for my mother. Even though she's not here, she'd feel better too."
Activism came late for Kenda Gee, a city man pushing Ottawa to redress the head tax and exclusion act.
"I'm kind of embarrassed to say this, but I really didn't develop a Chinese or Asian consciousness until undergraduate or maybe even law school," says Gee, a legal scholar, filmmaker and author in his 30s. "Everyone tried very hard not to be Chinese growing up."
Gee's Canadian roots reach back to 1910 when his great-grandfather Gut Gee travelled from Toi Shan to toil on the railroad in B.C. In 1922, Gut Gee ran the Wah Sing Laundry on 112th Street and Jasper Avenue. "My great-grandfather never even got to see his wife again."
Gee's grandfather Cheung Gee was born in China and emigrated to Canada at 15. He too went back to marry. In the 1930s, he ran a market garden on 107th Street and 99th Avenue.
Took Ning, Gee's father came to Canada in 1950 and opened Ning's Grocery on 34th Street.
"In fact, I am fourth-generation, but in law I would only be considered second-generation."
Kenda Gee says he never realized the discrimination his family faced until he wrote a law school paper about the head tax and exclusion act.
"My biggest regret is perhaps that as a younger generation Chinese-Canadian, or Canadian for that matter, I did not get involved much earlier. We have to make sure that this never happens again."