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New book details experiences of Chinese Head Tax families

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Even now, the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act invoke painful memories of the racist, discriminatory practices of previous Canadian governments that prevented Chinese people from immigrating to Canada.

In 1885, a Head Tax of $50 was imposed to discourage Chinese immigration to Canada. 

Since the Canadian Pacific Railway was finished, the Chinese were no longer needed as a source of “cheap labour” to be used in the most dangerous railway construction jobs.

In 1900, it was raised to $100. But Chinese people continued to immigrate to Canada. By 1903, the Head Tax shot up to $500, which experts estimated was worth about two years’ pay.

But the Chinese continued to settle in Canada. So in 1923, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act banning all Chinese immigration to Canada. 

The Act was repealed in 1947.

On Tuesday, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Families held a joint press conference at the CCNC office to release a new book on the redress campaign.

“It’s quite an extensive book about the Chinese-Canadian history and also the Head Tax redress campaign,” said Victor Wong, Executive Director CCNC.

“Since 1984, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) has been seeking redress on behalf of the surviving Head Tax payers and their families who have suffered from decades of discrimination as a result of these racist laws passed by the Federal Government.

“About 4,000 Head Tax payers, widows or descendants have entrusted CCNC with representing them in seeking an apology and financial redress.”

In 2006, in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Harper “formally apologized for the Head Tax and the Newfoundland Head Tax and expressed regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act."

The new book, Chinese Head Tax Redress - Our History in Canada, contains personal essays from a number of activists and observers who worked on the campaign.

“We believe that it will be a valuable educational resource with regards to the Chinese-Canadian community and also the experience of the Head Tax families,” said Wong.

Even though the government offered symbolic financial redress to living head taxpayers and surviving spouses, the Chinese Canadian community continues to push for a complete redress that would include surviving children.

“A complete redress opens the door to reconciliation with and closure for all head tax payers, their families and the broader Chinese-Canadian community.”

Following the press conference I spoke one-on-one with Victor Wong, who was holding a copy of his grandfather’s Head Tax certificate.

“It has the payer’s photograph, their name, the ship they arrived on, the county they came from, their age,” he said.

Wong’s grandfather was 20 years old when he arrived in Victoria, British Columbia aboard the Mexico Maru on June 28, 1912. He was charged a Head Tax of $500.

“At that time, $500 could purchase two lots in Vancouver’s Chinatown.”

Wong told me that no one had $500 of their own money to pay the Head Tax. So they borrowed from family members back home and repaid their loans over several years.

Before Doug Hum’s father landed in Vancouver in 1912 at the age of 18, he borrowed from family and friends in China to pay the $500 Head Tax.

He spent the next 20 years paying off his debt, earning a living as a laundry boy and restaurant worker. As a result, Hum’s father didn’t marry until later in life.

“We lived under lack of funds, deprivation,” said Hum, who wasn’t born until 1940. “We had to skimp on a lot of things.”

Hum grew up living in rooming houses in the Old Chinatown, near Elizabeth and Dundas Streets. 

The family “got by” but it was a struggle, said Hum. His parents worked in a restaurant at the bottom of Elizabeth Street. Later on, they moved to a second floor rooming house on Chestnut Street.

“Which was heated by a wood stove,” said Hum.

For Hum, the financial redress is an issue of fairness as opposed to money. “They took the money from the  Head Tax families,” he said. 

“It belongs to them. It’s not the government’s money and this should be returned. Symbolically returned at least to the immediate sons and daughters.”

The CCNC said, “We are asking for a return of only a very small portion of the current value of the $23 million that was collected in the racist Chinese Head Taxes.”

Hum hoped the new book will make Canadians more aware of what happened to Chinese-Canadians between 1885 and 1947.

“The discrimination the Chinese had to face and what it meant monetarily,” said Hum. “The Canadian public has to see the harshness through publications.”

When Hum’s parents tried to obtain a birth certificate for him after he was born, they were told by the Ontario government that “birth certificates weren’t issued to Chinamen.”

“So before the Exclusion Act was repealed we weren’t considered as persons,” said Hum. 

It wasn’t until 1948, a year after the Act was repealed, that the Ontario government issued Hum’s birth certificate. But the discrimination continued.

“A lot of us were picked on at school,” said Hum. “We were chinky, chinky Chinamen.”

Following high school in 1960, Hum applied for a job as a file clerk over the telephone. “Then as soon as I walked in and asked about the job, I was told the position had been filled,” said Hum. 

“I didn’t have an accent but as soon as I walked in they saw I was Chinese.”

After searching for a year and a half, he finally landed a job in 1962 as a lab technician where he worked for 8 years before enrolling at York University. 

Later on, he went back for a Master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Toronto, where Jack Layton was his field supervisor.

Working with Layton for a year and a half allowed Hum to deal with issues in Chinatown that he couldn’t address when he was much younger.

“It was really great working with him,” said Hum. “He was very insightful and I learned a lot about how to work with people.”

From there, Hum worked with the Labour Council as an ESL instructor before working as a community development worker with the Children’s Aid Society.

Now retired, Hum’s been involved with the redress campaign since the mid-1980’s. 

“It takes a long time,” said Hum. “You’ve got to keep pressing.”

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