The Unfinished Letter… The Open-Ended Wound
During the screening of the movie I could hear people sobbed. It was very touching to see 80- to 90-something survivors of Head Tax and Exclusion Act told their stories, or to hear the unfinished letter of a husband yearning to meet his wive, children, and family.
James Wing, who at the age of 10, was forced to pay $500—the cost of two houses at the time—to live with his father in Canada. James always laughs throughout the film. After a long journey from China, he arrived at Victoria. All Chinese visitors then were pooled in an immigration house called—naming in derogatory terms—Pig House. At that time segregation between white (Caucasian) and non-white (non-Caucasian) was still rampant. They could be there one week, two weeks, sometimes months. James said, “If you have money, you can always buy yourself out.” When he finally met his father he felt like he met a stranger.
He is one of the witnesses of the hardships
caused by family separation.
A separation that created a bachelor society
of Chinese immigrants at that time…
and forced ‘the bachelors’ to pack barracks-like quarters
with their loneliness…
A separation that felt as a lifetime…
and estranged wives and children to their husbands and fathers…
Gim Wong. A World War II Air Force veteran and Canadian-born son of two Chinese head taxpayers who witnessed his parents’ struggle to pay off their Head Tax debt. The tens of years open-ended wound left its mark on Gim too. He recalled on the second day of school he was beaten and humiliated badly—pushed, kicked, roughed up, and spitted out—by his white-schoolmates. At the end of this scene, tear well up his eyes. Most of the times he just stayed at home because he was in fear of such treatment from his schoolmates.
He said he always tried to find the way to be accepted by the mainstream Canadians, to be a Canadian citizen. Once the opportunity came… when Canada needed to send troops to fight in WWII. He applied to be sent to fight for WWII. When he returned from the war he still had to fight to get his citizenship.
At eighty-two years of age, he set off on a cross-Canada motorcycle ride on July 1, 2004. At the front of his motorcycle he carries a banner “Am I Canadian?” resembling the Molson Beer ad. Mr. Wong is riding his motorcycle across Canada to call upon the federal government to redress the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, sixty-two years of legislated racism endured by the Chinese in Canada from 1885 to 1947. “The Canadian government has unjustly taken money from my parents and from the Chinese who had to pay the head tax to enter Canada,” Mr. Wong said. “I want this money refunded to the surviving head tax payers and their families.”
Yew Lee. The son of Head Tax payer who continues to fight for redress. Mrs. Lee, his mother, sayd that she had to take care of the family including her mother-in-law during her husband’s long absence. Once, she said, a farmer wanted to marry her to ease the burden, but she refused. Yew Lee said the law was racist, cruel but legal at that time.
Their rage and fire are still there but have transformed into an undying force found in many of its victims and supporters for this cause.
I believe many could relate to some of the emotion of the characters—as many of us live in Indonesia or other countries as welcome or ‘unwelcome’ immigrants. Immigrants are not a huge homogenous block of demography in society, even in the so-called Chinese community. However, the mainstream Canadians and even government always treat Chinese Canadians as one huge homogenous society—many Canadians share this misconception. Cho’s said one of her friends once asked why she had to raise this issue into her film when many Chinese nowadays own many humongous properties in Richmond Hill, Bayview, and drive fancy cars.
It was so sad to hear that the Canadian Government had once offered to name the mountains, lakes, or other natural resources after the Head Tax claimants—in order to muffle their screams of redress. Pat Case (the chairman of Canadian Race Relations Foundation) said that it’s cynical and ridiculous. Avvy Go (steering committee member of NARCC) mentioned about a judge in Ontario Court who made ignorant remarks. The judge is Mr. Justice MacPherson who made the ignorant remarks in his oral argument arising out of the hearing in Shack Jang Mack v. Attorney General of Canada (Court of Appeal file No. C36799) on June 10, 2002.
Here are some examples of such statements:
- “the Chinese head tax payers were happy to be here.”
- “paying the head tax was made all worthwhile when one can see their granddaughter playing first string cello for the T.S.O.”
- “people were more than happy to pay the tax: I’ll pay because my life will be better.”
- “people felt the Head Tax was bad but they decided to pay it anyway and they got what they wanted, namely to come to Canada.”
Other remarks of Justice MacPherson included:
- “the fact that the head tax payers and their descendants are still here is redress enough.”
- “many other groups had a hard time in the context of immigrating to Canada.”
- “many of these other immigrant groups suffered more than the head tax payers, e.g. the Acadians, who were “kicked out” a couple of times”
- “Canada has one of the one or two best immigration records in the world. While this law was bad, it was the exception.”
Towards the end of this discusssion, a young man asked whether Adrienne (Poy) Clarkson (Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada) who imigrated to Canada when she was 3 years old also experienced this racist legislation. Avvy responded cynically that most of the times the have and powerful can be exempted from racist and discriminated legislation.
Most of the people involve in this campaign know that their journey is hard and long, but they are committed to put it on the canvas of Canada’s history—so this insidious regulation will not repeat for future Canadians of other ethnicities.
On February 12, 2002, Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, announced that the government has decided to make a formal apology to Chinese New Zealanders for the imposition of the Poll Tax and discrimination in law against Chinese New Zealanders in earlier times. Since then, the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet have been consulting with representatives of the families of early settlers on a form of reconciliation. In 2004 New Zealand redress the Poll Tax.
It’s so inspiring! I believe if New Zealand can do it, then Canada can do it too.
“The last spike marked the end of a nation-building project in Canada. It also signified the beginning of a shameful era of the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Let this new journey of the last spike bring about the rebuilding of our nation by redressing our past wrongs towards Chinese Canadians”, Pierre Berton said in a support statement to the kick off CCNC’s Last Spike Campaign on September 12, 2003.
I still could see Gim Wong’s tears and feel his pain when he told a story about little Gim Wong who had to succumb to his white friends’ unfair treatment to him, or his fight to attain acknowledgment as a true-blue Canadian. Cho’s film shows a strong message through a subtle flash of scenes… For countless Chinese Canadians the head tax is a tearful reminder of a country they helped forge, and yet whose citizenship they were repeatedly denied. The opening sequence of the film is very forceful. It begins with footage of a typical Canada Day, and all the commotion associated with the event. An ominous voice of a Chinese Canadian bluntly states, “You do not celebrate July 1.” So, when you sing “O Canada” every first of July, what was in your mind?