CBC radio specials48:58100 Years Later: The Dark Side of Gold Mountain
Henry Yu’s grandparents’ marriage began like a scene from a movie.
The year was 1937. Yu’s grandfather, Yeung Sing Yew, had just returned to visit his family in Zhongshan County in China after spending a decade working in Canada.
Yu said his grandfather saw the woman who would later become his wife washing clothes by a stream and “fell in love.”
“Then his mother looked into it, asked around and found out who he was. And then the arrangements were made and the next thing you know, they’re married.”
Yeung’s wife was pregnant when he returned to BC, where he worked as a laborer and cook. She thought that his family would soon join him there.
Little did I know then that it would take nearly three decades for that reunion to happen.
Yeung’s were one of hundreds of Chinese families who, in their search for a better life in a part of the world known to them as “Golden Mountain,” were torn apart during this chapter of Canadian history.
In 1923, the Canadian government passed what is now known as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
It banned almost all Chinese immigration to Canada. It was an escalation of the head tax implemented in 1885, after more than 17,000 Chinese laborers helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. In addition to having to pay $50, and then $500 in 1905, to enter Canada, the Chinese were also denied the right to vote, hold public office, own land, and work certain jobs.
While such anti-China policies are a thing of the past, Yu said Asian Canadians continue to experience racism today.
His grandfather Yeung was able to return to Canada in 1937 because he had arrived before the Exclusion Act. Although the law was repealed in 1947, economic hardship and discriminatory policies at the local and provincial levels meant that Yeung would still not meet her daughter, Yeung Kon Yee, until she and her mother finally arrived in Vancouver in 1965, when she I was 28 years old. .
Yu, a historian at the University of British Columbia, has spent his academic career documenting the history of legislated anti-Chinese racism. He had torn apart his own family for years. But the Exclusion Law also denied many Chinese men the opportunity to start their own families and forced them to form “single societies.”
When Yu was three or four years old, he would visit Chinatown with his grandfather. As soon as they walked into a cafe, her grandfather’s friends would turn on and shower the boy with sweets and sweets.
Yu said he realized later that his grandfather was “sharing” him with men who would never know what it’s like to have a partner, children and grandchildren.
“Those exclusions and denials of humanity…it’s not just that the Chinese couldn’t vote. There’s also a kind of second-class citizenship and second-class humanity that they were assigned to,” Yu said.
An apology and repair
In 2006, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to the Chinese-Canadian community in the House of Commons.
Landy Anderson’s grandfather, Ralph Kung Kee Lee, witnessed the ceremony. He was 106 years old at the time, and only one of six living contributors remained.
Lee came to Canada when she was 12 years old, Anderson said. He paid the $500-per-person tax by washing dishes in a restaurant in Ontario and then maintaining the Canadian Pacific Railway, the very railway that some 1,000 Chinese workers of a previous generation had died building.
“Receiving this apology was a momentous occasion, this historic moment in time,” said Anderson, now president of the Chinese Railway Workers’ Memorial Foundation in Canada.
“And yet where was everyone else? Where were the 80,000 people paying the tax per head? So many people had died.”
The Canadian government also offered family members of major contributors $20,000 in compensation. But for some families, a token apology and payment would never be enough.
Gillian Der, whose paternal great-grandfather paid the head tax, said her grandmother refused the reparation.
“I don’t know if any amount of money really changes what happened,” Der said.
“I think I would have done [my grandmother’s] life and me Yes Yes — my grandfather’s life — easier? Yes. And that makes me sad.
“At the same time, I think it was like a slap in the face to a colonial government that was trying to make amends and covering things up by throwing money at the problem when we still have considerable anti-Asian racism in the country.” .”
Rise of anti-Asian racism
Racism against Asians in Canada has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, a survey conducted by the Toronto Chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council (CNCTO) and a grassroots organization called the 1907 Project found that there were 943 reports of racist incidents across Canada in 2021, an increase of 47 percent over to 2020.
For some Asian Canadians, racism is also internalized.
Toronto attorney Kate Shao grew up in Winnipeg. Her father came to Canada in the late 1980s and tried almost too hard to assimilate, she said. She would drive a pickup truck, listen to country music, and respond in English if people spoke to her in Chinese.
“He thought, and I did for a long time, that if we never acknowledged the fact that we’re Chinese, maybe people wouldn’t notice,” Shao said.
For years, Shao dealt with the shame she felt for being Chinese. During the pandemic, she said that strangers told her that the COVID-19 virus was her fault and that she should return to her country.
When Shao heard about the history of racism against the Chinese in Canada, something clicked.
“The historical legacies of racism (the Exclusion Act, the head tax) put what has happened in the last three years into context and, frankly, it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Being the ‘perpetual foreigner’
Canada has a long history of scapegoating the Asian community for social problems, Yu said, pointing to the internment of Japanese during World War II as just one example.
This story could also explain why, as allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections surface, some Chinese Canadian politicians may have felt the need to defend themselves as loyal Canadian citizens, Yu said.
Alison Gu, a Burnaby, BC city councilor and Der partner, said Chinese Canadians are often made to feel like the “perpetual foreigner” no matter how long they’ve been in this country.
That precarious sense of belonging goes back to the history of exclusion, he said.
“This idea that you were never supposed to be successful, nor were you supposed to last that long here, and this resilience, this model minority, that we’ve survived here despite all the barriers put in place to prevent our success, that creates a feeling of hostility,” he said.
100 years later
Across the country, governments are celebrating the 100th anniversary of China’s Exclusion Law.
The City of Burnaby is launching a review of historical discrimination by the city government against the Chinese-Canadian community.
There was also a national commemoration event in the Canadian Senate Chamber on June 23.
And on July 1, the Canadian Chinese Museum, the first national museum dedicated to the history and contributions of Chinese Canadians, opens in Vancouver. He received $5.1 million from the federal government.
In a statement in May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “As we reflect with regret on the shameful legacy of China’s Exclusion Act, we recommit ourselves to learning from the mistakes of our past to do better today.”
“Together, we will fight anti-Asian racism and all forms of bigotry, hate and discrimination to build a stronger, more inclusive and more equitable Canada for future generations.”
While Yu said he applauds the government for investing in the museum, he questions the characterization of the Chinese Exclusion Law as a “mistake.”
“These were actually conscious, deliberate, planned and effective acts,” he said.
“It was an efficient implementation of white supremacy. And that full power of the state did not end with the Exclusion Act of 1923.”
“We’re still living on those legacies.”