'Apologize for head tax'
A question facing the scandal-rocked government of Liberal Premier Christy Clark is whether to apologize to the Chinese community for the head tax charged in previous centuries.
It’s an issue to be weighed carefully. Will an apology be seen as just another cynical courting of the ethnic vote, in wake of the uproar involving ethnic outreach?
For Doug Bing, it’s important to say sorry, regardless of the optics.
“I think it’s very appropriate for the government to apologize. It’s a very serious historical wrong and probably one of the saddest chapters in the long history of racism and discrimination in the 1800s towards the Chinese.”
Even if some may see it as a cynical move to get votes, Bing says the time is now because survivors are getting on.
The Pitt Meadows dentist and city councillor – and Liberal nominee in the riding of Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge – knows more about the topic than most. He took a course in B.C. history at university.
And both his grandfather and father paid the tax, $500 each, when they came to Canada in 1910.
“I know firsthand about the head tax.”
Bing’s great-grandfather first came to Canada to in 1870s to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway as it struggled to span the continent and unite the country.
When the last spike on the new railroad was driven in 1885 and the cheap Chinese labour no longer needed, the head tax was slapped on to keep them out.
Bing says the head tax was first set at $50, in 1885. It then was raised to $100 in 1900, then to $500 in 1903, “basically to exclude the Chinese from coming to this country.
“They decided they didn’t want them and if they wanted to come, they would have to pay. But they paid, so they kept raising it, till they stopped them.”
That happened when Canada simply banned Chinese immigration with the Chinese Immigration Act on July 1, 1923.
The discrimination endured until 1947, when it was repealed in the aftermath of the Second World War.
It’s interesting history, but Bing doubts Chinese people hold any resentment or grudges, although he still believes an apology is needed.
When he hears people arguing against an apology and that Canada shouldn’t dig up the past or say that it had nothing to do with them, “it revictimizes those involved. It’s really downplaying their suffering. Thoughtless, really.”
In addition to his dad and grandad, Bing’s aunt also experienced the head tax. Her husband had to pay it when he arrived in Canada. She was invited to Ottawa to hear the federal government apology in 2006, something Bing said was greeted with “great joy” by the Chinese community. Those who paid the head tax, or their surviving spouses, also received a symbolic payment of $20,000, as did Bing’s aunt, who now lives in Chilliwack.
“A lot of Chinese felt they weren’t full citizens because they felt they were discriminated against for so many years … in really a unique way.
“They were the only group singled out for this tax,” which didn’t apply to South Asians, Japanese or any other group.
Bing said he doesn’t know much about his grandfather and because of the language difficulties, isn’t sure of his name, which he admits is embarrassing. It may be because Bing was the youngest child and those conversations were never had.
His grandfather and father operated an import-export business in Vancouver, where Bing was born in 1951.
“By then, society had changed. Growing up, I didn’t feel that, but I heard the stories and I felt the pain as those stories were related.”
On rare occasions, he’s encountered prejudice, but the incidents are too few to keep track of.
“I think I was one of the lucky ones.”
Like millions of second-generation Canadians, he lost his ancestral language. He married a non-Chinese woman. His friends are white.
“I see myself as a Canadian, period,” Bing said.
“This is my country. I’m Canadian. I don’t see myself as any other.”
With the discrimination, Chinese had little impact on Maple Ridge
Ask Maple Ridge Museum director Val Patenaude what’s on file in the archives that tells about the early Chinese experience in Maple Ridge and the reply doesn’t take long.
“There really isn’t much,” she says. “The Chinese who worked here, were here as single men.”
And because they had no families and didn’t settle, they brought no stuff with them, so they had a “tiny” historical footprint, she said.
While the Chinese were paid less than white workers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the treacherous Fraser Canyon, they also built the CP main line along the north side of the Fraser River, through Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.
Patenaude said one CPR section boss named ‘Big Mouth’ Kelly “drove Chinese workers at gun point, literally,” with the result that several workers were washed into Fraser River and their bodies never recovered.
Patenaude said the stretch below River Road, just west of Port Haney, was particularly dangerous because the cliff was prone to landslides, as it still is today.
Some, though, stayed on after the last spike was driven in 1885 and the railway was completed, and got work at places such as in the Haney Brick and Tile Company.
One of those was Lee Chung, who lived in downtown Maple Ridge and worked for 50 years in the brick yard. His death was marked in The Gazette in 1944.
Another was Yip Gin Wing, who died in January 1944 and is buried in the Maple Ridge Cemetery. He seemed to have worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, then in a grocery store on 224th Street and as a janitor in the Maple Ridge Lumber office and in the Bank of Montreal, now the Billy Miner Pub, according to an obituary in The Gazette.
“It is known that he made one trip to China. On that occasion he was married and his wife Ah Lum, still resides in Canton, China,” the obituary reads.
“Yip was a friend of all, and was outstanding in his efforts to keep himself independent of assistance from friends.”
Another article said Yip had a “heart of gold,” saying that for “50 long years he had lived among these people far from his native China; and for those 50 years, in the trust and affection of a Canadian community.”
The effect of the head tax and the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, which virtually banned immigration to Canada, restricted immigration of families, unlike other immigrant groups, including those from other parts of Asia.
Patenaude pointed out the Japanese could bring their families, a privilege prohibited to the Chinese. “The Japanese were somehow seen as civilized, the Chinese were not.”
According to the Chinese Canadian National Council, because of the years of anti-Chinese immigration legislation, the community exhibits “many characteristics of first-generation immigrants, despite its history of close to 150 years in Canada.”
Archival photos courtesy the Maple Ridge Museum.
Photo 1: A Chinese workman at the brickyard with three Sikhs in early 1920s.
Photo 2: Yip Gin Wing was a valued member of the Port Haney community. He did janitorial work for BC Tel, Bank of Montreal, and restaurants. He died of pneumonia about 1945 and there was a large attendance at his funera