Gim San sorrow, Gim San hope

An immigrant’s story of heartbreak and redemption

Lee May Hing with Jade, standing, and Jade’s sister, who chooses not to give her name here, in 1956. The Monteagle carried 800 Chinese immigrants, who were each documented on a ledger, this one showing Ging Gar Chew’s name. — Jade Nayler Lee May Hing with Jade, standing, and Jade’s sister, who chooses not to give her name here, in 1956. The Monteagle carried 800 Chinese immigrants, who were each documented on a ledger, this one showing Ging Gar Chew’s name. — Jade Nayler

My father, Ging Gar Chew, left Toisan, China, for Canada in 1918. Gim San, or Gold Mountain, symbolized a better life than what his homeland, in the throes of political and economic turmoil, could offer. He was 22 years old.

With a heavy heart, he promised his weeping wife and three young sons he would send money home to ensure their survival. He would return for a visit someday and, perhaps, if he worked hard enough, bring them to Canada.

He knew he was heading to a hostile country whose government had legislated anti-Chinese policies that essentially gave its citizens permission to dehumanize any Chinese immigrant. Yet this quiet, gentle man courageously decided to come anyway, desperation driving hope.

The Monteagle, a ship carrying over 800 Chinese immigrants, including my father, reached Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 22, 1919. Detained at the immigration building for five weeks, my father anxiously waited, wondering if they would all be sent back to China. Finally, at the end of February, he lined up with his fellow passengers to pay a $500 head tax and receive his tax certificate.

My father headed east toward Ontario, away from British Columbia, where anti-Chinese sentiments were particularly strong and where the idea of a head tax first took root. (The Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a tax on all Chinese newcomers, was passed into law by the Dominion of Canada in 1885.)

Institutionalized racism existed at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to varying degrees. All Chinese people (even those Canadian-born) were refused citizenship and hence could not vote or hold public office. They were barred from trade unions and professional associations. In schools their children were segregated from white children. A university education could be denied.

While the tax would take years to pay off, the memory of humiliations would last a lifetime.

Chinese immigrants like my father worked in laundries or restaurants. Known as “ethnic businesses,” these services provided an economic niche for the Chinese to earn a living while avoiding competition with white businesses. My father chose the restaurant business, learning English as he worked for Chinese-owned restaurants and cafés in southern Ontario.

Life was hard. The work was unrelenting, the hours long, the racism always present. He treasured every letter from his wife and family.

On July 1, 1923, the head tax was replaced by the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning all Chinese immigration and ending any hope of bringing family over. An estimated 80% of male Chinese immigrants had wives and children in China. This created a bachelor society. Some gave up and returned to China. Others stayed and died alone.

Gim San sorrow.

My father’s response was to lose himself in work. He survived the Depression when unemployment among the Chinese reached 80%, compared to 30% for the general population. The war years made it impossible for his family to receive his hard-earned remittances. His wife died; his sons grew up without him. Nearing 50, he was still alone in Canada.

Redemption came at the end of World War II, as public opinion shifted. The Chinese community’s contribution to the war effort was undeniable, and Canada’s participation in the newly established United Nations motivated Parliament to revoke its anti-Chinese policies. Parliament repealed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947.

Ging Gar Chew and wife Lee May Hing in 1954. — Jade Nayler
Ging Gar Chew and wife Lee May Hing in 1954. — Jade Nayler

My father raced to make up for the lost years. He became a Canadian citizen, opened his own restaurant in Kingston, remarried, brought his new wife to Canada, bought a house and by the age of 65 became the proud father of three ­Canadian-born children.

If success is measured by the achievement of what seems impossible, my father succeeded. He died in 1977 with his family by his side.

Gim San realized!

On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister ­Stephen Harper apologized to the Chinese Canadian community in the House of Commons and offered a symbolic payment to surviving head-tax payers or their spouses. My father had never spoken of his head-tax experience to his children, but we knew he must have paid. My sister undertook the monumental task of looking for him in the reels of microfiche in government archives.

Once she found him, she began the arduous task of applying on behalf of my elderly mother.

An estimated 82,000 Chinese immigrants had paid $23 million in head tax between 1885 and 1923. By 2006, most had died. Fewer than 50 surviving head-tax payers were among the 785 people who received the payment. My mother was one of the successful spousal applicants.

Why am I compelled to tell my father’s story? As a first-generation Chinese Canadian, I wanted to know my family’s immigration story. As painful as the discovery was, it gave me a deeper understanding of what my father lived through and what Black, Indigenous and other people of color still endure.

Racism still exists. Anyone who is not white has experienced racism. It may be less obvious, but it is systemic. We have witnessed what can happen when governments even appear to give credence to those who espouse white supremacy.

As Christians, we must educate our­selves on the soul-crushing ugliness of racism, both past and present. Only by acknowledging past and current wrongs can we determine how to move forward, to speak and act against injustice. We must see our neighbors as ourselves. Only then can we recognize our shared humanity, made in the image of God.

Gim San indeed!

Jade Nayler, a wife, mom, grandmother, retired healthcare professional and first-generation Chinese Canadian, is a member of FaithWorks, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Winnipeg, Man.

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