Karen Cho interview about her NFB film “In the Shadow of Gold Mountain”

The following was sent to me from Sid Tan

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Toronto Star, November 6, 2004

Documenting Canada’s head tax history

Immigrants from China recall woes for Karen Cho Film won’t let us Canadians forget `skeletons in closet’
by Nicholas Keung

Karen Cho couldn’t understand why half of her ancestors had to pay a hefty head tax to come  to Canada while the other half were embraced by this country with a promise of free farmland.

The Montreal-born film director began to ask questions of her Chinese grandmother Susie Woo,
now 85, and her British granny Ethel Wood, 80, about why their mutually adopted country had treated the two families so differently.

This quest by Cho has resulted in In The Shadow Of Gold Mountain, a 43-minute documentary that reveals the dark side of Chinese immigrants’ gold-digging dreams in North America.

Cho was unaware of that part of her Chinese history and was shocked to find out that the
federal government had banned Chinese immigration between 1923 and 1947.

“It was shocking. It was just grossly unfair,” said the  25-year-old, a graduate of Concordia  University’s film production program and a winner of the 2003 National Film Board’s Reel Diversity Competition.

“Why were the Chinese the only ones who were asked to pay the head tax, while my family from Britain came with the promise of free farmland? I was born mixed-race. I’m not considered 100 per cent Caucasian; I’m not considered 100 per cent Chinese; I can only call myself 100 per cent Canadian. It is just terrible how my (Chinese) family was affected by that.”

The film, which premiered in Ottawa on Wednesday, will be screened at Ryerson University’s Jorgenson Hall tomorrow, followed by screenings in Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg later this month.

Cho, who said she had not been taught this part of Canada’s immigrant history in high school, noted her interest grew as she started contacting activists advocating for redress over the head tax, the discriminatory fee paid by Chinese newcomers from 1885 to 1923. (In 1903 the fee was raised to $500 — the equivalent of $10,000 today.)

Cho’s growing curiosity about the matter took her across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver to uncover stories from the last living survivors of the tax as well as the Exclusion Act, which replaced the head tax by shutting Chinese immigrants out almost entirely for 24 years.

This policy had plunged the community into decades of debt and family separation, she noted. At the centre of the film are personal accounts of extraordinary Chinese-Canadians who survived this era, including 92-year-old James Wing and 98-year-old Charlie Quan.

“There were Chinese who fought along with the Canadian military when they were not even recognized as citizens,” said Cho. “Unfortunately, these are the last handful of (head tax) survivors still around today to tell their stories.”

She also interviewed head-tax survivor Roy Mah, 86, who said he was against the redress because, for him, the struggle was over when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

Despite Canada’s reputation as a multicultural and tolerant country, she said everyone should still get to know that “there are skeletons in Canada’s closet as well.”

She said the head-tax stories contextualize the issues of xenophobia that people around the world still experience to this day.

“That is the same way we treat people we fear. It’s not something in the past – that attitude is still here with us today.”

Note: Roy Mah is a son of head taxpayer, not a “head-tax survivor.”

The Vancouver premiere of the film In the Shadow of Gold Mountain will be November 21 @ 11:00am and 4:30pm at the Firehall Arts Centre, 280 East Cordova (at Gore). Presented by the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians (VACC) and National Film Board (NFB/ONF) with assistance from the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and National Anti-Racism
Council of Canada (NARCC).

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