Vancouver Sun: Redress Train rolls by ghosts of the past

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Vancouver Sun: Redress Train rolls by ghosts of the past

Vancouver Sun writer Ian Mulgrew is on board the Redress Train from Vancouver to Ottawa.  He is accompanying head tax descendants on their journey to witness PM Stephen Harper give an apology for the Chinese head tax in parliament.  83 year old WW2 veteran, Gim Wong, son of a head tax payer is on the train with his wife Jan.  Toronto lawyer and activist Susan Eng, head tax descendant is on the train with her mother.  I saw them off in Vancouver on Friday.

Publication: Vancouver Sun;
Date:2006 Jun 19; Section:Front Page; Page Number:
A3

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COLUMNIST

 

Redress
train rolls by ghosts of the past

 

IAN
MULGREW

VANCOUVER SUN

 


   ABOARD THE HEAD TAX REDRESS TRAIN A s the transcontinental
train clattered eastward through the Rockies, Toronto's Susan Eng entertained
tourists with stories of the 22-year struggle by Chinese Canadians for
redress over the long-gone discriminatory head tax.
   More time, Eng told them, would have allowed the groups
involved to better organize the response to P rime Minister Stephen Harper's
surprise announcement last week that he would apologize for the unique
penalty imposed on the Chinese more than a century ago.
   “It would have been nice along the way on this trip
to commemorate the thousands of Chinese workers who gave their lives to build
the railway,” Eng said.
   But the train rumbled through Kamloops at
midnight and most of the sites appropriate for a ritualistic nod to the
ghosts of the past were also shrouded in darkness as the train sped by.
   Later, the observation car filled with “ahs” at
the appearance of Thunder Falls on the opposite side of mirror-like Moose Lake near the B.C.-Alberta border.
   “Wow,” Eng echoed, watching the spectacular
spires and rugged ranges through which her ancestors helped carve and blast a
steel path.
   She said she hopes this thrown-together trip will
nevertheless focus Canadians' attention and help them understand why the
prime minister’s decision means so much to the minority community.
   James Marr, 94, and his family had only two days notice
before they boarded the Canadian in Edmonton late Saturday for the trip to
Ottawa.
   “He's quite overwhelmed,” daughter Lily Welsh
said of her dad, who in 1923 was one of the last Chinese immigrants let into Canada until
after the Second World War. “This is just such a
once-in-a-lifetime event. He never thought he would see the day.”
   Marr sat in his wheelchair smiling broadly, his eyes
gleaming as the verdant prairie rolled by.
   Gim Wong and his wife Jan were
similarly awed by the grandeur of the landscape and the attention of the
media.
   “I’m overwhelmed, just overwhelmed,”
repeated the 83-yearold Wong, whose late father paid the tax.
   The Toronto-born co-chairwoman of the Ontario Coalition of
Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families, Eng is riding the rails with her mother
Chuey Eng in memory of her late father Tong, who
paid the fee to enter the country in 1919.
   “This railway is part of the mythology of Canada,”
Eng said as the Via train gently rocked its way across the continent.
   “Every child learns that in our schools — now
they will also learn about the Chinese indentured workers who did the hard
jobs.”
   Although the Chinese were courted and welcomed to help
construct the CPR, the federal government shunned them after it was completed
in 1885.
   Those who were landed faced rampant, manifest
discrimination and sporadic violence by the turn of the 20th century.
   They might have played a key role in building the Canadian
Pacific line that ushered B.C. into Confederation, but the Chinese were not
even invited to the celebration marking its finish.
   Of the 82,000 or so estimated to have paid the head tax
— imposed from 1885 until 1923 to staunch immigration — there
remain only a score of aged survivors such as Marr and perhaps 200 of their
spouses.
   There are, though, an estimated 4,000 descendants, several
hundred families whose ancestors paid the fee that was as high as $500.
   Eng and eight others set out Friday from Vancouver,
and were joined by another five, including Marr, in Edmonton. Two found the travel too onerous
and disembarked, hoping to fly to Ottawa.

   None of the abiding ironies of the journey are lost on the
participants.
   They even carry a Last Spike, one of the souvenir steel
pegs distributed at the initial ceremony marking the historic moment when the
eastern and western crews laying down the Canadian Pacific line met.
   The spike was a gift to the redress campaign from the late
author, Pierre Berton, whose books documented the
building of the railway and its importance to the building of the nation.
   Eng plans to bring it to the ceremony Thursday when Harper
will deliver on behalf of Canadians the long-overdue “sorry.”
   Though the tax was abolished in 1923, from then until 1947,
Canada
simply refused entry to Chinese immigrants and denied their families the
right to reunite.
   The hardships that caused for many remain a caustic memory
discussed among those on the trip — which proved a chance for those
involved to strike up new friendships and share emotional bouts of heart-felt
reminiscence about family and friends long gone.
   “My father tried to bring us here after Japan invaded China
in 1937, but the act wouldn’t allow it,” recalled Howe Chan, of Richmond, his eyes
welling as he fingered a faded photograph.
   “My brother died of tuberculosis before the Japanese
surrender and my sister died of meningitis a month before I came here. I
didn’t see my father from the age of one to 14 — to me he was a
total stranger when I arrived here.”
   Like others on the train, he was flabbergasted by
Harper’s decision — a staggering symbolic gesture no one in the
community expected. He scrambled to ensure he was aboard the socalled redress train.
   imulgrew@png.canwest.com

 

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   IAN JACKSON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Lily
Welsh accompanies her father James Marr, 94 (in the wheelchair),
who holds one of the last spikes from the building of the CPR before he
boards the train to Ottawa from Edmonton Saturday. Marr
is one of the last surviving Chinese-Canadians to have paid the head tax and
is joining a group from Vancouver
honouring thousands of Chinese who gave their lives
to build the rail line.

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