Globe & Mail: Jan Wong writes on Chinese head tax
and Grandpa Wong
I first met Jan Wong in Beijing in October 1993. I
found her at her Globe & Mail Beijing bureau chief office, and we
talked about Terry Fox, Canada, her American husband, Svend Robinson
getting kicked out of China – and me speaking at the Terry Fox Run at
the Canadian embassy in Beijing. Jan is very cool. She has
written the books Jan Wong in China and Red China Blues, describing her
time as the first Canadian foreign student in Communist China.
The following is her story in the Globe & Mail.
the money to us” – Who gets the $2.5 Million federal payout announced
this week for Chinese Canadians. Jan Wong reports on a taxing
Globe & Mail
Saturday, November 26, 2005 Page M2
What would Grandpa Wong think?
Last week, the National
Congress of Chinese Canadians thought it had a good news story. In the
wake of similar federal agreements with the Italian and Ukrainian
communities, the congress triumphantly announced it had beaten out two
other Toronto-based organizations to negotiate a $12.5-million payout
from Ottawa for the head tax once levied on Chinese immigrants when
they entered the country.
But then reporters began asking awkward questions. Why did the deal
exclude an apology? Why was there no compensation to those who paid the
head tax? And why, on the eve of a federal election, was so much money
going to a single organization that sent out squads of volunteers to
campaign for a Liberal candidate running in Toronto's Chinatown in the
Ping Tan, a Toronto lawyer who heads the NCCC, started getting
tetchy. He publicly scolded Linda Tse, a Fairchild Television
correspondent, when she asked several pointed questions at his press
conference. “You don't ask questions like that,” he snapped.
Toronto First Radio, a Chinese-language station with a popular
suppertime call-in show, never got invited to the press conference in
the first place.
No wonder. A few weeks earlier, the host of the show, Simon Li, had
posed this loaded question to listeners: Do you think this is a
sponsorship scandal in the Chinese-Canadian community? “A majority of
callers said the only difference is it is taking place in the Chinese
community, not Quebec,” says Mr. Li, 25.
One major difference is that no one is suggesting that any criminal
conduct has occurred. It's a harsh comment, meant to reflect concerns
about Liberals favouring their supporters, but it demonstrates how
divisive the issue of head-tax redress has become among Chinese
Further complicating matters, the government, which could fall as
early as Monday, this week downplayed any suggestion of a done deal
with the NCCC. A spokesman for Raymond Chan, multiculturalism minister,
said on Tuesday that his department was merely “reviewing” the
application from the organization.
But on Thursday, Mr. Chan did sign an agreement in principle with
Mr. Tan — for just $2.5-million. And a multiculturalism program under
his purview provided Mr. Tan's group with a $100,000 grant for airfare,
hotels and meals for a national conference this weekend in Vancouver to
discuss how to spend the money.
So far, Mr. Tan says, the group has no specific plans for the payout
money. But one thing is certain: It won't be used to compensate the
families of Chinese Canadians who paid the tax, in compliance with the
government's stipulation that no individual redress payments be made.
Officials with Mr. Chan's office, who say that the NCCC is the only
organization that actually applied for redress money, issued a press
release that included a list of dozens of community groups that support
the deal. But one organization listed — a Chinese-Canadian veterans
group called Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans in Canada —
disassociated itself from the congress, specifying it wants an apology
as part of the government's settlement.
Another group listed is, in fact, one of the toughest critics of the
deal — the Chinese Canadian National Council, which has lobbied since
1984 for direct head-tax redress. “We want something for the head-tax
payers and their families,” said Victor Wong, executive director, whose
group didn't apply for the federal money because it disagreed with the
government's conditions. He says the council plans to file an
injunction to stop the payment to the Congress, and stage protests
today in Chinatowns in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, where
Prime Minister Paul Martin is expected to meet with Mr. Tan and other
Mr. Tan hopes his organization will eventually see even more money.
“This is the initial funding,” he says. “We have an agreement to
negotiate for more.”
In this pre-election flurry of feel-good largesse, the federal
government bypassed the one group formed to represent the victims, the
Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families. The group
has signed up 4,000 payers and their families since the 1980s. It
estimates that only a few hundred head-tax payers, at most, are still
Like the callers to Mr. Li's radio show, the head-tax coalition
alleges that another Liberal scandal is in the making. “They will
transfer $12.5-million of taxpayers' money to political cronies,” Susan
Eng, the coalition's co-chair, said at a press conference last week
before the lower amount became public.
Pressed at the time for specifics about cronyism, Ms. Eng came up
short. But at Mr. Chan's Liberal nomination meeting last Sunday in
Richmond, B.C., congress members and officials packed the hall,
including many who didn't live in the riding, according to several
So what would Grandpa Wong make of all this? He and other family
members of mine paid a total of $1,300 — about $23,600 in 2005
dollars, according to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator — to
enter Canada. Grandpa Wong and my grandmother each paid $500 in 1915.
My other grandmother, who arrived in 1902, paid a lower head tax, $100,
as did her stepson and daughter-in-law. Her husband, Grandpa Chong,
arrived in 1881, before Ottawa dreamed up the tax. One of about 9,000
coolies recruited to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, he paid a
different tax — after the last spike was driven in — to stay in
Canada and find a new job. But that's another story.
Canada discriminated against aboriginals, Japanese, Germans,
Italians and Ukrainians, to mention just a few. The government devised
regulations to keep out Africans, Indians, Jews and a host of other
non-Aryan types. But only the Chinese were singled out for a punitive
admission fee — and issued receipts. From 1885 to 1923, more than
82,000 Chinese immigrants to Canada paid an estimated $23-million to
the government. (In 1923, the head tax was replaced by the Chinese
Immigration Act, the Orwellian name for a law that barred virtually all
Chinese immigration until its repeal in 1947.)
My grandparents might have had a claim for redress, but they died
decades ago. Even if I wanted repayment of their $23,600, it would
probably work out to the price of three Starbucks lattes by the time I
finished divvying it up with my zillions of cousins, second cousins,
their children, and their children. The rest would go to lawyers and
accountants — oh, wait; we have a dozen of those in the family, too.
The point is, we're all here and flourishing; thank you, Canada. But I
can't and shouldn't speak for others.
Jack Chong, a retired postal sorter, has kept his father's $500 head-tax receipt, dated April 9, 1914, and numbered 87126.
“We want the government to say they were wrong, to apologize,” said
Mr. Chong, 73. “Why don't they give the money to us? Instead, they
throw the money to the Congress.”
For 91 years, Har Ying Lee's family has also kept her father's
head-tax certificate. Mrs. Lee, 69, said her father worked as a
laundryman, briefly returning home to marry and start a family.
The Chinese Immigration Act forced him to leave them behind when he
came back to Canada. Mrs. Lee said her father saw her once when she was
an infant, and not again until she was 22 and had arrived as a bride in
Canada. “My mother is still alive. She's 97,” said Mrs. Lee. “My father
told me it took him so long to come up with the head-tax money that he
hoped my mother would have a long life to get the money back. She wants
the head-tax money back. We need direct compensation from the
George Lau, a thin, energetic man, is a co-chair of the Ontario
coalition of head-tax payers. His father paid the head tax in 1924.
Now, at 74, Mr. Lau fears time is running out for redress. He points
out that Mr. Tan came to Canada from Malaysia as a student in 1968,
after the era of the head tax. “They were not impacted,” said Mr. Lau,
speaking of people like Mr. Tan. “They shouldn't be given sole
responsibility for handling this money.”