Head Tax Redress: letter to Prime Minister Harper from Elwin Xie

The following letter is from my friend Elwin Xie. I have known Elwin since

1986 when we met on the "Saltwater City" exhibition chaired by Paul Yee.
Elwin and I keep in touch and have been involved with the Asian Candian
Writers' Workshop and the BC Coaltion for Head Tax Payers, Spouses, and
Descendants. He has also been a dependable volunteer for Gung Haggis
Fat Choy dinners.

On May 25th, Elwin Xie, a descendant of head tax payers, met with Prime
Minister Stephen Harper. Harper was meeting with surviving head tax payers
such as Charlie Quon, spouses, and descendants such as Gim Wong.

Here is Elwin's letter to Prime Minister Harper:

May 30, 2006

Rt Honourable Stephen Harper,
Parliamentary Secretary Jason Kenney MP, Dave Emerson MP,

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for coming to Strathcona
Community Centre on May 25, 2006 to listen to the heart felt stories of
Chinese Headtax spouses and descendants and others affected by the
1923 Immigration Act.

It meant so much to them that the Prime Minister of Canada appeared
in person to hear their tragic stories in a small private setting. As
you can imagine It is not easy to divulge to strangers embarrassing and
tragic stories of one's life. Us Chinese are not know for public
displays of emotions; for them to speak out with such passion, indeed
demonstrates the depth of emotional scar for which they have not yet
found closure nor forgiveness.

As someone involved with both ACCESS (Association of Chinese Canadian
for Equality and Solidarity Society) and BC Coalition of Head Tax
Payer, Spouses and Descendants quietly helping out behind the scenes
I would like to share with you some of my observations over the years
and how and why I got involved.

In the early 1980's, my mother in her last days in the hospital said to
me that “one day you will know what happened – please don't forget me-
you are still too young to know about the past or care “. Shortly
after her death, I began a search of my both my mother's and father's
past which would eventually lead me taking an interest of the Chinese
in both China and Canada. It is not possible to conduct research about
the Chinese in Canada without learning about Gold-miners, Railroad
workers, Headtax and the Immigration Act of 1923 (Exclusion Act).

Although I have known about the Chinese Headtax since I was an
elementary school. My parents always mentioned this in the same
sentence as Japanese Canadian Internment. It is not until my late 30's
that I felt that there is unfinished business yet to be resolved and
that I would pursue this issue in the memory of my mother, father and
grandparents. Although I did not promise her anything on the death bed,
I wanted to do something to honour the life of both my parents.

With my involvement , I have come to the realization that most of the
majority of the familial dysfunction caused by Headtax and the 1923
Exclusion Act are so significant that professional counsellors ought
to have been engaged instead of our people suffering silently in shame
without the right tools.

On many occasions while busy organizing claimants, upon their
realization that I speak the same regional dialect of Cantonese they
would voluntarily pour out to me me their past stories of hardship
and agony despite my lack of time to listen.

I am able to speak to them because by the time my mother finally
arrived here in Vancouver 1948 after being stuck in China for 12 years
due to the 1923 Exclusion Act, Cantonese was her primary language and
that is how we communicated. I suppose one could argue that thanks
to the racist policies of the Canadian Government I am bi-lingual in
English and Enping Cantonese, however this dialect is not much use
outside of that county. As a young kid, I could not understand why I
spoke different languages to different parents. Today, it is
unthinkable for a husband and wive to be separated for 12 days let
alone 12 years- even with cellphones and text-messaging. My mother
separated from my dad and alone in rural China was terrified of the
invading Japanese soldiers and had to run and hide in the rice paddies.
The rest I think you can figure out.

My father was born and raised in Lulu Island (Richmond) and studied
aircraft maintenance in 1940's at a technical college in California
and had Albert Einstein as his mathematics teacher. My father was
always amazed at his mathematical solutions without pen and paper! But
despite his education and for whatever reason he started a laundry
with my mother in Chinatown Vancouver in 1948 – the year after Canada
re-opened its doors. And this is how I, Elwin Yuen wound up to be
Chinese Laundry boy born and raised in the poorest part of Vancouver.
But you see the surname Yuen was actually my grandfather's given name
but the clerk at the Immigration Detention Centre ( know as the
“pighouse” to the Chinese for its detention of the Chinese awaiting
authorization to enter) in 1911 messed things up and set the course of
history for my family. Years later, I would legally reclaim my family
name. This mess-up of names is another subject matter worthy of a book

To help me in working through this confusion, I have on my upper arm
a Headtax tattoo C.I .5-42989 (C.I. is the acronym for Canadian
Immigration) which was assigned to my grandmother in 1905. I tell
you about this tattoo to demonstrate the the significance that Headtax
issue has had on me.

When I am having a bad day, I look at my tattoo and then I am able to
put into perspective the hard life endured by my grandmother who came
as a “purchased”
5 year old amah girl in 1905 and who eventually raised 12 kids of her
own all the while working on a pig farm in Lulu Island (Richmond)

Without apology and redress, there is unfinished business. To those who
wonder with amazement on how and why we are able to continue our
redress campaign after decades of futility, the answer lies in the
depth of that pain. To the critics of headtax redress; if they would
have come to the Richmond Gateway Theatre meeting convened recently by
Parliamentary Secretary Jason Kenny to listen to the pain of the
victims, I am confident that upon listening , naysayers would have a
change of heart.

I have often wondered how I was born into a community with so many
outstanding social issues.
I have often wondered how I born into a silenced community.
I have often wonder why this issue of redress never came up during the
1960 & 70's. when redress would have more meaning with more survivors.
I have often wondered why despite support for our redress campaign
outside the Chinese community why none have felt strong enough to
volunteer their time to assist us despite much inter-cultural dating
and marriage. Whatever happened to empathy?

I presently make my living as a a performer for a local attraction in
Gastown Vancouver sharing the story of the Chinese Headtax, Exclusion
Act and also the contribution of the Chinese on railway construction.
Who would have thought that an entrepreneur would be fulfilling the
responsibility of the of state educating school children and tourists
about BC History with a component on Railroad construction, Chinese
Headtax and Exclusion.
I am doing my best to not only keep the memory of Chinese pioneers
alive but to celebrate the firey spirit of Chinese pioneers that helped
build this great country.

With the research that I have conducted, I understand that the history
of Chinese pioneers including the Headtax and 1923 Exclusion is not
on the provincial exam and therefore teachers are reluctant to teach
material that students won' t be examined for. The subject matter is
optional depending on the teacher.

On the eve of the world coming to Whistler-Vancouver, let's demonstrate
to the the world that Canada is not only one of the best places to live
because of our environment, economy, political stability and
infra-struture but because Canada is home to the most decent and
civilized humans on this planet. A place both you and I are so
fortunate to call home. On the eve of your government's announcement
on the Headtax redress, the announcement must also acknowledge
Exclusion victims such as my mother where no amount of money in the
world would enable her to join up with her husband – my dad.

With your annoucement, It is my hope that those affected can come to
terms with their past – something which my grandparents and parents
never had the luxury of experiencing. My mother was right about me
not knowing about her past and how the Chinese were treated in
Canada. And I will perhaps never know the full extent of the
repercussion. In fact the more I volunteer with these elderly
victims, I realize how little I know about hardship and sacrifice.
But one thing my mother had wrong about me was the caring part. I
do care. I care about justice. I care about community honour. I care
about community dignity. I care for those that went to to their
graves bitter, broken and forgotten. I care for those victims still
alive who want their dignity and honour before they pass away.

I hope my parents and grand-parents wherever they, are able to find
peace, comfort and resolution with their past in your announcement. In
so doing may the whole Chinese community also find the same.

I look forward to your addendum to this unfortunate chapter of
Canadian history.

Best regards,

Elwin Xie
Vancouver Kingsway

Four character idioms are commonplace in our Chinese language and I
wish to end here with what I think sums the feeling of many of us in
our Chinese Community.

Mandarin: qie fu zhi ton

Cantonese chit fu ji tung

Literally : be close skin of pain

Meaning: keenly felt pain

This phrase is often used for national calamity or family problems when
other members of the group feel the pain as deeply as the victims.

CC: Bev Oda MP – Minister of Heritage Canada

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