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Behind the certificates

Behind each certificate is at least one story that of the Head Tax payer. However, there are the stories of the spouse left in China, of the children growing up without a father in their lives, of the grandchildren not knowing their grandfather. There could be over ten stories behind a Head Tax certificate. Here are stories of some of our members.

Grace's stories

My great grandfather came to build the railway. Then my grandfather came in 1919, paying a Head Tax of $500.

When I met him, in 1971, he was 69 years old and had not seen my father, his son for nearly 40 years. He joked about his last memory of my father as a little boy playing drums.

He never spoke much about his years in Canada because he was an educated man who could read and write in Chinese and was ashamed of how he was treated in Canada. He knew upon his arrival to Canada he had entered an inhumane, discriminating, and racist society where he was a second-class citizen, with no representation or power.

He recalls vividly how they were held in a holding cell at the pier in Vancouver, and in their clothes, and in a group, deloused with a “fire hose of ice cold, freezing water and washed with a yellow powder that he refers to as sulfur”.

His first job was working as a houseboy for $3 a month for a family who lived in a mansion by Stanley Park in the West End of Vancouver. He did the laundry, cooking, chopped wood, and at the end of the day return to the cellar where he slept and tried to learn English, by reading books that had English phrases with Chinese characters for phonetic sounds. He held other jobs, one where he delivered coal, which was a whole day’s feat for a mere 25 cents. And then he would talk of the fears he had, of venturing outside Chinatown, where the “white people” lived. Everyday he lived with that fear of someone harassing and beating him because he was a “Chink”. He described his life as no better than a dog. He would take leftovers such as bones to make soup, pick up discarded fish ends from the cannery to eat. Basically, anything to save money in order to pay the $500 and to go home to see his family or in his words “gets a release from jail”. Whenever he spoke of his bachelor’s life, the pain of separation, the fears he harbored and the loss of dignity would bring him to tears.

To the end, my grandfather feared the authorities, including doctors. He knew because of the color of his skin, if arrested he’d be in jail and if he went to the doctor’s they would give him a needle to kill him. My grandfather knew what type of society Canada is and he knew his place.

Grace Wong-Schenkeveld

Behind the certificates