In Talking History, Canada’s foremost historians and history experts show that Canada’s history is essential to our understanding of our country and the world today. The series is made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Paul Yee was born in Saskatchewan, grew up in Vancouver and moved to Toronto in 1988. He has written about Chinese Canadians, in fiction and non-fiction, for young readers as well as for adults. His first novel for adults, A Superior Man, was recently published by Arsenal Pulp Press.
In 1950, my mother fled China to Hong Kong, fearful of the new Communist regime. She was married to an overseas Chinese, so she would have been labelled a landlord and tortured for crimes against the peasantry.
But she didn’t come to Canada as a refugee. In the view of the United Nations, she failed to qualify as a refugee; the UN did not consider her unable or unwilling to return home and receive state protection. Refugees from China, it was argued, also belonged to the Republic of China (Taiwan), so they could go there. But Taiwan, in the throes of post-war re-building, could only offer limited help.
My mother reached Canada only after this country had repealed its law banning Chinese immigration. Still, only a trickle of Chinese were allowed in. All Chinese entrants had to be sponsored, and a Chinese Canadian could sponsor only spouses and offspring under age 18.
Good news for my mother? Not quite. During the years that Canadian law had stopped my father from bringing her to Canada, she had adopted a son Joseph. In 1950, he was twelve. But Canadian rules forbade adopted children. My parents had to claim to be Joseph’s birth parents before the family was reunited.
Other Chinese Canadians waited much longer
In 1954, Harry and Jean Loo of Toronto adopted a refugee baby Ka Yeung of Hong Kong. But they couldn’t get him here due to the rule on adopted offspring. Three years later, when officials reviewed the case, someone doubted the legality of the adoption and halted the paperwork.
In 1960, Canadians were allowed to adopt refugee orphans from Asia, so Harry and Jean tried again for Ka Yeung’s entry. This time Canadian officials noted he didn’t qualify as a refugee. He had been born in Hong Kong, not China. If his mother had fled China after Ka Yeung’s birth, then the boy would have been declared a refugee.
It took four more years to validate the adoption. Ten year-old Ka Yeung arrived in Toronto in April 1965. Harry Loo, 61 by then, passed out cigars at the airport.1
All Chinese Canadians felt the sting of unfairness. Toronto businessman Harry Lam had three employees who applied for citizenship at the same time. Two Hungarian refugees got their papers within three weeks. The Chinese woman didn’t get her certificate until a year later, and only after a lawyer intervened.
“Why can’t they treat us like the Europeans?” demanded Lam. “Why are we treated like second-class citizens?”2
All welcome but Asians
When World War II ended, Canada admitted only four classes of immigrants: farmers, British subjects, American citizens, and the spouse and unmarried children under age 18 or the fiancé(e) of a Canadian. The Chinese Immigration Act ruled that most Chinese could not enter.
Europe’s refugee crisis led Ottawa to open its gates. In 1946, the class of relatives that Canadians could sponsor was widened to include siblings, parents, and orphaned nephews and nieces under age 18. This didn’t apply to Chinese-Canadians.
Between 1947 and 1953, 165,000 refugees came from Europe. French citizens were added to the preferred classes of admissible British subjects and Americans. In 1951, Canada launched a loan program to help European immigrants reach Canada. Russia’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 led to 38,000 refugees coming here.
Canada’s Chinese thought, “Wow! Look at all these refugees. They can sponsor parents and siblings. Why not us? We lived here longer and paid taxes.”
Not until 1960 (World Refugee Year) did the UN provide $4.5 million to Hong Kong for refugees. That year, Dr. Lotta Hitshmanova of the Unitarian Service of Canada toured Hong Kong and complained about Canada’s focus on Europe’s refugees.
“… Hong Kong has as many refugees as the whole of Europe,” she said. “And they live in such hideous poverty and squalor that there is no comparing their plight with that of the European refugees. These are the world’s forgotten refugees.”3
In May 1962, China sparked an international crisis by releasing a flood of refugees. That month, 100,000 refugees tried to enter Hong Kong. Hong Kong troops and police sealed the border, erected a fence, and returned 65,000 refugees to China.4 The crisis ended at month end when China re-sealed its border.
In response, Canada announced it would take in 100 refugee families. But the offer was denounced by a clergyman in Hong Kong: “… Canada’s offer is like a tiny speck of oil dropped into a seething ocean.”5
Church leaders in Canada called for Ottawa to take in 10,000 refugees. Toronto’s Rabbi Gunther Plaut blamed the country’s reluctance on race: “What makes us hesitant is the fact that these people are Chinese … Canada deems them less desirable than people from Europe and especially northern and western Europe.”6
In the end, Canada took in 106 Hong Kong families. The families were distributed across the country. By January 1, 1964, all but one of the refugee families was self-supporting.7
Suggestions for Further Reading:
About the book: Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s unhappiness as Su-Jen’s life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen’s half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen’s mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.
The Year of Finding Memory, by Judy Fong Bates
About the book: Growing up in her father’s hand laundry in small town Ontario, Judy Fong Bates listened to stories of her parents’ past lives in China, a place far removed from their every-day life of poverty and misery. But in spite of the allure of these stories, Fong Bates longed to be a Canadian girl. 50 years later she finally followed her curiosity back to her ancestral home in China for a reunion that spiralled into a series of unanticipated discoveries. Opening with a shock as moving as the one that powers The Glass Castle, The Year of Finding Memory explores a particular, yet universal, world of family secrets, love, loss, courage and shame. This is a memoir of a daughter’s emotional journey, and her painful acceptance of conflicting truths. In telling the story of her parents, Fong Bates is telling the story of how she came to know them, of finding memory.
Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstances, by Denise Chong
About the book: In 2011, Denise Chong set out to collect the history of the earliest Chinese settlers in and around Ottawa, who made their homes far from any major Chinatown. Many would open cafes, establishments that once dotted the landscape across the country and were a monument to small-town Canada. This generation of Chinese immigrants lived at the intersection of the Exclusion Act in Canada, which divided families between here and China, and 2 momentous upheavals in China: the Japanese invasion and war-time occupation; and the victory of the Communists, which ultimately led these settlers to sever ties with China. This book of overlapping stories explores the trajectory of a universal immigrant experience, one of looking in the rear view mirror while at the same time, travelling toward an uncertain future. Intimate, haunting and powerful, Lives of the Family reveals the immigrant’s tenacity in adapting to a new world.
Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories, edited by Brandy Lien Worrall
About the book: A groundbreaking collection for capturing the diversity of British Columbia and Canada’s past, this book shows the impact of personal writing for understanding our collective history. Created during a six-week community writing workshop, the eight stories demonstrate the power of finding our common history in the lives and deaths of those who came before us. This touching and evocative book is a must-read for all Canadians who want to understand the central place of Chinese Canadians in our shared past. Writers include Shirley Chan, Belinda Hung, Roy Mah, Dan Seto, Hayne Wai, Candace Yip, Gail Yip, and Ken Yip. With a Preface by acclaimed B.C. historian Dr. Jean Barman, and an Afterword by Dr. Henry Yu. Edited and with Introduction by Brandy Liên Worrall.
Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver, by Paul Yee
About the book: Written by Paul Yee, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian in search of his own roots as well as those of the community, Saltwater City brings the perceptions of a previously diffident community to its own history. A text resonant with often painful first-person recollections combines with 200 photographs, most reproduced for the first time, to form a chronological portrait of the community from its earliest beginnings to the present. With the assimilation of its people into the mainstream of Canadian life following World War 2, Saltwater City, as early Chinese immigrants called the community, was threatened, but changes in attitude, government policy, and the opening of diplomatic relations with China instead caused a renaissance. Now, Vancouver’s Chinese community totals over 150,000 people, enjoys considerable political and financial influence and has matured beyond recognition into one of Canada’s most successful ethnic enclaves.
1 Ron Lowman, “After 10 wasted years Canada lets them see son,” Toronto Star, 1965-04-14:1, 4
2 Hyman Solomon, “Treat us like Europeans, Chinese Plea,” Toronto Star, 1960-06-09:12
3 Kenneth Botwright “The Refugees the World Forgot,” Toronto Star, 1960-04-20:7
4 “Hong Kong Goal of Refugee Boats,” Globe and Mail, 1962-07-26:19
5 Frederick Nossal, Globe and Mail, 1962-05-24:1
6 “Canada Immoral, Rabbi Says,” Toronto Star, 1962-05-26:1,2
7 “105 Families of Refugees Self Supporting,” Globe and Mail, 1964-06-26:39