by Rebecca Tam " Granddaughter of a Head Tax payer
Postman! You brought such great sadness to my family every time I saw you.
Ever since I was a little girl growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960’s, there was nothing I worried more about than the sight of the postman trotting down our street with the mail in his hands.
The scene that followed was all too familiar to all of us: Mom would sign for the registered mail and the postman would hand over a thick letter from Canada to her. Mom would go into her room, open the letter and sob while she read and re-read carefully every single line from her parents who were living in Canada. My mom clung to every word in those letters as if her very own existence depended on it. And who could blame her? Only through these words and scenes that were described in these bi-weekly letters, was she able to get a glimpse of what life would be like with a father and a mother. She could hardly imagine what life would like with a dad. My mom had not seen my grandpa since the day she was born.
I was born in Macau, but my grandparents were from Canton, China. Both of my grandfathers went to North America hoping to better themselves and find gainful employment overseas. In fact, my maternal great-grandfather came to work in Canada and grandfather followed him.
Grandpa landed in Vancouver, on April 18, 1918, paying the $500.00 head tax upon stepping on to Canadian soil. He was 15 years old, a young man eager to work, learn and start a new life in the land of milk and honey. However, life was not easy in this strange new land. Chinese workers were discriminated against and employment opportunities were limited to difficult jobs with long hours, generally unwanted menial labour or dangerous jobs, such as laundry workers, domestic servants and railroad workers.
Grandpa worked extremely hard and after years of labouring in Canada, he was able to save enough money to go back to China in 1925 where he found himself a blushing young bride. Grandpa sailed across the Pacific Ocean; he and Grandma were married that year in China. Grandpa might have had a premonition of the political events to come for he stayed as long as he could with his new bride. The new couple had a long honeymoon and Grandpa stayed almost a year in China after the wedding.
My grandpa left China for Canada in 1926, shortly after my mother was born. After returning to Canada, Grandpa spent every ounce of his energy and waking moments working, trying to save enough money to bring his new wife and baby daughter to Canada. He spent a lot of time and money travelling to town to see the lawyers and he made numerous appeals to his M.P. asking for help, but all to no avail.
1923 " 1947 " The darkest period in Canada’s history when our government openly and legally discriminated against Chinese immigrants. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was no way for Grandpa or any Chinese person living in Canada to bring family members to Canada during this more than 20 year period.
Grandpa was a very determined hard worker. His dream was to be reunited with his family to provide for them. Even with the very limited opportunities afforded to Chinese workers at the time, Grandpa was able to find employment and save enough money to open his own restaurant in Bearmore, Ontario. He consistently sent letters and money to China to support and care for his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, my mother was growing up fatherless in China. Her constant and only hope since childhood was that one day she would meet her father and get to know him, a wonderful, generous and caring man, as everyone who knew Grandpa kept telling her.
My parents got married in 1945. But there was no possibility for my mother or any one of us to immigrate to Canada.
After WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally abolished in 1947. Grandpa was granted full Canadian citizenship on February 5, 1952. He could now apply to bring his family to Canada.
After a separation of 27 years from her husband, having raised her only daughter on her own, and going through many red tapes, Grandma was finally allowed to come and join Grandpa in Canada in 1953.
I could never imagine what was going through Grandpa and Grandma’s mind when they met each other again. The last time they saw each other, they were a newly married couple. The second time they saw each other again, they were grandparents themselves with grey hair.
How much suffering and loneliness had they endured? How many possible happy memories and precious time had been stolen from them in these 27 years?
Unfortunately, my Grandparents were not to be reunited with their family due to further immigration restrictions. My mother, who was then 26 years old, a married woman with children of her own, was not allowed to come to Canada. The reason: she was an adult, no longer a dependent, therefore, she was not qualified to come as a dependent child.
Again, the letters went back and forth between Canada and Hong Kong " still the only link between Grandpa and Mom. More tears were shed every time when the postman arrived. Grandpa kept trying to bring us to Canada and to fulfill his life-long dream of seeing his only daughter and now his 7 grandchildren as well. However, the immigration process was not going smoothly even though by then Grandpa was very well established in the community and was a proud owner of a very successful restaurant employing many workers.
The Canadian Government started to open the doors to non-European immigrants in 1967 when we could apply as a family to immigrate to Canada. However, the selection process was lengthy and the criteria were strenuous.
Finally, we received news at the beginning of 1971 that our whole family, all nine of us, had been granted immigrant status. There was a lot of excitement preparing for our move to Canada. My mother was bubbly, elated and hardly able to contain her girlish anticipation and happiness of meeting her father at last for the first time. “Oh, there is so much catching up to do! And your Grandpa will spoil you children rotten since he has never had a chance to play with his only child. But he will have all 7 grandchildren to play with!” Mom was sharing her happiness with us as our family prepared our move to Canada in July, allowing us to finish school in June.
1971 - A day in March, the saddest day in our family history. The postman came and the familiar scene repeated for the umpteenth time. Except this time, within minutes after Mom went into her room, she let out the most horrifying and ear piercing wailing I had ever heard. My mother was sobbing uncontrollably. My Dad and my older siblings went into her room to find out what had happened. More crying and sobbing came from the rest of my family. Oh, my God, what had happened? Why was everyone crying as if the sky had fallen?
“Your grandfather had a heart attack and died recently. He was 65,” my father announced to us. I had never seen my mother so sad in my entire life. Her life-long dream of seeing her father was shattered. Her whole world was caving in and she did not see any meaning in life and she saw no hope at all. Mom stayed in her room all day and night and sobbed for days. She refused to eat; she refused to come out of her room or to be consoled. She didn’t understand why life was so cruel to her. All her life, she didn’t ask for wealth or anything, but just a chance to say, “Hi Dad, how are you?” in person. She had been robbed of a father, deprived of a normal family life and an opportunity of knowing the most important, wonderful and caring person in her life.
O Grandpa, thank you for everything you have done for us. I am sorry I never had the opportunity to meet you or know you. I know you must have been a terrific person and the best Grandpa anyone could have. Even though you have been gone since 1971, on many occasions, and recently, I still run into people who knew you from before and they couldn’t stop talking about your kindness, generosity and your restaurant. Grandpa, I know you would have been very proud of Mom and your 7 grandchildren and many great grandchildren. We have all grown up and we are doing really well. Thank you for being coming to Canada, and enduring so much suffering and pain so that we can enjoy our rights and privileges now. We love you and we will never forget you.
April 20, 2006