Luck or timing often decided the fate of individuals and families. In the years of the head tax, a family in China would send another male out when they could finance it. Later, exclusion dictated that families live separate lives.
The few wives who joined their husbands in Canada before exclusion faced a life of homesickness and isolation. Busy with their families, they rarely ventured outside the home and business—one and the same place—except perhaps to attend church, where they sat listening to sermons in English. As solace, they looked to a day when the family would travel to China to visit, or fulfill a plan to pull up stakes in Canada and to return home for good.
While bachelor men living under exclusion tried to remain single-minded about saving enough to finance a visit home, they faced acute loneliness here. Isolated by language, their only recreation was mahjong and gambling. In Ottawa, three such ‘social clubs’ where men gambled were located on Albert Street.
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and the start of the Second World War turned the Pacific into a theatre of war, halting civilian boat transport across the ocean. As of 1941, the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong cut off that city as a route into China for making contact or delivering remittances.
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, China was plunged back into civil war between the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong.
In 1949, the Communists took power. In carrying out Mao’s land reform, they targeted returning sojourners and their families, labelling them as landlords and confiscating their houses and lands. Overseas Chinese heard reports of arrest, torture and execution. With exclusion lifted, instead of returning home, some sponsored wives and dependent children to immigrate to Canada. Many lived with the uncertainty of when, if ever, they would see their adult children or wives left behind again. China would not bring in its ‘open door’ policy to the west until 1978.
Yew Lee was seven years old when his mother broke the news that the two of them were going to Canada to join his father in Sudbury. He had thought his father was dead. During the war, his mother had told him, “Your father died in Gold Mountain; he’s not coming home.”
Like their parents before them, new arrivals endured racial taunts. Yew Lee recalled the early cruelty of some children: “[Because I was Chinese] no one wanted to be my friend. They would cover their noses when they saw me.” When he was physically bullied, he was too embarrassed to tell his parents.
In Ottawa, Robert Hum, 13 when he arrived in 1951, attributed the acceptance he experienced from classmates throughout his schooling to the fact that he was active in school sports and a regular on school sports teams. Benny Lo, 17 when he came to Ottawa in 1965, reported to his father that some white boys had chased him from the Rialto Theatre when he came to buy a ticket. “It was alot worse before you came to Canada,” his father replied.
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong