Gim Wong’s Ride for Redress A Call for Justice Now

Posted by admin on Jun 16th, 2005

Globe and Mail. Redressing the Chinese head tax. His father paid $500 to come to Canada. Almost 100 years later, Gim Foon Wong wants an apology. By PETER KENNEDY

VANCOUVER — Eighty-two-year-old Gim Foon Wong, sporting cuts and bruises from a recent motorcycle mishap, will resume his cross-Canada bike trip today in a bid to prove that it is never too late to put right an injustice. Despite a delay caused by yesterday’s pelting rain in Vancouver, Mr. Wong hopes to be in Ottawa by July 1 to press the case for a redress of an immigration tax that cost 81,000 Chinese immigrants $23-million between 1885 and 1923.

Describing himself to reporters as a “tough old bugger,” he is making the trip on a maroon-coloured Honda touring bike, with his son, Jeffrey,riding behind in the family motorhome.

“We demand an apology for this,” said Mr. Wong, who had a chipped tooth and bruises to his nose after his motorcycle fell over at a gas station in Victoria last Friday.

A veteran of the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he wants Ottawa to consider a partial refund of the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants after the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.

Thousands of Chinese workers were brought to Canada to provide cheap and reliable labour when the railway was being built. The government imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants; the rate was initially $50, and later was
raised to $500.

When the tax failed to stop the flow of immigration, Ottawa passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. It banned all Chinese immigrants from entering Canada, with a limited number of exceptions. It was repealed in 1947.

During those 24 years of exclusion, Chinese families were separated and generations of men were condemned to a life of isolation and loneliness. The economic and political development of Chinese communities in Canada was also impeded, says the Toronto-based Chinese-Canadian National
Council, which is sponsoring Mr. Wong.

Aside from the racist overtones, the tax remains a sore point with Chinese-Canadians, in part because $500 was such a lot of money then.

“It would have been enough to buy two houses in Vancouver’s Chinatown,” said Sid Tan, a Vancouver-based member of the CCNC. In today’s dollars, the $23-million paid out by Chinese immigrants would be worth $1.7-billion.

“I think the Canadian government did things that weren’t fair,” said Charlie Quan, who, at 98, is one of a handful of Vancouver-based Chinese immigrants who paid the tax and is still alive to talk about it.

“Other nationalities came to Canada and didn’t have to pay anything,” he said. He worked as a waiter and dishwasher in Regina after coming to Canada from Canton in 1923.

Mr. Wong, a native of Vancouver, didn’t have to pay the tax himself. But coming up with $500 in head-tax money meant his father had to wait 13 years before he could afford to bring his mother over from China after he had emigrated to Canada in 1906.

That is why Mr. Wong has been involved in the campaign for restitution since it began in 1983 after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed.

He will carry a petition calling on Ottawa to return some of the $23-million in head taxes collected from immigrants and their families by paying $21,000 to each surviving head-tax payer or spouse.

The petition also asks Ottawa to establish a process for negotiating individual financial compensation with descendents of head-tax payers.

But as he prepared to set off from his Burnaby, B.C., home, he was more preoccupied with the challenges he will face on the trip.

“My biggest fear is getting in an accident,” said Mr. Wong, who has been riding motorcycles since 1938.

He plans to spend between one and three hours on his bike before stopping for a nap.

En route to Ottawa, he will be protected from the elements by a black motorcycle helmet and a jacket with built-in elbow pads.

Saying he is a “slow eater,” Mr. Wong plans to sustain himself along the way on a diet of canned salmon, tuna fish and rice. “I like to cook my own veggies,” he said.

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