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Surviving and thriving

History of Chinese-Canadians explores impact of upheaval and prejudice

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In last two decades of the 19th century, thousands of Chinese moved out of coastal B.C. They moved onto the Prairies and beyond it to Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal.

Most of them were males who, because of the Chinese Immigration Act, were required to pay a head tax ranging from $50 in 1885 to $500 by 1903.

It took years to pay back funds borrowed to remit head tax, and to save more to bring over the family they'd left behind. Tragically, after 1923 the act was revised and though Chinese no longer had to pay head tax, almost all were now excluded from Canada.

The act's repeal in 1947 ended this exclusion era. Families were reunited and bonds were joyfully renewed.

In her 1994 non-fiction bestseller, The Concubine's Children, Denise Chong, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian, revealed how her grandparents had lived between China and Canada.

In her new non-fiction book, Lives of the Family, Chong once again explores the impact of historical upheaval on ordinary people, offering a series of alternating vignettes about transpacific families in the exclusion era.

These stories paint a picture of circumstances of class, race and war that animated more than a dozen Chinese-Canadian pioneer lives. These lives included broken family ties, ecstatic reunions, extraordinary success and sometimes a lifetime of estrangement.

Through her twisting narrative, we follow odysseys from southern China to British Columbia and through the Prairies to Ottawa, where Chong lives, and the surrounding area.

Harry Johnston (a.k.a. Harry Fong) left a wife and son in China and came to Perth, Ont., in 1899 to work in a laundry shop. Thirteen years later his wife died, prompting his return to China to mourn, and marry Mabel. Harry, Mabel and their daughter had returned to Perth by 1921. Together, they ran Harry's Café and became millionaires.

Chong shines a light on many significant families, including Hums, Yees and Poys. The Poys were among the few Chinese allowed into Canada during the exclusion era. Blessed by good fate, merchant status and William's one-quarter Irish heritage, they escaped wartime China and had remarkable achievements.

Adrienne Poy (Clarkson) became Canada's first Chinese-Canadian governor general. Neville Poy's wife, Vivienne, became the first Chinese-Canadian senator.

Manitobans will find the scattered threads intersecting with Harry Yee equally fascinating, though sometimes hard to follow. Harry ran Harry's Café in Altona for nearly four decades and was part owner of a Winnipeg gambling den during the 1920s.

Yee had a vast web of connections leading back to China, where he supported family. Sometimes Yee's remittances hadn't been enough, as we see in Chong's description of the adopting out and presumably the sale of Harry's granddaughter: "Lai-Sim Yee ... was as much an outsider because she had 'gone out'; a girl who has left her birth family, usually in marriage but in her case because she was adopted out." Yee retired in 1963, moved to Ottawa and died in 1976.

Through various sagas, Chong shows Chinese whose lives straddled continents and who didn't always work in cafés, laundries or groceries. They were university and college students. They were community members, hunters and hockey players. They went to nightclubs and churches; they played golf.

They didn't always live in Chinatowns but they usually lived on the margins of better districts.

Chong constructs a moving, well-researched and sometimes confusing panoramic view, with windows that open periodically in different places and times, allowing the reader a glimpse of transpacific family life.

Alison Marshall is a full professor at Brandon University and author of The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba, and the forthcoming Historicizing Affect: Community-Building and the Making of Chinese Prairie Canada (UBC Press).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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