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This article was published 11/5/2019 (662 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Moon (Bill) Dong owned, managed and worked in Chinese restaurants in Winnipeg for decades, while raising a family.
Dong, who was 82 when he died Sept. 28, 2018, came to Canada from China in 1951, when he was 14 — and he was carrying a secret.
He arrived as a "paper son": a person with false immigration papers claiming they were the child of somebody already legally living in Canada.
It was only in the last decade that Dong’s two sons and daughter learned the full story.
"We didn’t know any of this," said Dong’s son Erasmus. "We only found out when I saw all these old photos out a few years ago, and he said somebody was looking for information. My dad didn’t talk about his younger days at all.
"We didn’t know my dad lived in Saskatchewan when he first came here. All we knew was: he just worked."
That someone was researcher Alison Marshall, a professor in the department of religion at Brandon University. Marshall says Dong’s help was invaluable for her research into the history of Western Canada’s Chinese community which resulted in two books: The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba (2011) and Cultivating Connections: the Making of Chinese Prairie Canada (2014).
"I was struck by Moon’s trusting and friendly disposition," Marshall said. "I was very grateful that Moon shared his family archive with me. With that archive I was able to piece together the stories of dozens of Chinese Canadians who lived across the Prairies.
"Moon helped me shed light on the Chinese Canadian experience, including those of paper sons, daughters, wives and also family who had been left behind in China."
Marshall said part of the story is on display in an exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It includes photos from Dong’s collection.
Dong arrived in Canada a few years after the lifting of the Chinese Immigration Act. That era, 1923 to 1947, had made it almost impossible for people from China to come to Canada.
Marshall said for Dong to come to Canada legally, he had to be sponsored by a father, mother, or spouse who was a Canadian citizen. Instead, he was sponsored as a "son" by his uncle.
"That paper, or identity, was created for Moon when a man travelled to China and then reported on the way back from that trip that his wife had a son, when in fact she did not. That report would, in effect, create the identity of a son who existed only on paper. The man could sell that identity to another family who wanted their son to come to Canada as a ‘paper son,’" Marshall said.
It was a black market system that enabled 11,000 Chinese men and women to move to Canada.
In 1960, there were so many of these illegal migrants, the federal government finally provided amnesty under the Chinese Adjustment Statement program. Dong filled out the paperwork, and spent the rest of his life a legal citizen.
As a paper son, Dong lived first with his uncle, Happy Young, in Esterhazy, Sask.
Young had come to Canada before the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, paying the $500 head tax, but once the act came into effect, he was prevented from bringing over his own daughter and son. Tragically, they both died in a Japanese bombing raid during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from July 1937 to September 1945.
Young wanted a relative to help him in Canada, so Dong became his paper son, arriving on Jan. 11, 1951.
"In a lot of ways, (Dong) was atypical," Marshall said. "He was older than the rest of the paper sons and Happy was an amazing man. Instead of having Moon Dong work as a slave for him, he had him go to school — this was unusual. And Moon Dong was treated as a member of the family."
Dong’s son, Himalaya, said what he remembered most about his dad "was how unassuming he was... I think learning about the fact he was a paper son opened up his story and, by association, my connection to my heritage."
After Young’s death some two years later, Dong needed a job — not only to help him get a roof over his head, but also to continue to send money home to China to help his parents, his two brothers and their wives and families.
He began working part time as a waiter at the Exchange Cafe in Winnipeg’s Chinatown, earning about $25 per week. He later said for every $1 he earned, he would send 75 cents back to his family.
Dong attended high school in Winnipeg. Years later, in a story project for the Chinese Canadian National Council, he recalled a school guidance counsellor telling him: "Because of my nationality, you can only go so far."
"It hurt me. He’s a white guy... he was saying there was a limit to what I can do because of who I am... that shows there was this discrimination at that time... White kids, he told them, they could do anything."
Dong later began working at the New Canton Restaurant, where he not only got a job — he found a wife. He married the boss’s daughter, Suzanna, in 1966, and built a house in East Kildonan. They had two sons, Erasmus and Himalaya, and a daughter, Melinda.
"I thought he was very good looking," Suzanna said. "And he was helping my father. My father couldn’t speak English. He would order food for him and speak English in the restaurant.
"I had a lot of suitors — but he was the best dancer."
Dong also worked days at the Beachcomber Restaurant, and, for 40 years, evenings at the Shanghai Restaurant. During his final decade or so of work, he owned and operated Moon’s Eating Place on Higgins Avenue.
"He was a hard worker," Erasmus said. "For his generation, he showed his love the way he knew how and it was through food... we would eat steak for breakfast."
When Dong’s wife had a stroke, and went to live in a nursing home, it didn’t mean they didn’t see each other.
"My dad, every single night, would come (to the nursing home)," Erasmus said. "He was her caregiver. He would bring a snack and do her Bible readings. He did that for 11 years."
"He would come every day and hold my hand," Suzanna said.
His daily visits continued until he was admitted to hospital with cancer.
Erasmus said the family was surprised when several former restaurant patrons went to the funeral, remembering not only their dad but also "the best chicken fried rice they ever had." (The family gave out copies of the recipe at the funeral.)
Himalaya said he wonders how his dad’s life would have turned out if he had come to Canada decades later.
"He was not poor and impoverished at the start of his journey, he came to Canada in 1950 on a plane," he said.
"There will always be a lot of what ifs with his story: what if his uncle had not died? What if he came to Canada after our embrace of multiculturalism?"
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
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