‘Taking Root’ exhibit outlines history of Chinese immigration to province

Published on March 24, 2012

Newfoundlanders may well understand what it’s like to be taunted in their own country. We’re used to being the butt of jokes, known to stick together and have been made fun of for everything from the way we talk to the food we eat.

We also know what it means to be pushed out of our hometown when the economy sinks, turning to jobs in Alberta or Ontario to provide for our families.

We have much in common with the Chinese immigrants who came to Newfoundland in the first half of the 20th century — and those here today.

“We have all the hopes and fears and dreams and aspirations of everybody who was pushed out of an economy that has collapsed and are coming to a new place and a foreign place,” said St. John’s resident Bob Hong. “Like the Chinese, Newfoundlanders have often been shunned by everyone else.”

Hong, a businessman and historian, is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Headtax Redress Organization Inc., which, in collaboration with Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies and Queen Elizabeth II Library, is presenting “Taking Root: Chinese Immigrants and Their Families in Newfoundland, 1895-1970s — Work, Family and Community.”

The exhibit, funded through Citizenship Canada’s Community Historial Recognition Program, tells the story of the Chinese immigrants who came to the Dominion of Newfoundland between 1906 and 1949, leaving the poverty and political instability of southeast China to start a new life.

Life wasn’t easy for them, Hong said, since they faced hostility from the locals in the early years. They were also the only immigrant group forced to pay a $300 head tax, which represented about three year’s wages at that time. Many Chinese immigrants spent years paying off the debt, and many were forced to leave their wives and families in China until they were able to pay it off.

The head tax was lifted when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. Canada had had its own tax on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923, when the Exclusion Act, banning Chinese from entering the country for the next 24 years, was instituted. About 81,000 immigrants paid fees ranging from $50 to $500, the federal government amassing about $23 million.

In the summer of 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology for the racist head tax, and a year later, the federal government handed out settlements to the spouses of Chinese immigrants who had been forced to pay the tax, including in Newfoundland. Surviving head tax payers were able to claim a $20,000 settlement, although at the time they were presented, there were fewer than 20 of them left. This province officially apologized for its head tax a week later.

The head tax redress organization was established in 2007 by descendants of Newfoundland Chinese head tax payers and their supporters, with the goal of promoting an awareness of the tax and its impact on the Chinese-Newfoundland community, as well as the contributions of Chinese immigrants to local society.

“We formed this organization with the purpose of doing four projects,” said Hong, whose father, restaurant owner Gene Hong, paid the tax when he came to Newfoundland in 1931. He died in 1996.

“We had an ambitious program for a monument, an exhibit, an educational kit, and a website, all run on a shoestring budget; all with the greatest of intentions, but a lot of work.”

The group’s website is up and running; an educational kit, to be distributed to schools across the province, is in the works. A granite monument commemorating Chinese immigrants and acknowledging the head tax as discriminatory was erected in the St. John’s City Hall Annex park on New Gower Street — the site of Newfoundland’s first Chinese hand laundry — in 2010.

The exhibit opened earlier this month in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Level 3 of MUN’s library, and will run until June 30. In four glass cases, souvenirs of early Chinese immigrants’ home and work lives are arranged, provided by family members and friends.

There are old menus from restaurants like the Starlit Café, American Café, House of Hong and Gin’s; laundry tickets, a water sprayer, brown paper dispenser, string dispenser and irons from some of the dozens of former Chinese laundries in St. John’s; documents including a Chinese passport, issued in 1947, showing entry to Canada and copies of head tax certificates, presented when the entire tax had been paid in full.

Hong found a copy of his father’s certificate (above) among his things after he died, folded to fit in his wallet.

There are dozens of photos showing the Chinese families at home and work in the province, at weddings, at Christmas, at a cemetary flower service, in their gardens and at community functions. It wasn’t particularly easy to convince people to put their personal pictures and documents on public display, Hong said.

“Always there’s going to be a certain reluctance when you’re trying to convince people that sharing their photos and stuff with the world is a good thing,” he explained.

“It’s kind of that guest mentality where, if you make other people aware of your situation and your lives, then maybe there’ll be a certain resentment. It’s like that for a lot of immigrant groups; it’s kind of like a conspiracy of silence. You don’t want to say much because you’re only a guest here.”

Misconceptions and outright racism toward the Chinese community was rampant when Hong was growing up and he often bore the brunt of it, being beaten up after school for no good reason, he said.

His personal objectives for the exhibit and monument and the organization’s other projects perhaps stem from that.

“My goals are very simple,” he explained. “Having a monument that essentially says things have been wrong in the past and other people matter and are human and we all have hopes and fears and dreams and aspirations of a better life, maybe racism will be broken down.

“I don’t think the way we understand history is really about projecting happy families and the way we succeed. As an historian, you take the good with the bad and the ugly and you try to put it in some sort of perspective that speaks something about the reality of people’s lives. I do think that the Chinese in the past have been on the margins of culture and society, and their lives do need to be shown.”

The exhibit will eventually be put on the organization’s website, at www.nlhro.org.



Twitter: @tara_bradbury