Home to stay

Members of the Newfoundland-Chinese community welcome the Chinese General Consul to Newfoundland outside the Nickel Theatre in St. John’s in 1938. Image courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives.

“City or town or village, East or West, from British Columbia to Cape Breton, the heathen Chinee has invaded, and by him the washing industry throughout the continent is monopolized. And now two sons of the flowery kingdom have come by the Polino from Montreal to Newfoundland. …Have they come to stay?”
– The Daily News, Aug. 18, 1895.

“The first attempt to restrict Chinese nationals from immigrating to Newfoundland occurred during the 1904 session of the Newfoundland legislature, when the member for Bay St. George, W.R. Howley, introduced a bill to prohibit their entry. Referring to Chinese labour in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, Howley argued that the introduction of Chinese into these societies had created chaos… Howley’s proposal was defeated. However, two years later, government legislation imposed a $300.00 head tax on each Chinese immigrant entering Newfoundland.”
– “Newfoundland’s 1906 Chinese Head Tax”, Robert G Hong.

Historian and Co-Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Head Tax Redress Committee, Robert Hong was an Honours student at MUN’s Department of History when he wrote his thesis on the Newfoundland head tax, entitled “To take action without delay: Newfoundland’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1906.” Written in 1988, it remains the most detailed report on the subject to date.

Hong was born to a father from China and a mother from Trinity Bay. His father emigrated to Newfoundland in 1931, and was one of the hundreds of Chinese required to pay a $300 head tax to land here from 1906 to 1949.

Elling Lien spoke with Hong about the Newfoundland head tax, migration, and the meaning of “home.”

What was the head tax?

The head tax was a piece of racist legislation that attempted to keep the Chinese out, because “they looked funny, they talked funny, they eat funny food, and they’re always sending money back home to Newfoundland… I mean China.”

You see what I mean?

Newfoundlanders are seen as a backward people, a rural people. They dress funny, they talk funny, they cook funny food.

Well that’s the Chinese.

And in 1906, Newfoundland, which I refer to as the “Last Best West”, brought in its own piece of racist legislation: The government of Newfoundland implemented a head tax of $300 on each Chinese immigrant entering Newfoundland.

People have been leaving their homeland to find work for eons. We see this here, with the destruction of the rural economy in Newfoundland, where many Newfoundlanders who would rather stay where they were from until the day they’re put into the ground.

But now they’re forced to move.

There will be people in Alberta who curse the day they moved. And there will be people who adapt and who take advantage of whatever Alberta has to offer. They might rebuild that community, make a Chinatown perhaps, or a Little Italy. We replicate our social systems wherever we end up.

…“Little Newfoundland”?

Yeah. The experience of the Chinese mirrors that of Newfoundlanders, mirrors that of the Italian community, of the Mexican community, of any number of West Indian communities.

They are people who have had to move.

In China you had the Opium wars, you had the division of the region by European powers, you had the Japanese moving into the area in the 30s, you had economic dislocation. And many people, for better or worse, moved on. They traveled across a rather huge ocean and came in search of a better life.

There was an importation of at least 20,000 Chinese to build the more dangerous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Unfortunately, when the railway was completed in 1885, the first head tax went up.

“We’ll keep you out, we don’t need you any more. Go back home.”

Imagine if you will, if this happened in Alberta! [laugh] You know, after 20 years of Newfoundlanders coming up they say, “Oh, we don’t need you any more. Go back home.”

“No,” people would say. “We’re here now. We’re Albertans.”

Once you live in a place and you’re there for a sustained amount of time you start developing those roots.

My father had a lingering dream to return home one day. You know, it’s like he left Harbour Breton. “Gone out to Fort McMurray, always wanted to go back home.” That’s really the best way to look at immigrant groups like the Chinese. Because of the decimation in the rural economy, because you have a family to support, you pack up and you go off to a foreign land, be that Fort McMurray, or in the Chinese case, to Canada, to the United States, to Newfoundland, to New Zealand, Australia… The plan is to earn some money, send it back, all the while with the idea of at some point packing up and leaving. Going back home and living back in the village.

Dad made his life here, and after forty years he was still harbouring the idea that he could go back. But it becomes so distant after a while. The roots, the thin umbellical cord of sentiment starts withering away and you establish new roots. And when you have kids, like my father had me… Mom was from Trinity Bay. So I kind of have both sides.

I don’t know what China’s like and I don’t even know what Trinity Bay is like. I grew up on Harvey Road you see.

If I would have grown up in Trinity Bay I’m sure I would love it.

You grow up loving your local surroundings, and the great thing about life in Newfoundland of course is that we are so rooted to the community. And in these days of economic uncertainty it’s rending apart what we hold dear. When you have no ability to maintain yourself economically in an area and you know you have to leave, your whole spirit has to go through an enormous amount of change.

What was the most surprising thing you found when you were doing the research?

I think the most troubling part of what I found was that the Longshoremen’s Protective Union stepped up and presented a petition urging government to do something about the Chinese coming in. They presented it to Michael Gibbs, the leading Catholic politician in the House of Assembly back then. I guess to some extent it swayed the other members of the House to believe that the Chinese would be a threat.

Coming as I do from what is a socially left political view, and a working class history point of view, I’m often struck that when it comes right down to it, even the working class will pick on a marginalized group that’s under them…

Ethnic communities in marginalized geographic areas of Canada, like Newfoundland, and also in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, we keep our heads down because there’s a feeling that our presence here is one of a guest, and at some point if you cause too much trouble, they’ll send you back no matter how long you’ve been here.

It boggles my mind when someone gets into a conversation with me and they ask “Have you ever been back to China?”

“China? What the frig would I want to go there for?”

“Aren’t you Chinese?”

“No, I’m from Harvey Road!”

Then I get back at them and go: “You ever been back to the West Country?”

What do you think of the Canadian apology from last year?

Last year Harper issued an apology in the House of Commons and announced a symbolic redress [of $20,000] to the survivors. But there are only around 500 survivors out of the 92,000 Chinese that had come to Canada and Newfoundland. (For Newfoundland, there were only about 330 Chinese immigrants to pay a head tax that I’ve been able to account for.)

That means 0.6% of the people affected are receiving compensation.

Also this was money that had been taken from the families which otherwise could have been used to support the family. 99.4% of the certificates will not be addressed. There is to be no compensation for the families.

For the family of William Ping, who passed away, who had tried for forty years to get some kind of acknowledgement of the situation… Every year he would write letters to premier Smallwood and later Peckford and Wells and the ministers, to get some sort of redress for this. …His family gets nothing.

Same with my family, because both my mother and father passed away.

Why do you think the compensation wasn’t extended to the families?

It was seen as something that happened in the past. It was so long ago.

But it always struck me as being Newfoundland’s dirty little secret.

You know, the other year we celebrated 1000 years of the Viking arrival. …We honour the Basques.

…But when the Chinese came here? We kicked them out! [laugh]

How did the Newfoundland government fare in terms of an apology?

The apology that Williams gave was given a week after the Harper government, and by way of a press release. That’s pretty shabby. You know, there was nothing stated in the House of Assembly, where I thought this should have been more appropriate. If you’re really sorry about this, I would think the more appropriate place for a sincere apology would be in the House of Assembly where it could have been said on record.

But yeah, it was dropped as a press release as he was touring France that first week in July 2006.

Just after the head tax was abolished, what do you think it was like for Chinese-­Newfoundlanders?

Well that would have been 1949. Once Confederation happened, the head tax was abolished because we came under Canadian law…

So it was in effect right up until 1949?

Yes. It was in effect.

In fact, I have a document that I pulled out the National Archives of Canada back in 1986 – a list of Chinese immigrants to Newfoundland. Right on up to the 30th of March 1949 there were a number of Chinese immigrants coming in.

If they had only waited a couple of days more they would have saved themselves 300 bucks.

And that was a huge sum of money.

Why do you think it took the government so long to recognize the head tax issue in Canada?

It’s only been recently that the governments have acknowledged that they have caused a number of wrongs.

Once upon a time, for example, it was fine to beat your wife. And that was even up into the 40s and 50s.

I think we’ve progressed to a more civilized time.

It’s only recently that Japanese internees were issued an apology. The residential schools problem is finally being settled.

But forty or thirty years ago you never brought this stuff up!

Is this partly because of people, historians digging up information and finding out what actually happened?

I would hope it’s a general movement of the society.

Like with the environment.

Twenty years ago, there might have been one or two people decrying the fact that we are destroying the environment.

Now, although there are still people out there who deny the problems, the majority is on side.

I think we do make little steps forward, in terms of a wider appreciation of the problems that we have created in our societies and a wider responsibility, in terms of trying to fix those problems.

We’re not there yet though.

One comment

Mall Food Court Scallywags

As a member of an identifiable group I resent the racist attitude of Charlie Horse. Since the late 1960s we have been treated as second class citizens and subjected to ridicule. Our only solace has been to soothe ourselves temporarily by imbibing toxic substances for which we must pay dearly in terms of financial layout […]

5 February 2012

  1. John · February 5, 2012

    I am very interesetd in finding more info on Chinese immigrants to Newfoundland.
    Please contact me.
    Thank You

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