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Writing the history of Chinese head-tax payers in Canada gives William Ging Wee Dere a sense of self-identity

Writing the history of Chinese head-tax payers in Canada gives William Ging Wee Dere a sense of self-identity
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William Ging Wee Dere paused and chuckled last summer when a pudgy white man in his 50s, out of the blue, yelled at him in French “God damn Chinese” on a bike path along Montreal’s picturesque Lachine Canal.

Now 70, the retired engineer would have been rattled and shaken by the insult back in the days when he was still a young man living in the shadows of the lo wah kiu, or Chinese Canadian pioneers in English, who survived decades of family separations and legislated discrimination by the Canadian government between 1885 and 1947.

The Dere family photo, circa 1937, shows the Gold Mountain “widows” and children left in the village in Toishan, China. Dere’s mother is seated on the left with his three sisters at the left and in front. His grandmother, seated in the centre, is holding his brother in his arms.  (William Dere Collection)

William Ging Wee Dere, author of Being Chinese in Canada, Douglas and McIntyre.  (Dong Qing Chen)

Being Chinese in Canada by William Ging Wee Dere, Douglas and McIntyre, 400 pages, $26.95.  (William Dere Collection)

What makes the difference today, says the Montreal native, is that he has finally found comfort in his own skin after years of soul searching through social activism. He worked first as an advocate for workers’ rights and later for government redress to Chinese Canadians who were singled out to pay a hefty head tax and for a quarter of a century, ending in 1947, were banned from coming to Canada.

“I’ve established myself in Canada. I had a Canadian education and a professional job here. I’m a hockey fan. But there’s always this doubt when you walk on the street and people see you being the other, someone different,” said the railroad engineer, whose debut political memoir, , has just been published by Douglas & McIntyre.

“What happened on the bike path momentarily took me out of my well-being. But the experience tells me that you have to be aware of your own identity. I was able to recover very quickly due to my self-confidence and self-affirmation of who I am. Not only did I recover very quickly, I was willing to chase this guy down and confront him.”

That self-assurance as a racial minority person in Canada did not come to Dere overnight. It developed over decades that saw him dig into his family’s history in Canada and work with Chinese head tax survivors and descendants such as himself for a public apology. They received it in Parliament in 2006 along with compensation to surviving head-tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers.

New archive highlights years of racism faced by Chinese Canadians

The partial victory of the campaign (partial because there was no financial redress to descendants who also suffered from prolonged family separation), according to Dere, was the turning point in Chinese Canadian history: where the community finally took ownership of its history in Canada.

“The Chinese Canadian community came of age when we were able to win the redress,” says Dere in a phone interview from Montreal, where he grew up and now lives with his wife, Dong Qin Chen.

“Without recognizing and addressing this issue, we’d essentially put our history into the background and submerge our own history into the dominant history. If we can’t tell our own story, I don’t think we can have a sense of belonging.”

Dere’s mother, who worked at the laundry for 17 years, joins his father for a photo at the ironing tables in October 1956.  (William Dere Collection)

Born in Toishan, China, Dere joined his father in Canada in 1956 when he was 7 years old. He grew up at the back of his family’s hand laundry as one of only two Chinese children living in Verdun, Que., in the 1950s.

His grandfather (he called him “Ah Yeh” in Chinese) had been in Canada since 1909 as part of the successive waves of Chinese migrants arriving as labourers at North America, known then as the Gold Mountain, at a time when “upheaval and poverty in China” under the decaying Qing Dynasty and the occupation of foreign imperial powers forced many to leave for a “better” life abroad. Dere’s father, Hing, followed in his footsteps in 1921.

To enter Canada, both his grandfather and father had to pay the $500 head tax, introduced in 1885 under the Chinese Immigration Act — first levied at $50 per person, then rising to $100 and eventually $500 — after 15,000 Chinese workers helped complete the Canadian Pacific Railway that very same year. Canada wanted to stamp out any further inflow of Chinese people.

When the hefty head tax failed to discourage Chinese migrants from coming, Ottawa banned Chinese immigration outright in 1923 until the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947. Before that, 81,000 Chinese immigrants paid $23 million into the coffers of the Canadian government.

Dere said the systemic racism — not to mention the prolonged family separation and discrimination as second-class citizens — has had profound impacts on Chinese Canadians.

“My parents were separated for 30 years except for three, four years when my father travelled back to China. He lived a life of separation, a life of deprivation of work and his family,” said Dere. “Chinese Canadians were not allowed to own properties. They were not allowed to integrate. They were deprived of a sense of belonging.”

Dere’s father, Hing Dere, paid a $500 head tax to come to Canada in 1921. His father’s head tax certificate attests to his payment.  (William Dere Collection)

As a result, the Chinese community became a “married bachelor” society where the ratio of males to females was eight to one in 1941, according to his book, because most of the men’s families remained in China.

Although his father was eventually reunited with his family in Canada, Dere said his father remained a distant and remote figure, almost like a stranger. “He offered no resistance and just resigned to the fact that we’re Chinese and that’s how we would be treated. It’s a psychology imposed on him by the Canadian society,” Dere explained.

Dere said he looked into his family’s history and became a social activist in his 20s when he began to question his own identity and place in Canadian society. That’s when he uncovered the sufferings of the lo wah kiu — suffering his father never spoke about while he was alive.

“Your identity is a political expression of yourself. You have to be aware of your own identity to understand who you are,” said Dere, who has a master’s degree in engineering from Carleton University and worked for the Canadian National Railway for 31 years before retiring four years ago and beginning work on his book.

“With the knowledge of my own history, culture and values, I was able to be affirmative and assertive in myself as a Chinese Canadian and I will never back off. I have pride in myself. Having pride in myself means I can stand up to whatever comes along and confront it.”

Dere’s grandfather and one of his great grandsons, Peter, in a photo at Wing On Laundry in 1960.  (William Dere Collection)

Dere’s book is the first publication that details the politics and tension within Canada’s diverse Chinese Canadian population during its redress campaign under the Harper government, which, according to him, imposed the unilateral redress package without negotiations with the community.

“I didn’t want the details of the history to be lost or to be written by someone else,” said Dere, who describes himself as an “accidental” writer. “Chinese Canadian history is complex, complicated and rich. I’m proud to be a Chinese. I am proud to be a Canadian, and I’m doubly proud of being a Chinese Canadian. I feel I belong 100 per cent to Canada.”
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