Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"National Humiliation Day"

By Ted Yao (Copyright 2012)
Ted Yao lives in Toronto and is one of over a hundred descendants of Chong Hooie (Expand-Tin-Bright), 1862 -1937 and Chong Fong Shee (Expand Née Fong), 1886 – 1957.
July 1, 1923 has a bitter resonance for Chinese Canadian descendants of head tax payers. On that day the door shut for Chinese immigration, not to reopen until 1947, which incidentally is the year I was born. Prior to this Dominion Day, Chinese could immigrate on payment of a $500 head tax, intended as a nearly insurmountable barrier. Chinese Canadian thriftiness made even this onerous payment an “opportunity” that most Canadians would not stomach.
Chong Hooie's Headstone
So, part of our family Canada Day celebrations include a visit to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where my grandfather Chong is buried, along with his wife, a head tax payer. My mother called Canada Day “National Humiliation Day”, a term that shocked me until I learned late in life that it was a phrase in general use amongst other Chinese Canadians. It has taken me a long time to celebrate our differences as Canadians, as well as what we have in common.
On one occasion, my cousin, who studied Chinese, remarked that there were about a hundred markers near my grandfather Chong’s grave, almost all men. They made me think about “Cheffie”, a gaunt, unilingual Chinese cook working at my uncle’s restaurant in Woodstock Ontario, in the fifties. Cheffie would work all day as a short order cook, and then retire to this room over the restaurant. He seemed to have no family or life other than work.
I decided to translate the names of these Chinese men at the cemetery and post them on the Canadian Headstones Project, a repository of all gravestones in Canada. This is despite the fact that I neither read nor write any Chinese dialect, let alone the Toisonese variant most early immigrants spoke. I had hoped to confirm these markers as an indictment against Chinese exclusion, which condemned men like Cheffie to a life of lonely bachelorhood and also to serve as recognition of their pioneering spirit, which I feared no-one else would remember.
After a lot of work, I have to say that I have a lot more questions than answers. I still don’t know how these early Chinese managed to get the English speaking stone masons to carve the words in correct Chinese. I also marvel at the uniformity of the inscriptions. All list the person’s three-word name, followed by the words “his grave”. On the right is the person’s birth place and on the left is the date of death. Nationalists would even use the Chinese dating system, which begins with the founding of the Republic of China in 1911.
The names themselves gave hints of a richness that their English names can’t convey. For example, Chan Laap Ngon’s name meant “Make Peace Chan”. “Sit Gaam Sui” was Gold Omen Sit, (“Sit” being a feudal state). At first I ignored the birthplaces, but one day I found mourners at a gravesite, one lighting incense, and the others, looking bored, checking their cell phones. I asked them to tell me about the person buried there and was told with some embarrassment that they had no idea, but he was from the same village as their father, so this was an act of community solidarity. So the village becomes an important part of identity and indeed I found places such as Windy Bay Village and Prosper Trade Neighbourhood, inscriptions that reach out to others from the same village.
The five or six women buried here also had stories I would have loved to know. There was 4 month old Carey Wong, buried in 1963 alongside a man with the same name, age 65, who was interred there six years earlier. At Plot 2767 is Moon Kwong Lai who died in 1956 at age 21. She must have been one of the first immigrants after the Exclusion Act was repealed. There are three others, who lived longer, including my grandmother, who are referred to in the classical Chinese way, completely submerged into the identity of their husbands. If Olivia Chow were buried here, she would be referred to as “Wife of Jack Layton, from the Chow family”. The name “Olivia”, used by family and friends, would not even be written down.
I also found at least one instance where a Toronto doctor with an Anglo name bought and paid for the deceased’s plot for a 65 year old patient or friend. It suggests that even in those days in this compassionate country, we were able to sometimes transcend barriers of race and language. In the end I was not able to confirm or refute my hypothesis that those markers belonged to mostly lonely bachelors. Some plainly had descendants: “In loving memory of our grandfather”; for others, records suggest that they had relatives, some from places like Port Arthur or Bowmanville. Perhaps they lived in Port Arthur with a family, but wished to be buried in Toronto, along with Chinese speaking compatriots.
But one thing was certain; even though these men lived all their adult lives in Canada, and were buried in a cemetery of “foreigners”, they still felt compelled to centre their identities on a faraway country. By commemorating their lives in Chinese they used a language that ironically their descendants would not understand. Those Chinese who came to Canada after 1947, a different and more educated diaspora, would easily be able to read both English and Chinese, but would be indifferent to those early immigrants, who traced a path from feudal China to these once unwelcoming shores. By recording their markers I have, in a small way honoured them and ask my fellow Canadians that we remember not only the opportunities our rich land has given us, but those opportunities for a full family life that it has taken away.

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