This month, the Government of Canada apologized for the head tax on Chinese immigrants imposed between 1885 and 1923. I've never thought much about the head tax, and when I did, it was a topic flagged Ancient History - Not Applicable to Me. However, the head tax, and the Chinese Exclusion Act which followed it, very likely shaped the way my family's history evolved.
Some of this history became clearer when I got an e-mail earlier this month from a man named Tak Chow in Florida, identifying himself as a cousin on my father's side of the family.
Tak had been googling "Lichee Garden", part of a search for relatives of Harry Lem, owner of the Lichee Garden restaurant in Toronto. One of the hits that he got was my father's obituary.
As he read the article, Tak concluded that his family and mine were related. He e-mailed me and we corresponded and spoke on the phone. Based on the e-mails, the phone conversation, some discussions with my mother, and some thought, this is a summary of some family history. Getting this information has been an evolutionary process, and the history is subject to revision.
My great grandfather, Lum Goey Hien, had an older brother. Goey Hien's nephew, son of his brother, was named Lum Sen Hong. Sen Hong was married in Hong Kong, and among other children, had a daughter -- Lum Hay Chun, who married a man named Chow, and who had two sons and a daughter -- with the younger of the two sons being my cousin Tak Chow, born in 1952.
Lum Goey Hien and his brother came to Canada in the early part of the twentieth century, as did young Sen Hong. All three of them would have paid the head tax to enter the country. Lum Sen Hong took the English name Harry Lem. All this happened before the Chinese Exclusion Act stopped Chinese immigration to Canada between 1923 to 1947. My hunch (completely unsubstantiated) is that they arrived in the 1916 to 1919 range, when the demand for Chinese labourers caused the immigration rate to briefly increase. Like all other Chinese immigrants of the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act would have prevented the three of them from bringing the rest of their families to Canada.
In Toronto, Goey Hien spent some time in jail, having run afoul of the law over an unlicensed distillery and its output. Sen Hong spoke to the authorities on his behalf, and was involved in the process which got him out of jail. For this, Goey Hien forever after spoke of Sen Hong as his smart, clever nephew.
Lum Sen Hong -- Harry Lem -- became a successful businessman in Canada, and even married again. There are no sources that can speak to how he felt about his first family, left behind in Hong Kong. The Lichee Garden restaurant which he started in the late 1940s would become famous. In the 1950s, for a time my father worked there, earning the princely sum of $15 a week. In later years, Sen Hong was involved in the local organization of the Lum Si Ho Tong society -- the Lum family association.
My father, Lum Suey Chong, was born in 1931, son of Lum Yoey Nien, who was the eldest, but adopted, son of Lum Goey Hien. Yoey Nien and Sen Hong were therefore adoptive cousins. Yoey Nien never returned home after going to fight the Japanese in the aftermath of the invasion of China in the late 1930s.
The fact that my grandfather -- my father's father -- was adopted into the Lum family is something that I only discovered today, in conversation with my mother. I am still assimilating this datum.
After the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, my father joined his grandfather, Lum Goey Hien, in northern BC in 1950.
My mother left the family home village in 1957 and made her way to Hong Kong via Macau. In Hong Kong, she stayed with Hay Chun and her husband. At the time, they lived in Shau Kee Wan. Hay Chun and her husband, two sons (Tak and his brother), Hay Chun's mother (Sen Hong's first wife), and Hay Chun's brother's wife and young son -- seven people, eight counting my mother, in one flat. My father and Hay Chun would have been second cousins, but my father would have addressed Hay Chun as "elder sister" because of the difference in their ages.
Tak was 5 in 1957, approximately the same age as his cousin. His brother would have been a couple of years older. Tak remembers my mother as a shy young woman who looked after him and played with him and was his buddy. My mother was there for three months before she came to Canada. She remembers Tak and his brother as two small, energetic boys, and forty nine years later was amazed that Tak would remember her.
As I have written in the story of my father's life, Goey Hien walked out of our lives in the early 1960s to retire to Hong Kong. Growing up, I had always imagined that he lived out his remaining days in splendour, but the reality was probably a less crowded version of the flat in Shau Kee Wan. Word came to us some years later that the old man had said that my father was an ungrateful wretch who did not appreciate what had been done for him. My father was so enraged by this that it very likely prevented the two of them from ever reconciling.
The last vestiges of the Chinese Exclusion Act were repealed in 1967, the year my family moved to Wonowon. This helped to pave the way for my grandmother coming from Hong Kong to join us in the late 1960s.
Tak attended school at Iowa State University in the 1970s. His education in America was made possible by Lum Sen Hong. In Hong Kong in the early 1980s, Tak attended the funeral of my great grandfather Lum Goey Hien. When Goey Hien passed away, he was in his 90s.
Sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, Lum Sen Hong also passed away.
In May 2005, Tak and his parents visited Toronto, to visit the grave of Lum Sen Hong, to finally close this chapter of their family history that had begun so many years earlier.
Following Tak's initial contact with me, my mother and Hay Chun spoke on the telephone, in the first of what I hope will be many conversations.
As my dialogue with my newly discovered cousin has progressed, I continue to marvel at how things and people and events are connected -- and how events nearly a century ago still echo through my life and those of my family -- all of them, no matter who and where they may be.