I attended the film screening of The Lost Years: A People’s Struggle for Justice by Edmonton-based filmmaker Kenda Gee and Tom Radford at the Library and Archives. The screening was hosted by the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and CBC Ottawa and was incredibly well attended.
LOST YEARS is an epic documentary touching upon 150 years of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, covering four generations of racism as revealed through the journey and family story of Kenda Gee. Kenda, a Chinese Canadian, travels with his father to China to retrace the steps of his great-grandfather, exactly a century ago, and grandfather, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1921. For thousands of Chinese immigrants that year, it was a journey of hope that turned into a nightmare when they were confronted with racism and the head tax, depriving them of their rights as citizens.
I was particularly interested in watching the film because the impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act was really brought home to me when one of my mentor’s, Yew Lee, began campaigning for redress for people who paid Head Tax, their spouses, and descendents. Yew Lee’s father came to Canada and had to pay a head tax. The Exclusion Act prevented his family from being united for some 30 years, resulting in a great deal of family difficulties. His family’s story is featured in the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho. When I first learned about his story, I was quite disturbed that this racist legislation was not well-known by most Canadians. We are raised to believe that Canada has always been an inclusive and multicultural society but this is not true and it is important to understand our history if we wish to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes. Also, as a Black Canadian, I feel that it is important for us to learn about the struggles of other racialized communities in order to put our own struggles against racism in perspective and find ways to find allies and work in solidarity on issues of discrimination.
This film is a good introduction to the historical legacy and personal impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act on generations of Chinese Canadians. As Devon Wong wrote in his review of the film for BC-based Schema Magazine:
In many ways, Lost Years delved directly into the part of my own family heritage that I’d given up trying to access. I’d never been able to have the conversations around my own family’s migration, despite having my great-grandfather arrive in Canada over a hundred years ago. I’d lost the language on the way, and the ability to communicate and understand their struggles.
I invited my friend and co-worker who is a Chinese International Student to the screening and she was surprised to learn about this history as it is also not well-known in China itself. I was glad to learn from filmmaker Kenda Gee, who spoke at the screening, that the film has been shown in China itself, most notably winning the Best Documentary Award and Prize for History & Culture at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival.
Kenda Gee, whose great-grandfather came to Canada in 1910 and who was Chair of Edmonton’s Chinese Head Tax & Exclusion Act (Redress) Committee since 1998, was initially reluctant to explore his own family’s history in the documentary, as he explained in a 2011 interview with the Edmonton Journal:
I was very averse to using the story because there are so many stories in the community that should be told… But Tom (Radford) was very insistent. … My condition was that I said ‘as long as whoever’s watching the documentary, especially Chinese Canadians, can see the same story through the eyes of the storyteller.’ So it’s not so much my family’s story, but that they can identify, ‘This has happened to us as well’
I am glad that Gee used his own family’s story to situate the history he is trying to explore. This also allows for some very poignant moments in the film, such as Gee returning with his 78 year old father to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, China, which was once a farming community but has now made way for factories in the process of China’s industrialization. This was quite meaningful for me as many of my Chinese Canadian friends’ families also originate from Taishan and often were raised speaking the Taishan dialect which they learned from their grandparents.
We were able to view both episodes of the mini-series at this event. These episodes were shown on CBC’s Absolutely Canadian in February and my hope is that they will be screened again soon.
Episode 1: The Loh Wah Kiu Beginning with the fall of the last Chinese (Qing) dynasty in 1911, to the end of the Second World War, this episode recalls decades of anti-Chinese racism in North America, from Vancouver Island, Angel Island and beyond. Kenda’s journey takes him across Canada and the USA, tracing the experiences of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Their personal stories document the enormous obstacles they faced before they would become citizens in their own countries of birth
“Loh Wah Kiu” means “Old Overseas Chinese”, the earliest generations to emigrate from China. This episode features interviews with some fascinating Chinese Canadians and Americans.
Gim Wong: I actually had a chance to meet Royal Canadian Air Force Veteran Gim Wong years ago in relation to the Redress Campaign and I had previously viewed the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, in which he is interviewed. Gim Wong is quite fiery in the film and I would never want to get on this man’s bad side. But this man has had a life of struggle. Back in 2005 at the age of 82, Gim Wong rode his motorcycle across Canada in order to raise media and public awareness about the Campaign to demand Redress for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. In 1922, Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father came to Canada in 1906. His mother was able to come to the country in 1921 during the brief window between the end of the First World War and the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 when the Exclusion Act prevented the immigration of Chinese to Canada. Wong grew up in poverty like many Chinese Canadians at the time and had to face harsh racism (He describes a racist experience in this CBC Video Interview ). Wong joined the military in 1943 at the age of 22, eventually becoming an air-gunner with the Royal Air Force. However, in 1944, when Chinese Canadian men were drafted by the government, Wong was angered-it seemed unjust to demand military service from a community that didn’t even have the right to vote! (In B.C. legislation was passed in 1871 barring Chinese Canadians from the right to vote, this was only remedied in 1947 after the Exclusion Act was repealed). Wong first voted in 1953.To learn more about the experience of British Columbia’s Chinese Canadians in World War II, I recommend the documentary Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne which is available online. In 1959, Wong married in Hong Kong but his wife was denied entry into Canada because she was labeled a “Communist” for having attend a Communist run school-during the height of the Cold War this was a very serious accusation. Eventually, with the support of his local MP, Wong was able to get his wife to Canada.
Larry Kwong: Born in Vernon, British Columbia, Larry Kwong is the first Chinese Canadian to ever play in the National Hockey League. He would eventually go on to play for the New York Rangers. He now lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Bettie Luke: Chinese American Bettie Luke is the Chair of the 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project. During her interview in the film, we learn about the horrifying Chinese Expulsion Riots of 1886 in Seattle during which racist rioters, driven by anti-Chinese hysteria, drove approximately 350 Chinese migrants from their homes on to a steamship meant to send them back to China. Luke organized a march from the Seattle docks through Chinatown in order to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the riots. Due to her efforts to raise awareness of this dark chapter in Seattle’s history, February 7th is now officially Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Day in all of King County, Washington. Luke has a personal connection to the riots. Her father’s uncle was the Seattle Mayor’s houseboy at the time and therefore was not expelled because he was protected. Luke is the sister of Wing Luke, the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Pacific Northwest. Wing was instrumental in Seattle’s passing of an Open Housing Ordinance in 1963 with punitive provisions against racial discrimination in the selling or renting of real estate. He died tragically in 1965. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, located in Seattle’s Chinatown, was named after him.
Episode 2 Jook Sing: In what may be his last opportunity to retrace his ancestral past with his father Took, Kenda Gee returns to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan, China. Along the way, Kenda discovers through the stories of the Chinese diaspora abroad that racism has no borders, his journey eventually taking him to Australia’s Parliament in the capital of Canberra, where white supremacy policies and anti-Chinese legislation in the British Commonwealth find their genesis. The episode ends with a Canadian nation still trying to confront its racist past, following the federal government’s official acknowledgement in Ottawa in 2006.
“Jook Sing” is a Cantonese term used to describe Overseas Chinese who are perceived to have lost their distinctive Chinese cultural identity and been Westernized. This is a fitting title for the second episode when Gee returns to China with his father. The reality is that although this is their ancestral home, their cultural connections to the country are minimal. This is the cruel irony of racism because it denies a sense of belonging to racialized communities in the countries where we call home, but we are often no longer really connected to our countries and cultures of origin-so where do we belong? This episode also includes some very interesting interviews:
Esther Fung: I appreciated that Gee makes stops in other countries where early Chinese immigrants tried to make their home and often faced similar racism and exclusion. In New Zealand, the “head tax” was called the “poll tax”. Retired high school teacher Esther Fung is a Chinese New Zealander who lead a redress campaign in that country which eventually led to a formal apology from the New Zealand Government in 2002.
May Chiu: Lawyer and Community Activist May Chiu ran in the 2006 Canadian Federal Election against then Prime Minister Paul Martin. Her campaign focused on raising awareness about the demand for redress from Martin’s ruling Liberal Party who had refused to issue a parliamentary apology for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act or to offer compensation to living Head Tax payers and their descendents. Chiu is the former Executive Director of Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal.
Normie Kwong: The first Chinese Canadian to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Normie Kwong was a professional football player who won four Grey Cups. He was the first Chinese Canadian to play on a professional Canadian football team. Recipient of the Order of Canada, Normie Kwong is featured in this Historica Canada Heritage Minute)
I highly recommend watching The Lost Years along with another great documentary about the early Chinese Canadian experience In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho which is available online here at the National Film Board of Canada website.
Review by Devon Wong in Schema Magazine
CBC Radio Edmonton Interview (August 19, 2011) with Kenda Gee and Tom Radford available online
Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act
Address (22 June 2006) by the Prime Minister at a reception for members of the Chinese Community
In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, film available online
About my “Loh Wah Kui” Family essay available online by Sid Tan
Transcript of a CTV Interview (2000) with Yew Lee available online
Chinese Canadian History
Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne, film available online
Chinese Canadian Community Organizations
Chinese in New Zealand
New Zealand Apology to Chinese Migrants (February 13 2002) CNN Article available online