Head tax touched Burnaby North MLA's family

Burnaby North Liberal MLA Richard Lee shows on a map the vegetable farm his grandfather co-founded on the Musqueam lands in Vancouver, after immigrating in 1913 and paying the $500 head tax. He is supportive of plans for the B.C. government to formally apologize for past legislation that discriminated against people of Chinese heritage. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
Burnaby North Liberal MLA Richard Lee shows on a map the vegetable farm his grandfather co-founded on the Musqueam lands in Vancouver, after immigrating in 1913 and paying the $500 head tax. He is supportive of plans for the B.C. government to formally apologize for past legislation that discriminated against people of Chinese heritage.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

Richard Lee first learned about the head tax as a teenager in 1971.

Today he's the Liberal MLA for Burnaby North but back then, he was a recent high school graduate who had just immigrated with his parents to Canada after more than a decade of trying.

A week after arriving, and meeting his paternal grandfather for the first time, the elder Lee took him aside and showed him an aging folded document—the certificate showing he had paid $500 in head tax to enter Canada in 1913.

Until then, Lee never knew such a tax existed.

Now in his fourth term as MLA, Lee has been part of the provincial government's efforts to formally apologize for its role in discriminating against the Chinese community in B.C.'s past.

Last spring, Lee himself drafted an apology but ran out of time to get approval from the New Democrats before the legislative session ended to make way for the provincial election.

Now Teresa Wat, the Minister Responsible for Multiculturalism, is taking the reins, but Lee continues to watch with keen interest.

After all, his family's presence in British Columbia started with his grandfather, Kwong Quai Lee.

At age 24, Lee's grandfather left his home in Zhongshan, China—now also known as  Burnaby's sister city—during the turbulent and unstable years after the 1911 Chinese Revolution that overthrew the "Last Emperor" Puyi.

LEFT: The government certificate for Burnaby MLA Richard Lee's grandfather showing he paid the $500 head tax to enter Canada in 1913. The tax, charged only to Chinese immigrants, was more than a year's wages for Chinese workers and enough to buy two housing lots in Vancouver's Chinatown.


Encouraged by people he knew from his home village who had already made the voyage across the Pacific, he arrived in Victoria. It took him years to pay back the money he borrowed to pay the $500 head tax.

"People have told me at that time you could buy two house lots in Chinatown [for that amount]," Lee said, adding it was more than a year's wages.

But perhaps the greatest impact on the Chinese community was the Chinese Exclusion Act which between 1923 and 1947 barred new ethnic Chinese from entering Canada altogether.

Lee's grandfather returned to China to marry and had three sons, but when he could afford to bring them to Canada, the law forbade it. By the time the ban was lifted, when Chinese-Canadians were also given the right to vote in 1947, only one son survived, Lee's father.

But after Lee's father married, he could not longer qualify as a dependent, and government immigration policies further prevented his family from being reunited until 1971.

By then, Lee's grandmother had died. The family had spent decades piecing together news of each other through visiting friends and neighbours, this being a time when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive and writing was not an easy option.

When asked what it was like to meet his grandfather after so many years, Lee choked back tears.

"He worked so hard for the family," he said, relating how his grandfather always sent money back to China to support those that depended on him.

His grandfather, who died a few years later in 1974, was a farmer, co-founding Hong Kong Gardens vegetable farm on land leased from the Musqueam First Nation. Lee noted that First Nations and Chinese have historically had good relations, with many cases of intermarriage, likely because local Chinese men could not find Chinese wives due to the Exclusion Act.

In 2006, the federal government formally apologized and provided compensation to original payers of the head tax or their spouses, which were few in number by that time.

As for why the provincial government should also apologize, Lee explained that there have been numerous bills passed in the legislature that discriminated against ethnic Chinese. Even the head tax was an idea of the British Columbia legislature which the federal government would not allow it to implement. Instead, Ottawa implemented it itself, eventually splitting the proceeds with Victoria.

The province also pressured Ottawa to bring in the Exclusion Act, and by helping restrict the right to vote created "a whole series of consequences" including Chinese not being allowed to serve jury duty or work in professions such as law, medicine or dentistry.

Lee is personally not interested in any monetary compensation, but noted views on the issue vary widely in the Chinese community, and believes all should have the right to advocate for what they feel is appropriate.

For him, what's important is that all the wrongs be acknowledged and from there, plans should be developed to include this dark part of the province's history in school curriculums and somehow preserve it in museums to educate the public and prevent history from repeating itself.

"It's the right thing to do."

• A community forum on the issue will be held Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown, 6083 McKay Ave., Burnaby.

Hosted by Multiculturalism Minister Teresa Wat, the forum will collect feedback from those affected to help create a "meaningful apology to B.C.'s Chinese community for historical wrongs … that all members of the legislature can support," according to a provincial press release.

Those unable to attend are encouraged to send their feedback to

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