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My father's Chinese head tax certificate tells our family history

For William Ging Wee Dere, this faded green certificate — dated 96 years ago today — is a glimpse into his father's life in Canada and China.

'His Chineseness was amplified by Canadian society.'

Hing Dere’s Head Tax Certificate, issued June 9th, 1921. (Courtesy of William Ging Wee Dere)

I was 34 years old when my father, Hing Dere, died in 1982. After the funeral, my mother gave me the almond cookie tin that contained all his personal documents. This was the first time that I saw his head tax certificate. It didn't mean anything to me at the time. Why would it? I was blissfully ignorant of my father's history in Canada. I knew nothing about the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

From this certificate, I can conjure up the important events in his life.- William Ging Wee Dere

The faded green certificate, issued June 9, 1921, measures seven by nine inches (18 to 23 centimetres). For the casual observer, it may be an innocuous artifact of history. To me, the certificate gives a vital glimpse into the link between my father's life in Canada and his family in the Toishanese village in China.

My father never spoke to me about how these Canadian laws affected him and his family. And why should he? It was a very painful, lonely and humiliating part of his life and he naturally wanted to shelter his children from that pain. Before his death, I was not conscious enough of my identity to ask him about our family's past. In these documents I uncovered the hidden secrets that my father kept while he was alive and in his death, became infinitely important.

The Canadian government controlled Chinese immigration to the extent that a General Registry of Chinese Immigration was created and from 1885 to 1949. It registered over 80,000 individuals and accounted for the $23M collected in head tax from Chinese immigrants. My father and grandfather each paid the $500 head tax and in my father's case, he was also locked in a detention centre for three weeks before being allowed into Canada. My grandfather's head tax certificate has been lost to history.

Hing Dere’s registration certificate. Failure to produce this document would have subjected him to deportation. (Courtesy of William Ging Wee Dere)

From my father's certificate, I can conjure up the important events in his life. It was his travel document with the dates of his entries back into Canada stamped on the back. From this, I know that in 1925, he went back to China to marry my mother Dong Sing Yee. Due to the exclusion act, he was not allowed to bring his young wife back to Canada. In 1930 and 1935, he went back to China to have his children, each time returning to Canada without his growing family. It must have been heart-wrenching for him to come back to Canada alone, but he knew that this was his mission in life — to go overseas and earn a living so he could support his family back in the poverty-stricken village.

His Chineseness was amplified by Canadian society and its oppressive laws directed at his ethnicity. He was so aware of his identity, he explained away the difficulties in Canada by saying, "It's because we are Chinese."

At the same time he felt very Canadian.

William Ging Wee Dere's mother and father working in the family laundry business in Montreal. (Courtesy of William Ging Wee Dere)

My father's life was shaped by Canada. He was not a sojourner; he did not want to be buried in China. Despite everything, he settled and made Canada his home. He established his hand laundry business in Montreal and engaged with others to build a community of mutual support. In his own way, he fought the oppression and eventually brought his family to Canada, where he succeeded in raising four generations.

No one was going to push him out. He was a Canadian in a Chinese way. He was a Chinese Canadian.

About the Author

William Ging Wee Dere

William Ging Wee Dere is a Toishanese Chinese whose family endured the racism of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. For two decades, he was a community activist in Montreal. In the fine tradition of Chinese-Canadians, he worked for the railroad until his retirement, after which he wrote his memoir, Red China Man, Struggle for Identity and Belonging.

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