100 years in Windsor haven't always been easy for Chinese Canadians here

During a time when most streets in Windsor were named after English and French Canadians, Hong Court is still a sign of change. The East Riverside street is named after one of the first Chinese families to immigrate to Windsor.

The first Chinese settlers established an association to bind them together in 1918

James Hong presented a petition to the City of Windsor to get a street in East Riverside named after his family. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

It's a small thing — a street sign —  but to the Hong family, it's one way of marking the hardship and discrimination faced by Chinese-Canadians in Windsor over the generations.

The Chinese community is marking its 100-year anniversary of being in Windsor in 2018. The elders say it's a much better experience now, but they still remember the feelings of isolation.

Back in 1996, Hong Court in East Riverside was given its name after a member of the Hong Family presented a petition to the City of Windsor.

At the time, James Hong, 60, wanted a street to be named after a family reflecting Windsor's multicultural nature.

"I noticed that all of the streets were named after English-Canadians and French-Canadians," he said.

Hong Court in East Riverside was named after one of the first Chinese families to settle in Windsor. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

But the Hongs represent more than just any "multicultural family." They were one of the first Chinese families to arrive in Windsor.

Throughout the next 100 years, increasing numbers of Chinese people immigrated to Windsor in search of employment and a better life.

Remembering the past

After the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, Chinese migrant workers were left unemployed and unwanted.

During that same year, the Canadian government implemented the Chinese head tax, imposed on anyone coming to Canada from China between 1885 and 1923.

Kee Chong Lee is recognized as the first documented Chinese immigrant to pay a head tax. (Library and Archives Canada)

The federal government first set the head tax at $50 and later raised it to $500 in 1903. 

"(For) $500 in those days, you could buy a Model T Ford. So imagine (my) grandfather, grandmother and bringing my dad over, they had to cough up $1,500. Imagine giving up the money for three cars just for the privilege of living in Canada. But that was the purpose of the economic barrier — to discourage Chinese immigration," said Hong.

Growing up "different"

The discrimination against the Chinese community didn't end with the head tax; it still affected his childhood.

"People would start calling me derogatory names ... 'Ching-chong-ching-chong,' that kind of thing, ... One person in particular kept saying to kill the 'Japs' and bomb Pearl Harbour," he said. "I felt bad. I thought to myself I wish I was Canadian," said Hong, who has never lived outside of Windsor, 

James Hong, right, lives with his 90-year-old mother Patricia, left, in the same house he grew up in as a child. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

A new place

Unable to speak English, Hong's mother, 90-year-old Patricia, moved to Windsor in 1951 from a small village in China.

"[Windsor] is a different, strange place. It has snow I never see before. Cold," she said, apologizing for her broken English.

She is, by the way, quite understandable. 

Patricia is the daughter-in-law of Mi Hong, one of the earliest Chinese settlers in Windsor. Patricia never got the chance to meet him.

"After his two sons die in the Second World War. I think he was upset and he died the same year (in) 1954 or '55," she said.

Patricia Hong moved to Windsor in 1951 unable to speak a word of English. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Community coming together

Both Hong and his mother are members of the Windsor Chinese Benevolent Association. The organization was formed in 1918 to maintain social contacts between Windsor's Chinese community.

The WCBA hosted a gala in March, celebrating the success and progress of Windsor's Chinese community over the past 100 years. This coming Sunday, they're organizing their annual "grave sweeping" to honour their Windsor ancestors.

"Several groups will split up to bring offerings to the cemeteries with a history of a segregated Chinese section," said the Essex County Chinese Canadian Association.

The Windsor Chinese Benevolent Association celebrated their 100th anniversary at a gala in March. (Sungee John)

100 years later

Windsor's Chinese community has grown to become one of the most populated ethnic groups in Windsor.

Recent census statistics show that Chinese descendants make up five per cent of all immigrants in Windsor behind those from Iraq, Syria and the United States.

The Government of Ontario awarded the Windsor Chinese Benevolent Association with a Legacy of Community Leadership Award. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

"I did some market research [and found] Windsor has a high ethnic population ... In the past couple years, I can see it going up," said Qing Qing Lin, owner of Multifood SuperMarket.

Whether it be name-calling on the schoolyard or having to pay a tax to enter Canada, it has been a long road for Windsor's Chinese community. Today, Hong and his mother Patricia are happy to call Windsor home.

"I have no regrets. I feel very comfortable here," she said.

About the Author

Sanjay Maru

Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. He was born and raised in Windsor, Ont. Since graduating from St. Clair College as the 2018 Journalist of the Year, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at sanjay.maru@cbc.ca.