Chinese Montrealer explores family's journey to Canada, struggle to belong

Hing Dere is just 11 years old in the black-and-white photo taken for his 1921 Canadian immigration documents, his innocent face in stark contrast to the difficult times that lay ahead.

'I had no memories of my father,” says author William Ging Wee Dere

William Ging Wee Dere at 10 months old, held by his father in a family portrait taken in China in 1949. (Submitted by William Ging-Wee Dere)

Hing Dere is just 11 years old in the black-and-white photo taken for his 1921 Canadian immigration documents, his innocent face in stark contrast to the difficult times that lay ahead.

After making the voyage from China to Canada on the RMS Empress of Russia steamship, the young boy would spend three weeks in a detention centre before being admitted into the country.

His family would also pay a $500 fee for his admission to Canada — a current-day value of approximately $6,000 — under the Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923.

It was a troubling history, one that Hing Dere never discussed with his son, William Ging Wee Dere.

"My father never talked about the bad times," said Dere.

"It was a lonely and humiliating experience for him. So, why would he talk about that kind of situation with his son?"

Shedding light on Canadian history

A retired railroad engineer and Montreal community activist, Dere is the author of the new book Being Chinese In Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging.

The book examines how the Chinese-Canadian community has been affected by Canadian policies and laws like the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, the latter of which ran from 1923 to 1947 and barred all Chinese people from immigrating to Canada.

For Dere, the effects have been intensely personal. Born in China in 1948, Dere was unable to to move to Canada until his father became a Canadian citizen in 1956.

"On his last visit to China, I was about 10 months old. So, I had no memories of my father. It was only here in Montreal, when I got off the train at Central Station, that I met him for the first time. I was seven years old."

Hing Dere's Head Tax certificate, dating from the 11-year-old boy's immigration to Canada in 1921. (Submitted by William Ging Wee Dere)

When Canadian history is also family history

Policies and laws like the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act fragmented family immigration, and have had numerous impacts on the Chinese-Canadian community, according to Dere.

For example, with family members immigrating to Canada years apart, many Chinese-Canadians have missed out on opportunities to better establish themselves financially and purchase property.

The policies also affected Dere's own sense of belonging in Canada, as early as elementary school.

"As a little boy going to school, I just wanted to be the same as everybody else. People noticed me more as a Chinese person than I did myself, because I just wanted to blend in."

Discovering one's own identity

All that changed when Dere's father died in 1982, and Dere began to question his own identity as a Chinese-Canadian.

He joined a decades long, country-wide campaign to get a redress for the Head Tax, and in 2006, then-prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to Chinese-Canadian survivors and their families, with surviving spouses being granted $20,000.

Along the way, Dere's activism and 1993 documentary Moving the Mountain inspired younger Chinese-Canadians to look deeper into their family's past. It's a trend he hopes will continue with his new book.

"Young people come up to me and say, 'Yes, this happened to my family. I'm going to talk to my parents and get more about my family history,'" said Dere.

Hing Dere and his wife, Dong Sing Yee, working in their hand laundry business in Montreal. The photo is dated October 1956. (Submitted by William Ging Wee Dere)

The road forward and call for allies

Conversations like those need to continue, because discrimination against Chinese people continues to this day, according to Dere.

Recently, members of Montreal's Chinese community marched to demand an apology from Quebec Solidaire MNA Émilise Lessard-Therrien, who used the word "predatory" to describe possible Chinese investors in Quebec agricultural land.

Dere says the battle against racism is one that minorities from any cultural community shouldn't have to fight alone.

"The problem I'm facing is that the burden of fighting against intolerance and racism always falls on the shoulders of minorities. I'm looking for white people to wage the struggle against racism, because it's in their interest to do so."


Rebecca Ugolini

CBC Montreal radio producer

Rebecca Ugolini is a born-and-raised Montrealer who loves covering the city. Follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaUgolini.


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