As It Happens

Chow Quen Lee fought for justice over Canada's Chinese head tax until her death at 105

Chow Quen Lee, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit over the Chinese head tax, has died at the age of 105. Her son Yew Lee discusses his mother's legacy.
Chow Quen Lee fought for justice over Canada's Chinese head tax until her death at the age of 105. (Submitted by Yew Lee)

Story transcript

Chow Quen Lee always made sure her children understood the injustices their family had to endure in order to immigrate to Canada.

"I always remembered being a kid that was five or six years old, and she'd open this big rusty old steamer truck in the corner of the room in our two-bedroom apartment above a small restaurant, and she'd take out this piece of paper, dust it off and say, 'This is something that remains unfinished business. This piece of paper is very important and we're going to deal with it some day,'"  her son Yew Lee told As It Happens host Carol Off.

That piece of paper was the certificate for the $500 Chinese head tax his father Guang Foo Lee paid to immigrate to Canada in 1913 — the equivalent of two years' wages at the time.

Yew Lee and his mother Chow Quen Lee hold up Guang Foo Lee's 1913 Chinese head tax certificate. (Carolyn McGill/Submitted by Yew Lee )

"Whenever she took it out, it was the same words, that there's something that needs to be resolved. So even as a child I knew that."

Chow Quen would spend the rest of her long life fighting for justice over the Chinese head tax, often with Yew at her side. Her activism was documented in the 2004 National Film Board documentary, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain​. 

Chow Quen died on Oct. 11 in Ottawa at the age of 105.

Canada first imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in 1885 after Chinese workers were no longer needed to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The fee was was raised to $500 in 1903.

"They came to build the railway and if they wanted to stay they were discouraged to do that by raising the head tax," Lee said.

"There was such discrimination. I mean, In Vancouver, they weren't allowed in pools. They were segregated in their own community. You couldn't go out and use public libraries that were outside Chinatown. It's a terrible history."

In 1923, the head tax was replaced by the Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from the country altogether until 1947.

Lee's father returned to China in 1930 to marry Chow Quen, but the Exclusion Act kept the couple separated for 14 years. 

It's the part of immigration that even today bothers me a lot. You want someone's labour and somehow you separate that from their humanity.- Yew Lee, son of activist Chow Quen Lee 

They had three children, conceived on Guang Foo's three visits home, but he could never stay longer than two years at a time because Canada charged another $500 head tax for re-entry.

"It's the part of immigration that even today bothers me a lot. You want someone's labour and somehow you separate that from their humanity," Lee said.

"You want the goods they produce, you want their skills, you want their education, but you don't want their family."

A Lee family photo circa 1955 shows, from left to right starting in the back row: Was Yett Lee, Voy See Lee, Chow Quen Lee, Foo Lee, and babies Yen Lee and Yew Lee. (Submitted by Yew Lee)

Chow Quen finally arrived in Canada with her three children in 1950, when Lee was one. The couple settled in Sudbury, Ont., where they had two more children and ran a number or restaurants. 

But seventeen years later, Guang Foo died and Chow Quen was left, once again, to raise a family on her own.

Her strength helped her overcome war, poverty and life as a single mother — but despite it all, she spent her life standing up for the rights of others.

She was well into her 80s when she volunteered to become the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government seeking redress for the head tax. 

By then she was already an outspoken activist, travelling the country in a wheelchair and giving speeches alongside her son about Canada's discriminatory history towards Chinese immigrants.

So when the Chinese Canadian National Council decided to pursue a lawsuit, joining as the lead plaintiff seemed like the right thing to to do.

"My mom and myself, we had already decided on our own to take some kind of action," Lee said.

Chow Quen Lee speaks with Sheila Copps, then the deputy prime minister at an Oct 29, 2002, Chinese Head Tax rally on Parliament Hill, while her son Yew pushes her wheelchair. (Robert Yip/Submitted by Yew Lee)

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed and its appeals denied — but it set in motion a path towards an official apology and reparations.

In June 2006, prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Chinese Canadians in the House of Commons and offered the symbolic payment of $20,000 to roughly 400 survivors or their widows. 

Chow Quen was in the audience when Harper called the tax "a moral blemish on our country's soul."

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper presents Chinese head tax survivors a copy of the government's official apology in Ottawa on June 22, 2006. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

While Chow Quen was happy to finally see the government show its respect to the Chinese community, many decried the settlement as too little, too late.

The Canadian government collected a total of $23 million from some 81,000 people under the various forms of the Chinese Immigration Act.

That never sat well with his mother, Lee said.

"Many people out west are still fighting it. They felt that this compensation was an insult," Lee said. "If she was in Vancouver and still alive she'd probably be one of the holdouts."

Chow Quen Lee, right, poses for a picture with her son and fellow activist Yew Lee. (Yew Lee/Facebook )

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