My grandma sang her way to Canada at a time when Chinese people were barred entry
Gar Yin Hune came with her Cantonese opera troupe when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place, and never left
Originally published on December 30, 2019.
My grandmother's immigration story is that of family legends. As a Chinese opera singer, she managed to get into Canada during a 24-year ban on Chinese immigration and make a life for herself and our family.
The only time I heard my grandmother sing was when I was eight. Gar Yin Hune, or Jacqueline in Canada, passed away when I was a teenager.
My memories of her are of a confident senior striding up Spadina Avenue in Toronto's Chinatown, in an oversized 80's sweater and Reebok shoes, pausing every few minutes when people stopped her to chat.
But my grandmother had another life outside our family circle. She would often come for dinner and then rush off to join her friends at a Cantonese opera club.
Once I remember waking up at her condo to the sound of her singing along to a VHS tape. As an eight-year-old, I gasped in amazement to hear her voice over the dramatic Chinese music. It felt shocking to my English-speaking ears.
She smiled at me and turned off the tape. Then, in a mix of Cantonese and English, she told me to get dressed for Egg McMuffins across the street.
Opera life in China
Gar Yin Hune was born in 1918 in Guangzhou, a port city in southern China. Her father owned a number of tea houses where Cantonese opera was performed — a mix of music, dance, acrobatics and dramatic costumes.
She had to leave school at a young age after her father refused to pay tuition for his daughter. "So she went to work in the opera company as a performer," my mother and Gar Yin's youngest daughter, Bernice Hune, told me.
Gar Yin was mentored by other female performers. She soon started performing locally and eventually toured in Southeast Asia.
At this time the Chinese Freemasons were sponsoring groups of Opera performers to go perform in Chinatowns across North America.
"They wanted their culture in an art form, but they also wanted to raise money for China to fight the Japanese," explained Shirley Hune, my aunt and Gar Yin's eldest child.
By 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese war had started. "The Japanese were invading China and her mother said to her that 'If you have an opportunity to tour again you must take it. This is an opportunity for you to leave the country,'" said Bernice.
On September 23, 1938, my grandmother left her life and family in China. Her city, Guangzhou, was invaded by Japan just a month later.
My aunt Shirley and I recently found her immigration card. It was the first time I had seen it and I was amazed to see my grandmothers' determined 19-year-old face fiercely staring at the camera.
Looking at this, I wonder if she knew what she was getting into coming to Gum San (Gold Mountain), as she called it, or what European settlers called Canada, and to what is known to many Indigenous people as Turtle Island.
My grandmother was arriving to a country that was openly hostile to Chinese people. Right after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885 — using Chinese labour — the Canadian government first introduced the Chinese head tax in order to keep "Canada white forever."
It was a large fee exclusively for Chinese people entering the country, an often debilitating debt that men on low wages spent years paying off.
In 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act stopped virtually all Chinese immigration until 1947. Officially fewer than 50 Chinese people entered Canada in that time.
"You never saw a woman in Chinatown," explained my grandmother's friend, Nora Hum. "They were all men in those days."
The years of the head tax had made the population extremely imbalanced and only seven per cent of the Chinese population were women.
Touring across Canada
My grandmother's opera troupe performed in Chinatowns across the country, places like Calgary, Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Winnipeg, and Montreal.
Nora described how exciting it was when the opera came through Montreal. "The whole community would come. The club was packed and was standing room only," she said.
For the community, the opera was one of the only places that Chinese people could gather and be themselves. Outside of the club, they were living in a society that remained segregated. People didn't leave Chinatown because they felt unwelcome everywhere else.
By the time the tour ended, it was early 1940 and World War II had started. Crossing back across the Pacific Ocean was not a realistic option. My grandmother could stay in Canada for the time being — and she made the most of it.
Putting down roots in Toronto
My grandmother decided to settle in Toronto, which had a larger Chinatown than other Canadian cities.
She roomed with a family and eventually met my grandfather, Don Hune, a Canadian-born Chinese man.
Nora told me that it was my grandmother who did the choosing. "Your grandfather was very caring, hard working and handsome. But she was the queen bee," said Nora.
They rented a floor in a house just off of Toronto's Chinatown. This was before old Chinatown was expropriated for a new city hall to be built.
"One day your grandpa came home and said, 'The landlord is going to sell this house [...] I wish I had the money to buy it.' And grandma said, 'I have money, my Cantonese opera money,'" Shirley told me.
It was her money from performing that helped buy my family's first Toronto home. This was particularly important for security at a time when white landlords often refused to rent to Chinese people.
In 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted and my grandmother was granted a permanent landing card. This was also the year my mother was born.
By the 1950's my mom, then a child, was beginning to witness family reunification, as families who had been separated for decades were finally reunited.
As soon as the law changed, my grandparents worked to find ways to bring their family over. Eventually my grandmother brought her mother, her older sister, her younger brother and his young family to Canada.
"And so actually grandma saved her entire family, through the ticket to come as a Cantonese opera singer," said Shirley.
I like the way Nora says it best: "It takes a lot of courage to leave your own environment to go to a strange country, a language you don't understand, and just hope that you know everything would turn out the way you want it to. But of course when you're young, you feel you can do anything. You know, 'we can conquer the world.' Cantonese opera helped her conquer the world."
I feel grateful for what this art form has given to my family. But I'm also ashamed at how little I know about it. I have a degree in theatre and I make art in Toronto, helping young minority artists tell their own stories. Yet I know so little about an art intimately tied to the roots of my family.
Recently, I walked to Dundas Street and ventured up the stairs of a Chinatown building I have passed a million times. I found myself in the Chinese United Dramatic Society, a club Gar Yin would have gone to. Founded in 1933, it is one of the last Cantonese opera clubs operating in Toronto's Chinatown.
The room was filled with seniors singing Cantonese opera standards to a full band. It was a room buzzing with energy, with tea being passed, loud conversations, and an ancient drummer yelling at the singers to keep up the tempo. And it was the closest I have felt to this opera life my grandmother lived.
Gar Yin Hune's life was full of music, energy, community, people laughing, yelling, and making art together. This art form allowed our family to make a life in Canada. It felt foreign to me — but also so familiar.
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About the Producer
She works with diverse communities directing and facilitating theatre projects in her hometown of Toronto and across Canada. Julia is a lead artist with The Amy Project — Artist Mentoring Youth and Jumblies Theatre. She is currently working on an oral history theatre project in Toronto's Spadina Chinatown. Julia also teaches kindergarten and is very good at singing instructions to small people. This is Julia's first radio doc.
This documentary was produced by Alison Cook.
Archival music is from the Collection of Cantonese Opera Records at the Canadian Museum of History