In search of Gold Mountain: My father’s Chinese head tax story

This First Person article is the experience of Jade Nayler, a first generation Chinese Canadian who now lives in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.


In 1918, my father, Ging Gar Chew, left Toisan, China, for Canada. He was in search of ‘Gim San‘ as he called it — Gold Mountain.

It symbolized a better life than what his homeland — in the throes of political and economic turmoil — could offer. With a heavy heart, he promised his weeping wife and three young sons he would send money home to ensure their survival. He said he would return for a visit someday and perhaps, if he worked hard enough, bring them to Canada.

He knew he was heading to a hostile country, whose government had legislated anti-Chinese policies that essentially gave its citizens permission to dehumanize any Chinese immigrant daring to enter. Yet this quiet, gentle man made the courageous decision to come anyway, his desperation driving hope.

In 1919, the S.S. Monteagle carried more than 800 Chinese immigrants, including Jade Nayler’s father, to British Columbia, where ‘my father anxiously waited, wondering if they would all be sent back to China,’ Nayler says. (Submitted by Jade Nayler)

The Monteagle — a passenger ship carrying more than 800 Chinese immigrants, including my father — reached Vancouver on January 22, 1919.

Detained at the immigration building for another five weeks, my father anxiously waited, wondering if they would all be sent back to China. Finally, at the end of February, he lined up with his fellow passengers to pay a $500 head tax and receive his head tax certificate.

My father headed east toward Sault Ste Marie, away from British Columbia where anti-Chinese sentiments were particularly pronounced, and where the idea of a head tax had actually first taken root (the Chinese Immigration Act was passed into law by the Dominion of Canada in 1885, and imposed a head tax on all Chinese newcomers).

Institutionalized racism existed at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to varying degrees.

All Chinese people were refused the right to citizenship — even those who were Canadian-born — and hence could not vote or hold public office. They were barred from trade unions and professional associations. Their children were segregated from white children in schools. Access to a university education could be denied.

The head tax would take years to pay off, but the memory of the humiliations would last a lifetime.

The Chinese community’s contribution to the war effort was undeniable.– Jade Nayler

Chinese immigrants like my father worked in laundries or restaurants. Known as ethnic businesses, these services provided an economic niche for the Chinese to earn a living while avoiding competition with white businesses. My father chose the restaurant business, learning the English language as he worked for various Chinese-owned restaurants and cafés in southern Ontario.

Life was hard; the work was unrelenting, the hours were long and racism was always present. He deeply missed his wife and family, treasuring every letter that arrived from home.

Chinese immigration banned

On July 1, 1923, the head tax was replaced by the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning all Chinese immigration and ending any hope of bringing family over. An estimated 80 per cent of the male Chinese immigrants had wives and children in China. This created a “bachelor society.” Some gave up and returned to China. Others stayed and died alone in this foreign land.

No more Gim San hope, just Gim San sorrow.

My father’s response was to lose himself in work. He survived the Depression years when unemployment among the Chinese reached 80 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for the general population. The war years made it impossible for his family to receive his hard-earned remittances. His wife died; his sons grew up without him.

As Canadians, we must educate ourselves on the soul-crushing ugliness of racism.​​​​​– Jade Nayler

Nearing 50, he was still alone in Canada.

Redemption came at the end of World War II, as public opinion shifted dramatically. The Chinese community’s contribution to the war effort was undeniable and Canada’s participation in the newly established United Nations motivated Parliament to revoke its anti-Chinese policies.

After the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed, Jade Nayler’s father opened up a restaurant. ‘My father raced to catch up with the lost years,’ Nayler says. (Submitted by Jade Nayler)

The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947. After that, my father raced to catch up with the lost years. He became a Canadian citizen, opened his own restaurant in Kingston, brought his new wife to Canada, bought a house and became the proud father of three Canadian-born children by the age of 65.

If success is measured by the achievement of what seems like an impossibility, my father had more than succeeded. He died in 1977 with his family by his side. Gim San realized!

Jade Nayler’s father and mother, Mei Hing Lee. ‘If success is measured by the achievement of what seems like an impossibility, my father more than succeeded,’ Nayler says. (Submitted by Jade Nayler)

On June 22, 2006, newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the Chinese Canadian community in the House of Commons, and offered a symbolic payment to surviving head tax payers or their spouses.

An estimated 82,000 Chinese immigrants had paid $23 million in head tax between 1885-1923. But by 2006, most had died. In fact, fewer than 50 surviving head-tax payers were among the 785 people who received the ex gratia payment.  My elderly mother accepted on my father’s behalf.

Why do I feel compelled to tell my father’s story? Because racism still exists. It is systemic.

Anybody who is not white has experienced racism.

We have witnessed the dire consequences when a government (such as that led by former US President Trump) even appears to give credence to those who espouse white supremacy.

As Canadians, we must educate ourselves on the soul-crushing ugliness of racism, both past and present.

Only by acknowledging past wrongs, can we determine how to move forward, in unity, speaking out against injustice. We must see our neighbour as ourselves. Only then, can we recognize our shared humanity.

Gim San indeed!

Winnipegger Jade Nayler shares her father’s journey as a Chinese immigrant seeking a better life in Canada. 5:18