When I was young, I found my father’s Chinese Immigration certificate in his desk. I was confused: I knew he was born in Vancouver, BC, Canada, but the document said Department of Immigration and Colonization. Was he an immigrant? Why was he an immigrant? For pity’s sake, my grandfather was born in Vancouver too. If anything, my father was Canadian born twice over.
Didn’t being born in the country mean something?
It’s taken me about thirty years to understand the meaning behind that small yellow paper.
All Chinese are immigrants. Full stop.
The truth is that the Chinese Exclusion Act (actual name Chinese Immigration Act, 1923) affected all Chinese in the country. It didn’t matter if your family came in 1881. It didn’t matter if you were born in Canada. It didn’t matter if you were a naturalized British subject, as my great-grandfather Yip Sang was. Every Chinese in the country was ruled by this Act and its harsh set of laws. Did you have a wife and family you were hoping to sponsor to join you? Too bad. Did you want to visit family after decades of saving up for the trip? You had to pay to apply for permission to leave the country, and woe on you if you lost your re-entry certificate. Even if you were wealthy and connected, on your return to Canada you had to spend days in the Pig Pen, aka the Chinese Detention Shed, while immigration authorities triple-checked your papers to make sure you were who you said you were.
Let’s make this a part of history we’ll never forget
Catherine Clement is putting together an exhibition to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Exclusion Act. She’s looking for original head tax certificates to scan (you keep the originals). They look like these. Every Chinese in the country in 1923 had one. Some had more than one. The ones on the left you may be familiar with but we are also looking for documents that look like the one on the right, issued to the Canadian born Chinese. Like my dad. Please go looking through your family papers.
You never know what you might find, buried in among the old grocery receipts. And if you find one? Please see below.
The 100th year commemorative event is:
The Exhibition: These personal certificates will be displayed in a creative and thoughtful way. The layout of the exhibition will give the viewer a sense of the volume and variety of C.I. documents that were issued by the government … but also the individuality of each of these pieces of paper.
An archive for our history
The Community Digital Archive: After the exhibition, all the scans will become part of a Community Digital Archive and will be housed in a major public institution. This archive will enable future generations of historians, researchers and relatives to see, what we hope will be, the most comprehensive archive of its kind in Canada.
About Catherine Clement
Catherine Clement is a community curator and designer whose focus is on sharing Chinese Canadian history.
Based in Vancouver, she has served as curator for the Chinese Canadian Military Museum from 2011-2018. She designed several first-ever exhibitions including “Rumble in the Jungle: The Story of Force 136.”
Catherine also art directed the Chinatown History Windows Project in 2017. Organized in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, the project brought history to the streets. The work involved designing and installing historic photo-based murals on 22 storefront windows in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
In 2019, after more than eight years of gathering photographs from private family collections, Catherine curated the first-ever exhibition on Yucho Chow: Chinatown’s first and most prolific photographer. She followed that show with an art book of his work called Chinatown Through A Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow.
Most recently, Catherine assisted the Museum of Vancouver in gathering content for the Chinatown venue of the exhibition “A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia.”
Catherine’s next major project will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The project will involve an exhibition that melds together dozens of head tax certificates and other historic photograph-based identity documents that were required only by Chinese living in Canada.
Catherine sits on the Board of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia; as well as the Chinese Canadian Military Museum; and the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.
Please contact Catherine Clement directly if you have something to submit to this special commemoration. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe strongly in knowing our collective history: the good and the bad. As a genealogist, it’s my privilege to spend my time researching available records. Too many records are unusable thanks to editors and census takers who recorded entire communities by race (“Chinaman”) instead of name, or worse, recorded names that are no help at all. (For more on this, see my post Ah Yih, Ah Tat, Ah Tom – what is the Chinese name “Ah”? ) And yet, when it comes to the Chinese Exclusion Act, we have the rare opportunity to turn something dark into something useful for generations to come. If you’re not sure if you’ve got a head tax certificate around somewhere but you know who the family historians are in the family, please forward my blog to them.
Let’s find them all.
And maybe yours will be the one hanging beside my dad’s.