How Can We Reckon with a Future that Never Was

Henry Yu reflects on the Chinese Exclusion Act
By Henry Yu
Image Credit: Henry Yu - My grandmother and grandfather when they were reunited in Canada

My grandmother and grandfather when they were reunited in Canada. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act
July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024
Chinese Canadian Museum
Vancouver, BC
Curated by Cathrine Clement

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On July 1, the “Paper Trail” exhibit curated by Catherine Clement detailing the impacts of the legal Chinese exclusion of Chinese from Canada in 1923, opened at the new Chinese Canadian Museum located in Vancouver Chinatown. Having spent the last seven years of my life helping in some capacity or another to envision, consult, plan and implement the creation and building of this new museum, I hope I can be forgiven for asserting that there is an appropriate statement being made in opening both the exhibit and the new museum on exactly the 100th anniversary of the passage of Chinese Exclusion on Dominion Day in 1923.

Despite the euphemistic name of a “Chinese Immigration Act” that in reality formally ended any further immigration, the legislation passed by the Parliament of Canada on July 1, 1923, was viciously clear. For the next quarter of a century, there were fewer than 100 new entries allowed. Those residents in Canada deemed “Chinese” were legally marked as unwanted and non-belonging, issued identification papers with photos and now fully cognizant of a future life targeted by legalized discrimination. Legal exclusion froze the gender ratio of Chinese migrants already in Canada–skewed towards young labouring males. Existing families were broken by the inability to re-join members separated by the Pacific Ocean, and tens of thousands of single men already in Canada lost hope of a viable future. Chinese residents and citizens of Canada were required to register and carry identity documents. Many took to heart the not-so-subtle message from the Canadian government and left Canada, taking whatever savings they had earned out with them, and ironically triggering a period of financial investment and the building of homes, hospitals, and schools in the villages they had originally left in southern China. Others stayed but hedged on their futures, fulfilling the white supremacist prophecy that they did not belong in Canada by adjusting their behaviour to match their legal non-belonging.

Image Credit: Henry Yu - My grandfather's entry in the 1923 Chinese Head Tax Register.
My grandfather's entry in the 1923 Chinese Head Tax Register. Image Credit: Henry Yu.
What can we learn in 2023 about what happened in 1923? As historians, perhaps we could focus on how the legislation 100 years ago shaped long-standing tropes that we still deploy today about Asians as alien and untrustworthy. Asian Canadians still possess a precarious belonging in Canada, deemed at best provisionally acceptable and somehow still deserving of continual racialized scrutiny even now. After the first Chinese Canadian Mayor of Vancouver was elected in 2022, he felt compelled to issue a statement of loyalty to Canada when insinuations and accusations arose in the media that his election had somehow been the result of foreign interference by the government of the Peoples Republic of China. The spectacular anti-Asian violence that erupted with the scapegoating of Chinese for somehow causing CoViD-19, with elderly women being punched out randomly on sidewalks and at bus stops, may have seemed surprising and shocking to Canadians who believed that Canada had stopped being racist. But as historians we could explain how the blaming of Chinese “foreign buyers” for housing unaffordability and money laundering and even bad driving in the years before the pandemic were tools from the same tool kit of scapegoating Asians for our society’s ills.
tropes that we still deploy today about Asians as alien and untrustworthy

Or perhaps, as Denise Fong, John Endo Greenaway, Fran Morrison, John Price, Carmen Rodriguez de France, Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra and Timothy J. Stanley, point out in “1923: Challenging Racisms Past and Present”, we can show how Chinese Canadians and other racialized peoples organized and protested and resisted racist legislation, and were never passive victims of white supremacy. Fong and the others in the ‘1923 Collective’ remind us what have we forgotten—and ignored—about the efforts of Chinese Canadians and other excluded groups to challenge and protest what was being done to them, and how this forgetting continues to fuel an affect of surprise whenever incidents of spectacular racist violence sporadically erupt into media coverage.

For me, on this 100th Anniversary, I will share with you with this paper product of 1923, a CI-44 certificate.

Image Credit: Henry Yu from Library and Archives Canada. CI-44 LOW Jang Git. CI-44s for those born outside Canada. CI-45s were for those born in Canada.

CI-44 LOW Jang Git. CI-44s for those born outside Canada. CI-45s were for those born in Canada. Image Credit: Henry Yu from Library and Archives Canada.

Paper Trail exhibit curator Catherine Clement and archivist June Chow led the effort over a year ago to lobby Library Archives Canada to make publicly available the CI-44 certificates issued to all Chinese Canadians after the 1923 Exclusion Act was passed. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) released them on 29 June 2023.
Image Credit: Chinese Canadian Museum - Paper Trail exhibition 2023.
Paper Trail exhibition 2023. Image Credit: Chinese Canadian Museum.

The CI-44 certificates marked Chinese Canadians as not belonging to Canada, a perennial alien status that still haunts Canada today in the forms of racist scapegoating of Asians as the problem whenever blame needs to be found. As Erika Lee and Mae Ngai argued for the United States, and Laura Madokoro and Lily Cho have examined for Canada, anti-Chinese politics led to ever more sophisticated technocratic tools of surveillance, exclusion, and state violence that were also applied to other racialized communities. From the Chinese Head Tax Register documenting in minute detail over 97,000 Chinese Canadians who entered Canada before 1923, to the extensive CI-44 certificates generated through the Chinese exclusion of 1923 that tracked every Chinese Canadian–whether born inside or outside of Canada, the use of techniques such as photography became essential tools for bureaucratic practices deployed by civil servants in novel and innovative ways to implement racial exclusion and control.

However, as with the Chinese Head Tax Register that was digitized through a collaboration between LAC and a University of British Columbia (UBC) research team organized by Peter Ward and myself, government documents born of the technocracy of hate–the historical manifestation of racial profiling and surveillance–can also, perversely, be a boon for genealogical family history research.

With the recent changes to LAC’s website, much of the functionality of the database produced by this partnership has disappeared but I am hopeful it can be restored. I say this because Library and Archives Canada acceded to the compelling request from community organizations to share their huge cache of CI-44 certificates and other documents generated by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion. This led Catherine and her team to search in the newly released trove of thousands of documents for 100s of ancestors of current community members, including my own grandfather’s CI-44, pictured above. These certificates–combined with the stories shared by Chinese Canadian families across Canada about who these men and women and children captured in the government photos were–are the basis of Catherine’s exhibit, Paper Trail.

As with so many of those stories featured in the exhibit, let me tell you about my grandfather beyond the Paper Trail that he left in government records. My grandfather’s name to family and friends was Yeung Sing Yew, but because he had been adopted as an infant, he had to use the “paper name” of Low Jang Git so he could prove his identity when he arrived as a 13-year old on the Empress of Canada on February 26, 1923. He paid the $500 Head Tax as one of the last ones who made it into Canada in 1923 before Chinese Exclusion was passed four months later. As receipt of proof of payment in the Chinese Head Tax Register, he was No. 95821. But as with all of those captured in the paper trails left by government records of racism and discrimination, Yeung Sing Yew was more than $500 in tax revenue and a piece of paper with a number.

Image Credit: Henry Yu - My grandfather on the right, sitting with his three older brothers. All entered before him and paid the Head Tax.

My grandfather on the right, sitting with his three older brothers. All entered before him and paid the Head Tax. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

The impact of 1923 on Chinese Canadian communities was devastating. They would refer to Canada Day as “Humiliation Day” for generations to come, and the legacies of exclusion would play out over decades. When I was a young child in the early 1970s (I was born in Vancouver in 1967), my grandfather used to take me down to places such as the BC Royal Cafe and the Hong Kong Cafe in Vancouver Chinatown, showing me off to dozens of elderly men he had worked alongside for 50 years in various forms of labour, including for three decades as a cook and butcher on the Canadian Pacific Railway ship Princess Patricia. I remember their excitement when I entered the restaurant, rushing over despite their age to pinch my cheeks (which I hated), and to give me quarters and buns and steamed cakes (which I loved). Why had my grandfather dragged me again and again the ten blocks (which seemed like a marathon to a 4-year old’s short legs) from our house to the Chinatown cafes where these men seemed permanently gathered?

To be honest, I didn’t understand the real reason until I became a professional historian, when I finally understood the broader reasons why the Chinatown cafes of Canada in the 1970s were marked by these elderly men in their 70s and 80s, living out their lives with only each other as company. They were the ones who had never been able to form families. Unlike my grandfather, they would never enjoy the good fortune to have children and grandchildren. He had brought me down to those cafes to share me with his friends and colleagues consigned by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 to a life without descendants.

Image Credit: Henry Yu - My grandfather in the 1960's.

My grandfather in the 1960's. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

For many young men in Canada in 1923, the Canadian government’s auguring of their childless future—a deliberate goal of the legislation of 1923 to prevent family formation–had become their sad personal reality a half century later. After a lifetime of labour together, even as these men spent their days laughing and joking in cafes with their old friends, they spent their nights alone in the tiny Chinatown boarding house rooms, which was all they could afford. My grandfather brought me down during the daytime as a proxy for grandchildren they would never have, but he could not save them from lonely nights contemplating, as each of them inexorably passed into the earth one by one, and as the laughter in the cafes slowly died out year by year, how all of their graves would be left unvisited and unremembered for an eternity to come.

There are some losses that we will never be able to reckon, possibilities for the future forever foreclosed.

a law designed to kill the future
Even though my grandfather was one of the lucky ones able to have children, because of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, he only met his daughter for the first time when she was finally able to join him in Canada. By then, she was 28-years old. He had never known his daughter as a child, and my mother had never known a father until she was an adult.
Image Credit: Henry Yu - My grandmother in 1937-38 when she got married. He saw her by the side of a stream and told his mother he wanted to marry her.

My grandmother in 1937-38 when she got married. He saw her by the side of a stream and told his mother he wanted to marry her. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

It is so difficult for us as historians to truly give an account of something like the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. We can tell the story of what actually happened—what led to its passage, how it changed Canadian society. But how do we properly reckon for children never born, for relationships never allowed to exist? How do you give an historical account of a future that never was?

My mother knew that her parents had never actually had the time to forge a relationship. After my grandfather took a trip to China in 1937 and met and married my grandmother, he had to return to Canada before my mother was born because he needed to re-enter Canada within two years or risk being denied re-entry–a stipulation of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act.

After I was born in 1967, she made the difficult personal decision to ask my grandparents to raise me as a child, hoping that I would give them something to do in partnership that would help draw them together as a couple. My mother told me–the only time when we ever talked about this–that this was her way of trying to lessen the awkwardness of a couple living in retirement after a lifetime of never having been together. Perhaps, she feels in hindsight, that being able to have me near him would also make up somehow for never knowing her as a child.

Image Credit: Henry Yu - Chirstmas 1971. House on Charles Street near Commercial Drive

Christmas 1971. House on Charles Street near Commercial Drive. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

How do you repair a relationship that never had the chance to exist?

My grandparents hold a place in my heart because I spent the first five years of my life with them, seeing my mother only on weekends. She has never forgiven herself for her decision. I see it still in the way she treats me with slightly more indulgence than my siblings. I see how for the rest of her life she tried to make up for the cost to our relationship that she imagines–the cost to me, the cost to her—for trying to make up for the relationships her father never had. That she never had.

One hundred years later, how should we tell the history of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion? How do we reckon with the damage it wrought?

When Catherine Clement found and sent me my grandfather’s CI-44 certificate last year, I didn’t have the heart to share it with my mother. Yet. It is hard to explain, even to myself. Perhaps those of you who have known loss, who have tried to reckon with what never was, perhaps you already know why, even better than I do.

The irony of surveillance is it creates great documents.

My mother never knew her father as a young man. She knew him as I did, an old man’s face at the end of a long life. What does it mean to show her a photograph of him as a young man, a man she never knew?

The irony of surveillance is it creates great documents. The Chinese Exclusion Act created an enormous Paper Trail. They tell a certain story–of exclusion and denial, of hate and resentment formalized into the high-sounding language of law. We should all be glad that our nation’s Library and Archives decided to allow us to see these tens of thousands of documents birthed by racism, rather than continuing a century of keeping them quietly hidden from view. If they had been destroyed or continued to be locked away, how much harder would it have been to account for the effects of exclusion? How much easier would it have been for the cold noise of shuffling papers made in the name of erasure, to just fall into silence and forgetting?

How we use these documents in the present is a way of asserting a different future: A future where Chinese Canadians and others excluded by white supremacy can recover lost or forgotten histories, can revive a collective past which provides a hope that we in Canada, previously left out, can work together with others and struggle for more than a precarious, provisional belonging.

But some losses can never be restored, only remembered.

Image Credit: Henry Yu - The author and his older brother, his mother and his grandfather. Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver Winter 1970

The author and his older brother, his mother and his grandfather. Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver Winter 1970. Image Credit: Henry Yu.

My grandfather passed away in 1978 after spending 55 years in Canada. The first time his real name, Yeung Sing Yew, was formally used in English writing was on his headstone at the cemetery after he died.

I was 11 years old at the time. Even 45 years later, I can still see his smiling face in my dreams. But I struggle to remember the faces of those men in the cafes who gave me candy, those whose graves remain untended.

This Canada Day (and for those that follow), 100 years after the passage of Chinese Exclusion, will you take on the obligation of remembering them?

(Note: This article was originally published at Active History on June 28, 2023 The Rungh version has additional images provided by the author)
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Henry Yu is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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