WONG, Gim Foon
December 28, 1922 – July 29, 2013
Gim Foon Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown and grew up during the economic depression. Wong is a Second World War veteran and had represented Chinese Canadian veterans at a commemoration in France. Wong is also a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.
In 2004, at the age of 82, Wong had led “Ride for Redress” – a movement to call on the Harper government to right the unjust of the Chinese immigrant head tax from 1885 to 1923 and the Exclusion Tax of 1923-1947. In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the historic apology to the Chinese Canadian communities and created ex-gratia payments.
In 1885, Chinese men began to migrate to Canada to work on the Pacific Railway. These men worked on the most treacherous portions over the Rockies, yet they were paid only half of the wages. The death rate was 4 Chinese men per 1 mile of the railway track. Until 1923, Chinese immigrants had to pay a $500 head tax – 2 years of income for an average white man.
The Exclusion act of 1923-1947 was an ethnic cleansing period. The restriction was only put on marginalized, impoverished workers and their families. Those who are considered as temporary residents such as diplomats, students and merchants were still able to come into Canada and were exempt from the head tax.
Wong’s parents were from China. His dad came first in 1906 at the age of 15. Due to the $500 head tax, his mother had to wait for 13 years until his father saved enough to be able to bring her over. His mother was fortunate enough to land in Canada before the Exclusion Act in 1923 that restricted Chinese immigration. For 25 years, families were separated. Some reunited after 1947, but some were permanently left behind.
Like many Chinese families during the Great Depression, Wong and his family lived in impoverished conditions that were not even close to subsistence level. Despite these challenging circumstances, Chinese workers saved every penny they could to pay back the money they had borrow for their settlement in Canada. They accepted half of the wages of white workers and walked long miles to save trolley fare.
Wong was forgiving about the head tax. However, in the years of Second World War, Wong’s “alien” status during his military service was insulting. He joined the military in 1943 and became an air gunner of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1944. Wong wanted to show his loyalty to his country, but he was not considered as a Canadian citizen during his service. Wong told Vancouver Observer, his status was “alien” with “ally” in brackets.
Wong’s loyalty to Canada was not undermined by the racist atmosphere that prevailed, but he certainly faced his share of difficulties. Wong had trouble bringing his wife to Canada from Hong Kong. His wife, Mui Jan was declared as Communist because she had attended a Communist school for two years. She was denied immigration papers until Wong and their MP had fought for the case and achieved victory.
Regardless of the difficulties and the injustice he encountered, Wong was understanding, given the social hysteria during that time. He was dedicated to fight for his rights, to achieve recognition and equality and to right the wrongs in Canadian history.