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Head Tax Records

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Finding Ourselves in History

Photographic portrait of a man and woman


The author's grandparents, Low Suey Fun (left) and Yeung Sing Yew, reunited in Canada in 1965

Henry Yu is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Initiative for Student Teaching and Research on Chinese Canadians (INSTRCC) at the University of British Columbia ( He is a Founding Board Member of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia (

In this excerpt from Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories, Dr. Yu reflects on the importance and power of family history, and its relation to the history revealed in official documents.

I was born and raised in Canada, and was fortunate to know as a child my Goong-Goong, my grandfather Yeung Sing Yew, who paid $500 (over a year's salary at the time) in Head Tax as a 13-year old migrant in 1923, months before Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which forbade any further Chinese immigration.

His father before him had come to Canada to help build the railroads, and his older brothers were pioneers in British Columbia who worked in mines, grew produce, owned grocery stores, and built lumber mills. He followed them in their pioneering activities, and then for over 30 years, my grandfather worked as a butcher on Canadian Pacific Railway ships that cruised between Vancouver and Alaska.

My grandfather lived almost his entire life in Canada, only returning to China to marry, and was forced to leave his pregnant wife behind in China because of Canadian exclusion laws.

These generations of split families were the direct legacy of Canadian legal racism. His own father had left him and his brothers in China as children because he could not afford to bring them over until they were old enough to work and help pay off their own Head Tax payments.

When my grandmother and mother were finally able to join my grandfather in Canada, just before I was born, it was an emotional reunion. My mother had never known a father growing up, and he had been deprived of knowing his own child-she was 27 years old the first time she met her father in 1965.

Perhaps he took a special interest in his grandchildren because of what he had missed. I recall walking as a four-year-old with him to Chinatown and his pride in showing off a grandchild to his friends. Most of them had lived a similar life, and the look of joy in their faces as they gathered in the café to play with me spoke volumes about their own missing children and grandchildren.

Some of them were able to bring their wives and children to Canada after the Immigration Act of 1967 made it easier to reunite families, but many of them lived out their days in Chinatown flophouses as lonely old men, bereft of wives because immigration policy had kept Chinese women out, and blocked by racism from having relationships with white women. I remember as a child how my grandfather would watch me as I bounced up and down on his knee, as if he were trying to capture in his mind's eye decades of memories, catching up for years forever gone.

Ironically, the same laws that kept these families apart for all those years also resulted in an unintended benefit. The Head Tax collectors kept meticulous records of who had paid. The General Registers of the Chinese Head Tax contain the names of almost 100,000 Chinese who entered Canada between 1885 and 1923. Here is the perversity of legislated racism-the government's desire to charge the Chinese the onerous Head Tax meant that they kept track of every Chinese migrant during this time period, creating an unparalleled set of records.

The comprehensive nature of this vast list of names is of great benefit to those who are interested in tracing their family history. For those who were welcome in Canada, no such historical documentation exists. If your ancestor stepped off a boat in Halifax from Scotland during that same period, he or she walked off the docks with nary a trace left in government records.

There are numerous difficulties with such a list, of course. Many of the people named in that list are not who they say they are. My grandfather, for instance, appears in the records as Low Jang Yit. My grandfather acquired this "paper" identity from a family friend, a fictive existence which he carried for the rest of his life in Canada. (Editor's note: It was not uncommon for people of this time period to buy and sell head tax certificates). The first time I ever saw my grandfather's real name in English, I glimpsed the strange shape of its letters on his headstone through tears of mourning.

The difference between Yeung Sing Yew and Low Jang Yit signals more than just the distinction between real name and paper identity. The difference is also between two ways of knowing history, of understanding our connection to the past. Yeung Sing Yew indicates a family history, a way of knowing my Goong-Goong through relations of intimacy and family, spoken through a language of duty and love. Low Jang Yit, in contrast, is written in the cold and bureaucratic language of surveillance. Is not Low Jang Yit the name written for all that was cruel and unjust about our nation's racist policies towards the Chinese? Should we not instead speak of Yeung Sing Yew, brother, father, and grandfather? Which life is worthy of being remembered and incorporated into a shared past of which we can all be proud?

The two names need to co-exist, of course, because to remember one at the expense of the other is to forget a truth that should not be forgotten-either a truth about the inequities of the past visited upon the present, or an equally true but oft-neglected story about ancestors who toiled in silence, telling their lives if they speak to us at all in the whispered voices passed down around kitchen tables and in family gossip. What a tragedy that so many of us in our daily lives neglect to listen to such haunting voices, forgetting the truths they utter until they are quieted forever.

I have my Goong-Goong's death certificate, issued after he died in August of 1978 when I was eleven years old. My mother gave it to me so that I could trace his name more easily in the records of the Chinese Head Tax Register. It sits, folded in an envelope on my shelf. On his death certificate, at least, both of his names sit side by side. "Yeung Sing Yew," his death certificate reads, "a.k.a. Low Jang Yit." I look at his death certificate, and I see not just his two names, his two histories, but all of our rich shared history, documented and undocumented, written by government clerks or spoken by family members. And so in the lives and deaths of those who came before us, we must find our common history, lest we forget some essential truth of our past and lose the ability to share a collective history that we have made together.

Note: This essay was adapted from Henry Yu's "Afterword" to Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories (Vancouver: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2006).


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