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Harry Louie celebrating his 100th birthday.
Harry Louie celebrating his 100th birthday.

Head tax payer harboured no resentment to Canada Add to ...

Harry Louie's father, Yee Pang, saw little of him growing up and, years later, Harry missed seeing his own children grow up.

Both were subject to a Canadian immigration policy that, until the late 1940s, made it impossible for Chinese families to reunite in Canada and, before that, discouraged Chinese men from settling in this country by charging them an onerous amount of money to stay. Louie and his father both paid the notorious head tax levied during the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th.

Harry Louie died on June 20 in Calgary at the age of 100 from a lung infection. He was one of the last - if not the last - to have paid the Dominion of Canada head tax, which was in effect from 1885 to 1923. (Newfoundland's head tax was abolished in 1949 when it joined confederation). Citizenship and Immigration Canada was unable to provide the number of remaining Dominion of Canada head tax survivors.

Despite the $500 tax, which would have amounted to four years of salary at Louie's first Canadian job, decades of being separated from his family and the unfairness of the immigration policies, he seemed to harbour no resentment for his adopted country. In 2006, he and the other living head tax payers, as well as the surviving widows of other payers, were given a symbolic compensation of $20,000 and an apology from the federal government. According to his grandson Jake, Louie did not see a wrong needing to be righted. He told him that what he had been subjected to was simply the law back then and took place in a time that was long gone. "He said 'I was so grateful that the government allowed us to come to Canada. It was worth every penny.'"

Louie Fon Hee was born Feb. 2, 1911 in rural Xinning County, in what soon after became the city of Taishan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Fon Hee was the third of five children of Louie Yee Pang and Kwan Ho (née Liu).

When he was one year old, the Qing Dynasty collapsed, leaving much of the government in chaos and creating large swaths of poverty. His father, like many of the region's men, worked on Canada's West Coast, where he would eventually co-own a restaurant in Rossland, B.C.

Money sent back from Canada allowed Fon Hee to go to school, but by the end of Grade One, for reasons that remain unknown, the remittance did not arrive and the young boy had to terminate his studies. For the next four years, he mostly tended to the goats and cows on his family's small subsistence farm.

When he was 12, his father, back in China, announced that he would be taking Fon Hee to Canada to give his first-born son a better life. He borrowed money from friends and family to pay the child's head tax. With his name now anglicized, Harry had dreams of going back to school, but they were shattered when his father, unhappy with the climate and food, announced one year later that he was going back to China. He left his son in Canada, working for his coffee shop partner.

The partner paid him only $10 a month, less than a fair wage at the time. When Harry asked for a raise, the partner would tell him that the business was not doing well. Despite the low wage, Harry sent seven of those monthly 10 dollars back home. "Compared to life in China it seemed good. At least he could earn some money," Jake says.

But his willingness to tolerate the small salary ended after one final incident. One day Harry put two eggs on a sloping counter; they rolled off and broke. The partner raised his hand and hit Harry in the head so hard that he permanently lost his hearing in the left ear.

That was the last straw. Harry contacted a family friend from Taishan who was living in South Slocan, B.C. His "uncle" hired the 16-year-old to work at his restaurant, paying him $60 a month, a wage that told Harry how underpaid he had been. He would end up working in South Slocan for two years, regularly sending money back to his family.

At 18, he came back to China, ready to meet Hui Jong Yee, the woman his father chose for him as his bride; they married later that year. The marriage lasted almost seven decades, until her death in 1997.

By 1932, Canada would beckon again and he would have to leave Jong Yee, to raise their two-year-old son and infant daughter. But South Slocan had changed and it was harder to find a job in Depression-era Canada. He heard that some people from his county had found work in Calgary, so he moved there but only found a $10-a-month restaurant job.

A year later, his frustration propelled him to partner with four other men to rent a $25-a-month store several blocks from Chinatown in what is now Calgary's Beltline district. They sold canned and packaged goods, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. They called the store Sun Grow Groceries and emphasized friendly service. Harry Louie, nicknamed Happy, offered wide smiles to his customers, often calling out their name when he saw them.

For the next 13 years, the business grew so well that the partners were able to buy land across the street and build a modern two-story building. It housed the grocery store on the ground floor and all five men, still without their families, slept in rooms upstairs.

By the early 1950s, the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished and new immigration policies meant Louie could finally bring his family to Canada. He was reunited with his wife, his son, David, his daughter, Sue May, and his eldest grandchild, Don, in 1954, 31 years after going to Canada with his father as a 12-year old. His younger grandchild Jake and daughter-in-law, Pui Wan remained in China.

In 1962, Louie sold the grocery store and moved to Hong Kong to join his grandson and daughter-in-law, where he was involved in some real-estate transactions. The family was separated again, until 10 years later, when Jake arrived in Calgary.

For nearly 40 years until his death, Harry Louie contributed to the Chinese cultural life of Calgary. He was Honorary Adviser to both the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre and Calgary Taishan Association, senior member of the Calgary Chinese National League as well as Adviser to the Calgary Louie, Fong, Kwong Sue Yuen Benevolent Association.

Louie leaves two children, five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

Special to the Globe and Mail


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