Chinese head tax stories: Wong Dong Wong

A tale of A Simple Life in Canada
A white female writer’s search in Taishan
A tribute to her servant’s unfinished dream

This piece by Lu Wong, who reports from Vancouver for Sing Tao, appeared in Sing Tao Daily on September 18th, 2010. You can also download it as a PDF (3.2 Mb). This translation is by Shan (Joanna) Qiao and is part of a series of Chinese head tax stories.

A tale of a man much like the one depicted in Hong Kong’s award-winning movie A Simple Life is happening here in Canada. Former Chair of The Writer’s Union of Canada Susan Crean started her trip to Taishan, China last year in search of the untold story of Wong Chong Wong, her family servant for 37 years.

Susan went to Yong Ning Village, Taishan, Guangdong province last September, hoping to meet with Wong’s descendants, find his family genealogy and learn his past as an orphan.

The relationship of Susan and Wong was as close as a family. She took care of Wong before he passed away a true reflection of the award-winning Hong Kong movie A Simple Life.

Susan says she will continue to search and collect Wong’s information and start to write stories of people like him and other family servants in Canada. She wants to unfold the hardship of Chinese labourers who came to Canada more than a century ago.

Serving the Crean family for four generations

67-year-old Susan is an acclaimed Canadian writer. She remembers that Wong was 50 years old when she was born. In her memory, Wong was no different than her family members.

Originally from Canton province, China, Wong paid the Chinese head tax and came to Canada in 1911. With the help from his uncle Ru Wen Wong, he started working in Vancouver. He came to Toronto in 1917 and was hired by Susan’s grandfather in 1928. Wong started his lifelong work as a servant in Susan’s family then. He passed away in 1970 at the age of 75.

Last September when Sing Tao first told the story of Susan and Wong, many of our readers contacted Susan and provided her with useful information related to Wong and his family.

With the help from several Chinese Canadian history researchers and Vancouver friend Hou Ji Chen (Howe Chan), Susan started her trip to Wong’s birth place, a village called Yong Nian in Taishan. The only official documents identified Wong that Susan has were a piece of immigration paper issued by Canada government and the registration paper Chinese government issued to overseas Chinese in 1940.

Chinese head tax stories: Looking for the descendants in Canton Province

With the village head Jinhua Huang’s help, Susan learned that Wong’s father were died before he was born. His mother passed away two years after. Being an orphan, Wong was under the care of his uncle Ru Yun Wong and eventually followed his uncle’s footstep to Vancouver in 1911.

Wong went to Toronto in 1917. He met Susan’s grandfather and worked as cook and servant since then.

During her stay in Canton, Susan also visited the grandson of Wong’s uncle, Wen Xi Wong. With the help from Wong’s descendants and Hou Ji Chen, she found the genealogy book of Yong Nian village and Wong’s family.

On the genealogy book, it showed the name of Wong’s father as Ru Zhen Wong. Followed that line was the name of Wong, yet replaced by the character “和(he)”.

Looking at the old house Wong used to live, Susan was glad that she was able to pay the last tribute to Wong. With more stories of Chinese domestic workers to be heard, she will continue her research on this particular history of Chinese Canadian.

Sidebar I: Wealthy white family hired houseboy

According to writer Susan’s research, there were many Chinese flocked to Vancouver to build Canadian Pacific Railway between 1881 and 1885. They also created a new local industry, domestic servants. Discriminated by white people, they were generally called “Chinamen” or “houseboy”.

Most of the house servants came to Canada or America in their teenage ages. Not understanding any English, they were introduced to work at white families as cook helper, then they learned laundry, ironing, gardening and babysitting gradually at work. They managed to save some money from the meager earnings and sent back to their families in China.

Normally only wealthy families were able to hire houseboys in Canada. Hence this is one way to show the status of the family at that time. If the houseboy works well, he would be promoted from seasonal helper to a family servant that worked like a butler who takes responsibility to run the family.

Some family servants carefully saved their earnings and opened a restaurant or laundry store after they retired.

Sidebar II

Directed by Ann Hui, A Simple Life is an award-winning Hong Kong movie starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip. Ah Tao is a family servant and nanny who started working for the Leung family when she was 13 years old. Six decades passed, she has served five generations. As time goes by, some family members passed away and some immigrated. She lives with Roger, the son and the only family members of the Leung.

Although two of them rarely talk, they enjoy the company of each other. One day Ah Tao unexpectedly suffers a stroke, Roger has to send her to senior house for more care. The strong relationship between the employer and his servant is slowly unveiled.

The movie was nominated for the Best Movie at the 68th Venice Film Festival in 2011. Deanie Ip won Best Actress at the Festival and has become the first Hong Kong actress who won the award.

Sidebar III: Remembered as a grandfather

Although discrimination against Chinese people was normal at the time when Susan grew up, she looked at Wong as one of her family members and asked him to be in her family photos. Whenever Susan misses Wong, she would take out the family photo to reminisce him.

“I literally grew up in Wong’s kitchen. He was like my grandfather and I enjoyed his company very much,” says Susan.

She remembers Wong was always around when she was little and let her ride on his shoulders. She even respected Wong as her grandfather and was never shy to show her fondness and curiosity to Wong.

Susan says that Wong cooked excellent food for the family and were good at making both western food and Chinese food. His bicycle repair skills were quite well known in the neighbourhood. It was impressive to her that Wong was the type that never hesitates to offer help whenever needed.

Wong retired in 1964 and moved out to Chinatown. Susan and her sister Jennie visited him frequently.

“It was such a regret that the last time I talked to him was actually through a phone call. I regret that I was not able to see him when he died. I’ll always remember him like my grandfather,” says Susan.


The Chinese Head Tax in Canada Certificate of Registration

This article by a staff writer was originally published in Sing Tao September 18, 2010, and later reprinted in Kang He magazine. You can also download the article as a PDF (6.1Mb). It’s included as part of a series of stories about the search for the family of Wong Dong Wong, who paid the Chinese head tax to come to Canada. The translation below is by Shan (Joanna) Qiao.

Canadian writer of Irish descent Susan Crean is searching for the past of a long deceased family servant, the Chinese Head Tax payer Wong Dong Wong, a kind and influential member of her family who is still remembered [forty years later].

Born and raised in a middle class family in Toronto’s Forest Hill, Susan studied and travelled in Europe and U.S. in her twenties. She has published several books and served as Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada in the 1990s.

Wong, on the other hand, was a Chinese labourer who struggled to make a life under Canada’s Exclusion Act. Study and travel was beyond his imagination. Because of legal restrictions and financial limitations, his start in life was a one-way ticket to Canada.

Growing up with Wong in her grandmother’s old kitchen, young Susan would not have known about his past, or how terribly the Head Tax affected his life. In her child’s eyes, Wong was part of the family, and worth fighting for when other white kids called him “Chink”.

Born in 1895, Wong came from a large village called Yong Nian of Tai Shan Province in Southeast China. He followed in the steps of a great many local Taishanese who bought boat tickets, paid the $500 Head Tax, and left for a better life.

Mr. Wong landed in Victoria on November 16th, 1911. He was sixteen and started his life in Gold Mountain unaware he would never get a chance to return home or have a family of his own in his adopted land. In 1928, he moved to Toronto and was hired by Crean’s grandparents as a domestic cook.

As a trusted family servant, Wong was at the deathbed of Crean’s grandfather, and played in the park with Susan and her siblings. He stayed on duty, fulfilling his responsibilities for almost four decades, looking after three generations of the family.

Wong is there in Crean’s childhood memories, a consoling and positive presence. He kept her Grandmother’s house and cooked the meals to perfection, and kept a proper distance with his employer and white society. He was generous at Christmas, and a whiz at fixing bicycles which meant he was popular with the children in the neighbourhood. He was also reserved. He had his dos and don’ts at the house. For example he’d never discussed his private life unnecessarily, or cooked Chinese food, or brought any of his countrymen to the house — not even a lady or companion.

So far as Crean knows, Wong was single and childless. Even though he occasionally mentioned to her father that he had someone back in the village, she never saw any photos or letters from family.

She still remembers some of the stories Wong told them they were young. “He told us about being an orphan, and how once he’d lost his way in the fog while tending his uncle’s cow. He’d been terribly afraid, but the cow knew her way, and guided him back home through the night.

“Wong wasn’t by himself in Chinatown. However, he never brought friends or acquaintances to us. Sometimes, I did hope that he had a regular family life like anybody else does,” she says.

Working as a domestic servant in the fifties and sixties, Wong had a stable and decent job and it would have been possible to save some money at the end of the year. Gambling in underground casinos in Chinatown was a popular way for old Chinese bachelors to kill time. Susan learned later that Wong either sent the money back to the village, or spent it on the gambling table, for he died with very little.

“He was a very generous man. I knew he was sending extra money to China for the education of the next generation,” Crean adds.

At the age of 70, Wong retired from his work and moved to a rooming house with other Chinese bachelor seniors. “I was studying in Europe, and not able to see him a great deal after he retired. However, my sister Jennie made efforts to visit him regularly. After seeing the cockroaches and mice in the first rooming house, she helped him move to 177 Dundas St. West. That was where Wong lived for the rest of his life,” she adds.

Crean visited him every Wednesday with Jennie during her stays in Toronto. They’d hang out at some legendary Chinese restaurant — like Sam Woo ((Sai Woo was located at the time at 130 Dundas St. West. it closed in 2000.)) down the street — enjoying the food Wong wasn’t able to make at her grandparents’ house.

Wong became sick in 1969. Unable to care for himself, he spent his last three months in the hospital and he passed away there on the August long weekend, 1970 at the age of 75. He didn’t leave any written will. Jennie was the one whom the hospital called. He’d left a few hundred dollars, as if he’d figured out how much would cover his funeral expenses and a gravestone. The money was hidden in a tensor bandage that he used to wrap his ankles and legs with as he was a long-time sufferer of varicose veins. The bandage had already been cleared from the room when Jennie arrived, but she managed to find it in the laundry.

Wong was looked after by Jennie and Mr Jim Wong, a younger generation Taishanese who lived next door. Yet no family was there at the end. He was buried not far from his old employers at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The little square gravestone is hardly big enough to tell the story a Head Tax payer and the solitude he endured his entire life.

As both a beloved member of the family and a Chinese Canadian pioneer, Wong is a character whom Susan wants to include in her current book on Toronto. She talks about the hidden history of those pioneers from distant continents, people of different colours and cultures and how diversity has contributed to the creation of the city we now call Toronto.

In order to find out something about Wong’s kin and the place he came from, Crean will be travelling to Taishan, China at the end of September. She will reverse the route that Wong took when made his journey almost a century ago.

Should readers have any information on Wong or his family, please contact Susan Crean.

Sidebar: How Much Was the Chinese Head Tax?

Wong Dong Wong would not have be able to imagine the Canadian government officially apologizing for its past mistake in legislating the Chinese Head Tax. It is equally hard for us to imagine the extreme conditions the Chinese Head Tax payers faced in Canada:

  • The amount of Head Tax increased from $50 in 1885 to $100 in 1900. It was increased again to $500 in 1903, equivalent to two years wages of a Chinese labour at the time.
  • Meanwhile, Chinese were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the Federal Government collected $23 million from the Chinese through the Head Tax, equivalent to more than $1.5 billion nowadays.
  • In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. Between 1923 and 1947 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, less than 50 Chinese were allowed to settle in Canada.
  • In addition to the Head Tax and Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants, especially the men, faced other forms of discrimination in their social, economic and political lives. They are not allowed to bring their family, including their wives, to Canada. As a result, the Chinese Canadian community became a “bachelor society”. Exclusion Act resulted in long period of separation of families. Many Chinese families did not reunited until years after the initial marriage, and in some cases they were never reunited.
  • The Chinese labourers struggled to make a living in Canada. Unskilled worker’s daily wage was from 5 cents to 10 cents, while skilled workers made about 20 cents a day. Their monthly salary was between $20 and $30. The family workers made between $10 and $30.
  • Stephen Harper’s minority government officially apologized for the Chinese Head Tax on June 22nd, 2006, promising to compensate all living Head Tax payers or their widows $20,000.
  • According to the statistics made by Chinese Canadian National Council, there were over 2,000 living Head Tax payer across Canada in 1984, however, in 2006, over 90 per cent of them passed away. Only 35 Head Tax payers and 391 widows were able to receive the compensation.

(Information from the website of the Chinese Canadian National Council)


Chinese Canadian History: Mr Wong

In New Canadian Media, June 1, 2019

The story of Chinese immigration to Canada is best known for two things. First, the arrival of Chinese labourers in large numbers in the late 1800s to build the crucial last link of the Canadian Pacific Railway—the most difficult and dangerous section which required crossing the Rocky Mountains. And second, for the institution of a head tax meant to dissuade those very men from remaining in the country once the work was completed…

Read the full article Finding Mr. Wong: A Tale From Canada’s Exclusion Era here.


Mr Wong and The Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada

This article was originally published in The Toronto Star on January 26, 2011 as part of a special supplement celebrating the Chinese New Year. It’s the story of Wong Dong Wong who came to Canada as a teenager in 1911 to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Vancouver. He was an orphan with no future in China but he made one for himself in Canada, migrating East to Toronto in 1917 to work as a domestic cook during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada. He was hired by my grandfather in 1928. You can download a PDF version of the piece (78Kb).

I was probably a couple of days old when I first met Wong Dong Wong. From then on he was part of my life, someone I was always in touch with and saw regularly until he died 25 years later. My earliest memories include him, and, throughout my childhood, he was a source of unending magic.

Wong Dong Wong in studio photo he had shot in the mid 1920s in Toronto.

Example: The drawer in the kitchen mysteriously stocked with contraband goods — comics, candy and chewing gum. Example: The May 24 fireworks extravaganza he put on in the back garden attracting half the neighbourhood, the crowd expanding each year until the Forest Hill Police dropped by to investigate.

He could mend bikes, do string games and make ice cream; he played gymnastics endlessly with us in the back yard, and he took me to see my first movie.

He could save your bacon by fishing articles out of the storm sewer lost in games of sink-the-battleship in the gutter after a rainfall; but he could also make you shrivel up smaller than Alice-in-Wonderland when your behaviour crossed the line and he issued a summons to the kitchen.

The other side of this idyll, and the reason for Mr. Wong’s presence in our lives, was anything but pleasant. It was the overtly racist immigration laws of the time, specifically the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada, which condemned thousands of Chinese men to lives of social isolation and targeted injustice in Canada.

Separated from family, often too poor to return to China despite a lifetime of labour, they ended their days, alone in rooming houses.

Mr. Wong paid a $500 Head Tax to enter Canada in November 1911.

He was 16, although immigration officials at the port of Victoria decided he was 11, and entered that age in the ledger noting he was 4′ 9” in height and had a scar over his left eye.

He was born in Taishan (Toisan) county in Guangdong in 1895, and brought to Canada as a teenager by a relative who had a job waiting for him in Vancouver.

By 1917, he’d acquired facility in Cantonese as well as English, and had mastered the basics of Canadian (English) cooking. Quite probably he’d also repaid his debt. He then moved to Toronto and found work as a domestic cook which meant fulltime, live-in employment in the homes of white people. He was working for a family in Rosedale when he met my grandfather in the late 1920s.

I began researching Mr. Wong’s life two years ago, using his C.I. 36 certificate to locate him in government records.

Always in my mind, though, was his village in China.

I remember talk about his making the journey home, but it was 1965 before he retired, and he was not in good health. He had worked for my grandparents, latterly my widowed grandmother, for 37 years, and was a great deal more than a cook. He ran the household which included cleaning, laundry and gardening as well as cooking, and when my grandmother reached her 80s and 90s, he was a companion to her.

Undoubtedly Mr. Wong worked longer than he should have.

He stayed because of a promise to my grandfather, and, I suspect, because the Canadian government’s refusal to accept his correct date of birth meant old age benefits were delayed until he was 70. His last years were spent in a rooming house in Chinatown, but not alone. He became close to his neighbour Jim Wong, whom he considered a son. (It was Jim who held Wong’s photo at his funeral in 1970).

When I saw Jim’s son, Tao Wong, recently we shared memories of weekly visits to see grandfather Wong: Tao’s family went on Sundays, my sister Jennie and I on Wednesdays. For 40 years, both families have visited Mr. Wong’s grave.

Wong Dong Wong never returned to China. Almost 100 years after his voyage to Canada, I found myself preparing to make the journey “back” myself.

To write about him, I needed to see his homeland, to experience firsthand, as a friend said, “the richness that must have haunted the memories of Mr. Wong when he looked about his Canadian landscape, and, surely, longed for home.”

I knew I might never find his village, much less the story of how and why he left. Yet, six months into the project, my collaborator in China, Smile Leung, located Wing Ning village, and, last Fall, we travelled there together.

Smile and I met first with the Village Head, Wong Jinhua, who told us we would not find Wong Dong Wong in the official genealogy. Wong was an orphan, whose father had died the month he was born and his mother two years later. His uncle, Wong Wanshen, had felt sympathy for the boy, and so arranged for him to go to Canada. There were no prospects for him in China.

Wong Jinhua introduced us to Wong Wenxi and his family, the descendants of Wong Wanshen. They retold the story of Wong Dong Wong, and showed me a photo of Wong Wanshen, as well as the family’s hand-bound, hand-written record of births going back to 1875.

And there it was, the entry “Wong Zongwong born late in the evening, August 28th, 1895.”

If I make this search sound simple, it wasn’t. I succeeded only because of friends, and the generosity of the Taishanese community, not to mention the perfect strangers who contacted me after an article appeared in Sing Tao daily — Taishan County’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau included.

Christmas is the time my family most remember Mr. Wong. We bake his shortbread, improved, I think, by the encounter with his Chinese savoir-fare.

Over the years, Chinese New Year’s has come to mean something, too. Living next to the Seto family in South Riverdale for 20 years, it was Wong’s Scottish shortbread for Mrs. Seto’s dumplings at the beginning of each lunar year. In Vancouver, a few years ago, it was Todd Wong’s combination Robbie Burns’ Day/Chinese New Year banquet Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

New Year’s for me this year is a time to celebrate the remarkable Mr. Wong.

Susan Crean is a Toronto writer and recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which made the trip to Taishan possible. More of Mr. Wong’s story can be found on her website:


Chinese Canadian History: Mr Wong

This piece was published in Tai Shan magazine in November, 2010 as part of story about Chinese Canadian history, a scan of which you can download as a PDF (2.3Mb). 

This version, in Chinese includes a photo of our meeting. [On the left Liang Xiaomei (my assistant and interpreter), myself, Cheri the officer who contacted us, the editor of Taishan Xing Ning and director Chen Yao Hong.]

I am a Canadian writer of Scottish and Irish descent. Two years ago I began work on a book which will include the story of a Chinese Canadian, Wong Dong Wong, who was born in Taishan, and came to Canada as a boy of 16 in 1911. In 1917, he relocated from Vancouver on Canada’s West coast to Toronto, and by the late 1920s when he met my grandfather he was working as a domestic cook. In 1928 he came to work for my grandparents and stayed for 37 years. He retired to Chinatown in 1965, and died there in 1970 having never — so far as my family knew, returned to China.

Tracing Mr. Wong’s Story

All this time later, I started tracing Mr. Wong’s story, dreaming that I perhaps would succeed in finding his village. I knew it was in Tai Shan, but I very little about his origins; the family stories varied on the subject of a wife or children. He was very private, but when I was little he told me about being an orphan, and how once he’d lost his way in the fog while tending his uncle’s cow. He’d been terribly afraid, but the cow knew her way, and guided him back home through the night.

I began with the documents he left, which fortunately included one identity card issued in the early 1940, and largely in Chinese. Thus I was able to locate his ancestral village — Wing Ning. I planned the trip over a year, but just before I left for China last September, a story about my search was featured in the local Sing Tao.

This brought a lot of calls and emails by people who were touched by the story. Several offered help, and more than one family contacted relatives in Taishan. The list included the County Bureau for Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs which contacted me before I’d left Beijing for Taishan!

Arriving at the Village

We met first with the Village head, Wong Jinhua, in the office of Zhen Changmin Overseas Affairs director for S’anhe County. This was the first of three meetings with Mr. Wong who was generous with his time, and in helping me meet people in the village. Director Chen Yao Hong and his staff in the FOC Affairs Bureau had researched what they could in advance, and offered continued support. I was travelling with an assistant and interpreter, but several of Bureau staff speak excellent English. We were included in the dinner being given that evening to honour Albert Chen, the founder of the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, by deputy mayor Suzanna Huang. (And it happened to be the birthday of them both!)

We were welcomed in the village. Our arrival was not secret. We visited Wing Ning twice, and spent time there with elder Wong Wenxi who is a grandson of Wong Wanshen, the man responsible for bringing Wong Dong Wong to Canada. Wong Wenxi was six when his grandfather returned from Canada in the mid 1930s, and knew the story of Wong Dong Wong whose father died just before he was born. Wong Wanshen adopted the boy, and from papers the family still have relating to Wong Wanshen’s life in Canada, it seems likely he’d arranged a job for young Wong upon his arrival in Vancouver.

Meeting Mr. Wong’s Family

We met the sons and daughters, and grandchildren of Wong Wanshen’s grandson who showed us around the village and pointed out the landmarks. We met with the oldest resident, now in has 90s who remembers Wong Wanshen as a man of means when he returned, a man who looked after many things in the village.

The trip was a terrific success. I found Mr Wong’s story and met the descendants of his kin. This only happened because people found a reflection of other stories they know about and are connected to in Mr. Wong’s life. These are the stories of the Head Tax generation, an era of Chinese Canadian history when young men were condemned by Canadian Exclusion Laws to a lifetime of relentless work and solitude in Canada. Like Wong Dong Wong their lives were invisible to history during his lifetime, but their enormous contribution to Canadian life is finally becoming known.

Reference: The story of Chinese Canadian pioneers can be found at which documents the contribution of the original immigrants from Guangdong to Canada who built the critical last section of the TransCanada railroad through the Rocky Mountains to the coast.


In This Magazine, Nov-Dec, 2012.

This is the backstory to Finding Mr. Wong, the book on the life of Mr. Wong and why it has been possible for me to write it.  In the first instance, this is because of the help and openness of Chinese Canadians who made the search not just doable but successful beyond any expectation. The changes in Canadian society since Mr. Wong’s death in 1970 has meant that the close, familial association across race we had is no longer so unusual; it’s become a commonplace experience. Canadians have taken to practicing diversity at home and work, and slowly it’s become part of our identity. We’ve pride in our multicultural cities, and see multiculturalism as an ideal, a standard of tolerance and non-discrimination.

Read the article "Writing Mr. Wong" online here.

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