Unlocking family secrets

Siblings’ quest to find out more about their Chinese parents’ complicated pasts. 

by Florence Hwang


In 2006, 81-year-old Nellie Wong placed a framed cheque stub for $20,000 on her end table. At the time, its significance didn’t resonate with her five children.

In fact, it was a piece of history.

Nellie was one of the 785 Chinese Canadians who received compensation from the Harper government for the Chinese head tax. About 81,000 immigrants, including Nellie’s husband, George Wong, were charged the discriminatory entry fee to Canada between 1885 and 1923. Only about 20 were still alive to receive compensation; the remainder were spouses.


Eight senior Chinese men and women pose for the camera wearing lanyards around their necks.

Nellie Wong, second from left, travelled to Ottawa in 2006 to accept a redress cheque from the federal government to compensate for the ‘head tax’ her husband, George Wong, had to pay to enter Canada in 1913. (Submitted by Wong family)


This summer, 100 years after the head tax was repealed and replaced by equally discriminatory legislation, four of Nellie and George’s five children reunited in Regina, where they grew up. They wanted to learn more about their parents’ history and the intergenerational impacts of policies that specifically targeted Chinese people in Canada.

They never could have anticipated what they’d find out.

“This was a wonderful journey to come back to see this,” said Filler Wong, who now lives in Tennessee.

At 17, George Hong Sue Wong boarded the Empress of Asia in Hong Kong. On Aug. 31, 1913, he arrived in Vancouver.

“This was a land of freedom, a land of possibilities and of, ‘He could do whatever,’” said his son Riches Wong, who now lives in Alberta.


A black and white image of a large ocean liner with smoke billowing from its three stacks.

George Wong travelled on an ocean liner called the Empress of Asia from Hong Kong to Vancouver. (Rare Books and Special Collections/University of British Columbia)


So great was that opportunity, Riches thinks his father would have thought paying the head tax was worth it.

Between 1858 and 1885, thousands of Chinese laborers came to Canada to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Then, the Canadian government introduced the head tax to discourage further Chinese immigration. Starting at $50 in 1885, the head tax cost $500 by the time George landed on Canadian shores. That’s more than 15,000 in today’s dollars.


A yellowed certificate titled

George Wong’s head tax certificate shows that he paid $500 to enter Canada in 1913. He was only 17 years old. (Submitted by Wong family)


On July 1, 1923, the head tax act was repealed.

That same day, the Exclusion Act was introduced as legislation. It nearly entirely restricted Chinese immigration and prevented many Chinese already here from obtaining Canadian citizenship. Some Chinese people began to refer to Canada Day as “Humiliation Day” as a result.

This law wasn’t repealed until 1947. In that 24-year-period, fewer than 50 Chinese people became citizens, according to Lily Cho, an English professor at Western University. Cho wrote a book about CI 9 certificates, one of the 40 types of Chinese immigration documents. CI 9s allowed Chinese people to temporarily leave Canada because they couldn’t get passports.

Families were separated for decades, said Cho.

“To talk about the devastating impact of exclusion on Chinese communities and Chinese families is to think about the incredible isolation and loneliness these communities experienced as a result of exclusion.”

Cho said there was also systemic racism against Japanese and South Asian communities at the time, but they were not targeted with the same degree of restrictive legislation as Chinese people were.


A sepia-toned image featuring an older man sitting on a little room couch, face turned toward the camera.

George Wong was an active community member, helping with local hockey teams and joining the Regina Chinese Alliance Church, where he was baptized in 1978. (Submitted by Wong family)


Not much is known about George’s life between 1918 and 1948, other than he moved from town to town, setting up businesses along the way, according to his daughter Dorthy Wong. Census records provide some clues about locales: Cranbrook, B.C., Toronto, and many places in Saskatchewan, including Saskatoon, Moosomin, Maple Creek and Moose Jaw.

Substantial documentation about George begins during his time in Gull Lake, Sask. – a town 300 kilometers west of Regina – where he moved in 1949. There, he operated a restaurant called United Nations.


A black and white photograph of a street lined with low-rise buildings. A few horse carts and buggies sit out front.

An entry from the book Gull Lake Memories: A History of the Town of Gull shows a photo of the building – the King George Cafe – that George Wong took over for his business, which he called the United Nations cafe. (Adam Bent/CBC)


A black and white newspaper ad features two women sitting next to one another eating a meal at a table. It says 'Follow the crowd to the U.N.' and 'United Nations Cafe. George Wong, proprietor,' along with the business' hours.

Early ads from the Gull Lake Advance tried to drum up interest in United Nations. (Gull Lake Advance)


Tom Frook remembers his “Sunday ritual” with his father: pancakes and sausages at United Nations. His dad would pick up a newspaper and Frook, a package of firecrackers.

Jack O’Connor, meanwhile, remembers United Nations as the place to go for chocolate bars. His mother and aunt worked at the cafe, and they told him George was always pulling pranks.

George’s children were born after he had moved on from Gull Lake, but Filler remembers the town. In the early 1960s, George took him on a road trip to his old stomping ground.

On a wet cement slab poured into an orange crate, George engraved some Chinese characters and left it at the cemetery. Filler had always wondered who that headstone was for.

More than 60 years later, he found himself back in Gull Lake with his siblings Riches and Dorthy.


Two women and two men sit on a bench.

From left to right: Lillie, Filler, Dorthy and Riches Wong reunited in Regina in August 2023. They hadn’t all been together for more than 15 years. (Adam Bent/CBC)


They couldn’t find the headstone Filler had placed with his dad all that time ago, and CBC was unable to conclude who it memorialized from documents the family and town provided.

But they were able to meet someone who knew their father.

Bernard Kirwan was 12 when George arrived in Gull Lake. He got to know the town’s 80-some residents by delivering the newspaper. He remembers George keeping chickens in his basement and being “quite a character.”


A black and white image of a young boy standing behind a large bicycle, which is decorated with streamers.

Bernard Kirwan was the newspaper delivery boy for the town on Gull Lake, Sask., in the late-1940s and ‘50s. (Submitted by Bernard Kirwan)


The Wong siblings were bursting with questions when they met Kirwan at his Gull Lake home. One of their most burning: Was their father married before he met Nellie?

His daughter Pearl Molloy, who was unable to join her siblings in Gull Lake, was assigned an essay in high school to dig into her family roots. In it, she wrote that in sifting through photographs with her mother, she found out her father had been previously married and even had a child. She also discovered divorce papers.

“My mother didn’t want to talk about it,” wrote Molloy – and she didn’t share the revelations with anyone at the time.

Her findings would bear out in George’s obituary, which says he was predeceased by a daughter named Ping Fung and son-in-law named Chan Mung Dick. It also references grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are not related to the children he had with Nellie.


A black and white image of a woman in a dress posing in a garden and carrying a large clutch and purse.

A black and white photo of a woman in a summer dress and hat holding a baby snuggled up in a fuzzy onesie with a hood.

A woman in a long coat holding a baby wrapped in a blanket with a knitted hat on.

Filler Wong found these photos among his father’s possessions. Do you recognize these people? Email florence.hwang@cbc.ca. (Submitted by Wong family)


Other documents from the family seem to indicate that George was married while living in Gull Lake. His Canadian citizenship certificate from 1950 lists him as married. Membership cards for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – the predecessor of the NDP – for 1949 and 1952 list George and a “Mrs. M.D. Wong.”


Four cards — two blue an two yellow — that say 'Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Canada' and are stamped with the word

These membership cards for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation seem to indicate George Wong was married while living in Gull Lake. In 1961, the group merged with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the NDP. (Submitted by Wong family)


CBC could not find any records of George’s marriages, at least in Saskatchewan Vital Statistics from 1940-1951, and Kirwan didn’t recall a wife in Gull Lake.

But he was able to answer a much more innocuous question: “Did he sell pies at the restaurant?” asked Riches, remembering a staple from his childhood.

“Yes,” replied Kirwan. “He had really good pie.”


A Chinese woman and two Chinese men pose with an old white man in a home.

The Wong siblings were enthralled by the opportunity to speak with Bernard Kirwan, bottom left, who remembers their father from his time in Gull Lake, Sask. (Adam Bent/CBC)


In 1954, George closed United Nations and took his entrepreneurialism to Regina, where he opened a handful of restaurants and grocery stores.

That same year, with the Exclusion Act repealed and immigration opened up to Chinese nationals, he travelled back to his home country. He ended up returning to Canada with a wife: 29-year-old Nellie Yue Oi, who was half his age. She had little formal education, according to Molloy, and barely spoke English.


A man in a suit poses in a store with packed shelves, his elbow resting on the counter.

George Wong opened Modern Grocery in 1958. He ran it until his retirement in 1973. (Submitted by Wong family)


A man, wearing a suit, and a woman, wearing a traditional silk Chinese dress, pose for a portrait.

Nellie Yue Oi Wong was born in 1924 in the province of Guangdong in China. She married George in 1954 and moved to Canada shortly thereafter. (Submitted by Wong family)


“Because we are unable to express ourselves in Chinese as much as we could in English, and vice versa for my parents,” wrote Molloy in her high school essay, “a barrier is created between us.”

The Wong siblings grew up in Modern Grocery, at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Quebec Street in Regina. From 1958 to 1973, the family of seven lived upstairs and ran the business downstairs.


A black and white photo shows two girls sitting on a couch with two boys and an infant girl sitting on the floor in front of them. All of them are dressed up.

The Wong siblings grew up above the Modern Grocery store in Regina. On the couch, left to right: Lillie and Dorthy. On the floor, left to right: Filler, Pearl and Riches. (Submitted by Wong family)


When they reunited in Saskatchewan this summer, they had the opportunity to visit their former home, now the Good Fortune Chinese restaurant.

The four Wong siblings roamed the building, retracing where their bedrooms used to be and where they’d hide to stay out of trouble.

One particular window on the second floor of the households’ special memories. Dorthy and Riches recalled begging to go to the community pool and getting conflicting answers from their parents. So, “we threw our bathing suits out, then we both jumped out the window to go swimming,” said Dorthy.


Two women and two men stand in front of a restaurant. The front is plastered with photos of meals and a large banner that reads 'Good Fortune Kitchen Hiongkong food & hambuirger'.

Four of the Wong siblings were able to visit their childhood home and parents' business in Regina in August 2023. It happens to still be owned by Chinese immigrants, who now operate it as a restaurant. (Adam Bent/CBC)


The building holds vivid memories for the siblings – and seemingly just as many secrets.

“This story of ‘Pearl Wong’s Family Roots’ will not be too in depth, nor will there be a large amount of detail,” wrote Molloy in her high school essay. “I regret to say this only because it is so difficult to research this area under certain circumstances.”


In 1983, Pearl Molloy was assigned to look into her family roots for a high school project. It was a challenge to get her parents to divulge information. She got an A, and her teacher commented ‘Tell your folks that you will pass and not to be angry with me.’ Credit: Wong family


Those “circumstances” were George and Nellie’s reluctance to talk about the past.

Cho said there’s a hunger from Chinese-Canadians to learn more about their roots. Often there are generational, cultural and language barriers that prevent these family histories from being passed to the next generation.

“I think that that’s part of the legacy of the Exclusion Act,” she said. “It’s not just that culture is, ‘Oh, Chinese people don’t want to talk.’ I think that if you live for decades as a community with very, very stringent laws leveraged against your existence, you will retreat into forms of silence – and that will carry from one generation to another.”


An older man and woman pose for a portrait. Both are wearing suits.

George, who was born in 1896, was nearly 30 years older than Nellie. (Submitted by Wong family)


When George died in 1984, he went to the grave with secrets. So did Nellie.

Before she passed away on Mother’s Day in 2020, Nellie told her children about a drawer that held “very important documents.” It contained immigration, marriage and death certificates, passports, receipts for health and house insurance, and several letters written in Chinese.

The letters had remained untranslated – until this year.


A black and white photo of a woman holding an infant girl.

Nellie Wong was just as tight-lipped about her own past as her husband was. (Submitted by Wong family)


Sitting in Lillie Wong’s home – the only child to have remained in Regina – with Molloy joining by video conference, the Wong siblings braced themselves.

The letters reveal that Nellie was previously married, too – at the age of 19. She had three children with her first husband. He died in 1950.

When Nellie married George, she left these three children in their grandmother’s care.

The letters are between family members living in China and George and Nellie, including correspondence with Nellie’s two sons, Lim Kau Sang and Lim Kau Gee. The letters include instructions on how to conduct oneself during a Canadian immigration interview – making it seem like George and Nellie were trying to help her sons emigrate to Canada.


One of the documents Nellie had stowed away was this letter from George to his brother. It says, in part, ‘As to the case of the Kau Sang brother, it’s very likely to be approved. Perhaps good news may come in a week or two.’ Credit: Wong family


“It’s reassuring to know that I wasn’t just imagining things,” said Dorthy, who recalls her parents arguing about how much money should be sent to family members living in China.

Molloy sobbed. She recalled in the last years of her life, her mother trying to walk up seven flights of stairs to look for her “little boys.” Molloy now interprets her mother’s actions as her sons “calling her from the other side to go.”

“I’m sad because my half-siblings will never know my mom like I got to know her,” said Molloy.


An older man hugs a young girl with pigtails on his lap.

Pearl Molloy, who now lives in the United States, and her father, George Wong. (Submitted by Wong family)


The two sons likely made it to Saskatchewan, as they were documented in Hospital Services Cards for Saskatchewan from 1959 and 1960. That’s the same time period they were corresponding with their mother and George.

But CBC couldn’t find any other evidence of the boys in Canadian records.


A ‘Kay, Gee’ and ‘Kay, Sang’ first appeared, handwritten, on a Hospital Services Card from 1959. The following year, their names had been typed alongside those of the other Wong family members. (Submitted by Wong family)


Filler is sad their mother never mentioned her previous family.

“It must have been in her head a lot … she said she was alone.

“God knows if they’re out there,” Filler continued. “We just hope that if they’re still alive, that they’re doing OK.”




You can read a version of this story in Chinese here.

The article was first published by the CBC News.

Florence Hwang is a Point of Presence media librarian based in Regina. She also contributes as a web writer and associate producer. She can be reached at florence.hwang@cbc.ca.





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