His Oral Memory of Two Nations

Some of these stories are recalled by Ed Hong-Louie, Vhalleri Hohn, Ben Yee, and Janet Yee.

Interview Ben Yee as researched by Teddy Kwok

Ben Wee Foy Yee (余偉奎)

Ben Yee came in 1951 to join his father, Nin Fon Yee (余年院, also known as George). It just so happened that Nin Fon Yee was one of the employees of Louie Hong in Cluny long before Ben’s immigration. Ben said that Louie was a customer and/or supplier of Ben’s father’s restaurant, Crystal Café, in downtown Calgary. Ben recalled that the Chinese community in Chinatown of Calgary generally knew Louie Hong as a businessman who married “an Indian princess”, Nellie Hong.

There were only a handful of Chinese families with the wife also lived in Chinatown of Calgary before perhaps 1967, the year recognized as the liberalization of Canadian immigration policy. Due to the fact that there were disproportionately low of female Chinese Canadian population, that was why, for some single males or even married ‘bachelors’ may marry or be a common-law of a local wife, the wife usually was an Aboriginal if not the same race,” said Ben Yee.

Ben, the one on the right with shiny jacket, was photographed with his friend Circa 1950’s on the street as a young teen first coming to Calgary. (Photo provided by Ben Yee)
The photo was taken during an interview at his home in Calgary on September 15, 2017. (Teddy Kwok)

On May 1947, the Canadian Parliament repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act (or known as the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923). Chinese were once again allowed to immigrate to Canada; however, this restricted to the dependants of Chinese Canadian citizens1.

Ben Yee, born in 1937, immigrated to Calgary under this category in 1951, as the fourth generation of immigrants, following the footsteps of his great-grandfather (Yee Hang Wo 余恆和) , and father. However, his grandfather (Wing Tun Yee) who Ben never met was in the Philippines and killed in WWII.

Upon immigrating, he went to James Short School for a couple years, along with other Chinese immigrants. Working mostly around Alberta and one time in BC, in grocery stores, farms, laundries and restaurants. Ben then worked for his dad’s restaurant, Crystal Café, on the second block of 9 Avenue southwest in downtown.

“This was the only line of work for Chinese. Because of race, you cannot do anything else or work with other people except Chinese,” recalled Ben Yee.

During his daily work life, Ben encountered some Aboriginals, with the vast majority being males as they are relatively more educated among the communities, while Aboriginal women and children are believed to live on Reserves.

“They were generally nice, and we had ‘hi-bye’ social life. We sometimes had casual chats, but it really depended whether they were drunk,” said Ben.

Ben continued, “Even they were pretty drunk, they didn’t often create a disturbance or be a riot. They don’t make trouble.”

Locals in downtown Calgary, back in the days, often visited beer parlour before and after supper time; Aboriginals who mostly lived around downtown east and worked as day labour used to hang out likewise.

Ben recalled, “Drunk Caucasians, indeed, sometimes fooled around at our restaurant, and Aboriginal folks, who are also customers, became like a peacemaker between us [Caucasians (whites) and Chinese] as if they have such [moral] obligation.”

He believed that Chinese and Aboriginals, with similar skin colour tone, were somewhat “weak minorities” in the eyes of Caucasians, making two ethnic groups occasionally “united together” to voice out concerns when unjust incidents or oppression occurred, even if, Ben admitted, nothing much could be changed.

He said, “We could not rebel, or even so, it was useless.”

“The Indian people lost their identity, the white people took it – how do you fix it? The drink has made them forget. The Chinese culture always on your mind.”

Today, the impression of Aboriginals has been changed in the view of Ben. He said, “They likely have a full-time job and more educated. They less rely on government’s financial help. This is such a good change to society.” Ben continued, “they have to do for themselves – no one can tell them who they are. They make their own laws now to ‘block’ white people from making them lose their identity.”

Remembering my grandfather, Nin Fon Yee by Janet Yee

My grandfather came to Canada in 1921 at the age of 13 to join his grandfather; he died in 1989. I remember some of the stories that need to be told. I wished I listened more.

Sitting on a patio table on 8th Avenue Mall across from Hudson Bay in Calgary, my grandfather and I were eating ice cream. I was a child given the responsibility of ‘taking care’ of grandpa when going downtown.

An Aboriginal Man sat down with us and asked, ‘how’s my kind of people?’ My grandfather responded in a language that I did not understand. Grandpa and Aboriginal man spoke for what seems like hours, and I did not understand a word. I asked grandpa what he was speaking. He gruffly said, ‘I speak Indian’. At the time, ‘Indian’ was the term for Aboriginals.

Coming at the age of 13 by ship, my grandpa was entrusted by another Chinese man who robbed him. Leaving him detained at a port in British Columbia with nothing. He was met by his grandpa who he only lived a brief time. He did not even have money for a thread to sew his only tattered pants. However, it was the Aboriginals who helped him survive. When he was sick, no Caucasian doctor would touch him. Instead, it was only the Aboriginals who would treat him. I falsely used to think that my grandpa was bitter against the white people when he said in our Toisan language, a southern Chinese dialect, “the lo fan gree (white devil) would not touch me! They would not care – they would rather see me die.”

One day while at the restaurant, my sister said something negative about the Aboriginal people. She received a slap across her mouth; a never-ending lecture that we do not ever speak like that again. ‘Yeen Cheen’ Aboriginals were always good to him.

Towards his older years grew dementia, grandpa would often scream, yell and lecture people in his flashes of memory. I could never really ‘place’ where he was. One day, I heard him mumble in his aged and past memory, and when he started to speak of the ‘Yeen Cheen’s’, his eyes swelled with sad tears and he could speak no more.

For more about this research: Aboriginals & Chinese Then and Now

According to Library and Archives Canada:

By the early 1950’s, the Chinese were a declining, aging population. The ‘married bachelors’ had been cut off from all contact with their families for almost a decade. The 1951 census revealed a decline from 34,627 in 1941 to 32,528 in immigration numbers a decade later. Full immigration did not occur until 1956 when the federal Order in Council P.C. 2115 was repealed. In human terms, this meant that for the first time in the history of the Chinese in Canada, Chinese Canadians could sponsor adult children and aging parents.”
(http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/205/301/ic/cdc/generations/postwar/endexclusion.html)

References:

  1. Cluny and District Historical Society (1985) Memories of Cluny: a story of Cluny and the surrounding districts: Cluny, Ouelletteville, Crowfoot Creek, Blackfoot Reserve in Alberta Canada. Alta: Inter-Collegiate Press (2002, January 1) pp. 98-104, 435-437, 553, 639, 673 Retrieved from http://www.ourroots.ca/toc.aspx?id=13231&qryID=22bd4911-508c-4ba4-9198-36d62d1d2371
  2. Alberta Settlement: Book Excerpt: Louie Hong (2001, February 3). Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/pasttopresent/settlement/chinese_hong.html
  3. Voices of Alberta: Louie Hong’s Life on The Canadian Pacific Railway. Retrieved from http://changemakerbios.weebly.com/louie-hong-by-lucas.html
  4. Voices of Alberta: Louie Hong and Wong Yet. Retrieved from http://changemakerbios.weebly.com/louie-hong-and-wong-yet-by-ally.html
  5. Harvey McCue, Harvey (2015, April 22). Reserves Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-reserves/
  6. Obituaries: Hong, Henry (Hank) Retrieved from http://www.yourlifemoments.ca/sitepages/obituary.asp?oid=964102
  7. Dawson, J. B. , & Dawson, P. M. (1991) Moon Cakes In Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains Calgary, Alta. : Detselig Enterprises

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