Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Sidney Ming Fai Chow Tan promised his grandfather that, on his first trip back to Asia, he'd not set foot in mainland China. That was in 1967 and Tan was about to come to Hong Kong to visit the parents he barely knew and the siblings born after he had left a Taishan, Guangdong, village, as an infant.

'He was worried that I would be a smart-ass and get into trouble with the Chinese authorities,' says Tan, 59, a prominent activist in Vancouver who has spent years seeking redress for Chinese-Canadians who had to pay a hefty 'head tax' before they could enter Canada.

'My grandfather was worried that if I went back there, I would get jailed for saying things that I shouldn't.'

Tan had landed in Canada as a 'paper son'. His grandfather had immigrated in 1919, having had to pay a C$500 head tax in the process, but it wasn't until 1950 that he had saved up enough money from the restaurant he had established to send for his wife, who was supposed to be accompanied by their son: Tan's father. By then, though, their son was married and too old to qualify for immigration to Canada, so Tan was bundled up and came in his stead, with false papers claiming he was his grandfather's son. Tan officially became a Canadian at the age of 14, thanks to an amnesty for certain immigrants.

'My first steps were taken in Canada. I was China born and made in Canada,' says Tan, a former chairman of the Chinese Canadian National Council. He grew up in Battleford, in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, and his grandfather named him after the town's only lawyer. 'My first memories of Saskatchewan are the cold and being sick.'

He caught the activist bug early and remembers debating the merits of universal health care at school. After graduating from high school, he was sent by his grandparents to Hong Kong for the summer.

'The first time I arrived in Hong Kong, I couldn't believe the crowds. [It was] teeming with people,' says Tan. 'It was uncomfortable for a boy from the sticks in Saskatchewan. I couldn't [find] solitude. In Saskatchewan, I'd head to the river to fish or go gopher hunting to get away.

'I had never seen so many Chinese people in my life.'

Living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with five sisters and brothers and his parents was a hectic existence, remembers Tan.

He styled himself as a mod. The British film To Sir With Love was playing at the city's cinemas and everyone wanted to get hold of the new Beatles album, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, tension was stalking the streets of the city that summer, bringing with it riots and bombings. He couldn't wait to go home.

'I had a job to do. I had been told ever since I was young that it was my duty to get educated, learn the customs and laws and bring my parents and siblings to Canada at the earliest [opportunity],' says Tan. 'I accomplished that in 1972, when our family was finally united in Canada.'

Since then, Tan has returned to Asia just once; in 2003, to attend his son's wedding in Singapore. He may not come again. 'I look around Vancouver now and realise it's just as much an Asian city as anywhere else.'