Chinese immigrants forced to pay a harsh entry levy early last century are finally getting an apology and compensation The first night he arrived in Canada after a month-long boat journey from his southern Chinese village, Charlie Quan's cousin gave him dinner and told him the truth about what life would be like in his new country. It cost C$500 in 1923 for each Chinese person to enter Canada - then equivalent to two years' wages - and relatives scrimped and saved for years to pay his 'head tax'. In bed that night, alone and frightened, the 15-year-old knew his youth was over and his future held nothing beyond desperate poverty and hard physical labour to pay off that debt. 'I wiped the tears from my eyes with my arms,' said Mr Quan, today a jaunty, bright-eyed 99-year-old, able to walk up steep stairs with his hands in his pockets. 'I didn't have a handkerchief and I just cried and cried. I thought about my mother and my arms came up again and again to wipe my eyes that night.' For the first four years, Mr Quan worked seven days a week at a restaurant to pay back the money it cost for him to come to Canada. Every penny was counted carefully. He sent as much money as he could from his C$30-a-month salary back home to his family, who were barely surviving on rice and vegetables they grew on a farm. The unfairness of the head tax was finally recognised last week. In a ceremony in Vancouver, Mr Quan, Thomas Soon and Ah Fook Chin became the first Canadians to receive redress cheques of C$20,000 (HK$138,000) each from the federal government. Community groups have fought for decades for the government to apologise to head-tax survivors and provide compensation for the entry fee that only the Chinese were forced to pay. The money does not make up for all the long years he worked, Mr Quan said, but he was pleased he has lived to see the day when the Canadian government apologised for the racist policies that were in place from 1885 to 1923. The fee was C$50 for any Chinese immigrants entering the country in 1885 and the tax was raised to C$500 by 1903. 'Those years were very hard and I've forgotten some,' said Mr Quan, who returned to his village when he was 20, married, but could not afford to bring his wife over for another 20 years. Eventually, they had four children and Mr Quan has six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. 'But I remember some and no matter what happens, I cannot forget.' Prime Minister Stephen Harper said what happened to the early Chinese immigrants was a 'great injustice'. He was speaking at a Vancouver dinner hosted by an immigrant services group to thank him for apologising on behalf of the government for the head-tax policy. 'Apologising for the head tax was simply the right thing to do,' Mr Harper said. 'This measure from our past constituted a moral blemish on the country's soul.' By 1923, the Canadian government brought in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned almost all Chinese immigrants. That law was not repealed until 1947, when Canadian-born soldiers of Chinese descent returned from the war and began demanding change. One of those who fought and returned home to fight their own government to change its policy was Gim Wong, 84, the son of two head-tax payers. The redress is limited to head-tax payers and their spouses, so children and other descendents would not get any money and that is a wrong unacceptable to the former soldier. 'Charlie has been waiting for years and the government has finally done the right thing for him. But the government has to do the right thing for the other people, like the children of head-tax payers,' Mr Wong said. In the 1980s, Victor Wong and Sid Chow Tan, two community activists in Vancouver met Mr Quan at an event and learned he was a head-tax payer. They promised to fight for him and they battled five federal governments over the issue. 'We made him that promise and we never forgot,' said Mr Wong, the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council. 'We knew it was going to be a fight.' When the council began trying to get redress for head-tax payers, there were still 2,000 to 3,000 living in the 1980s. Only 36 surviving payers have been identified. The descendents of head-tax payers number more than 80,000 today.