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News from the TTA

Memoirs: Slow Boat to Canada

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Shirley T. Wong

We took the really s-l-o-w boat to Canada!

I am Jamaican by birth because my Dad, a young man in his early 20’s, saw a bleak future in his Hok-Foo-Do village after Japan brutalized China in the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945. In 1947-48, Dad and several cousins bravely answered the “Go West, Young Man” call. They spoke and wrote no English, had no previous contact with the West, and certainly did not know what was waiting at the end of their journey! They boarded a ship for a three-month trip to the West Indies and after a circuitous adventure shop keeping in the Trinidadian oil fields, Dad moved to Lodge, then Ocho Rios, and finally Kingston, Jamaica –sharing his home with a hardworking, Hakka wife, six children and several close relatives throughout his life.

Growing up in Jamaica was not easy. As a very visible minority, we were constantly reminded “Chinee nyam dawg” and told “Go back to China!” by our black, fellow Jamaicans. Social interaction with other races was strongly discouraged by my parents and the Hakka community, which distinguished us local born Chinese “Sipyit-dam-jai” (an affectionate but slightly derogatory term) from “real” China-born. I consequently carried within me a sense of alienation, however, Jamaica provided my Dad with a good living, a decent Western education for his children, unbeatable weather and, being land of my birth and where Dad is buried, Jamaica will always command a special corner of my heart.

My parents instilled their Hakka values of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice in their children … truth be told, I’m still not too keen on the “sacrifice” bit. China, however, was my father’s homeland … not mine. This became clear when Lipton (my huband) was cheated by another Chinese while Mom, Lipton and I were on a cross-China trip in 1985. It was a small sum but this incident was a pointed reminder that we were regarded as foreigners to be fleeced … and alienation reared its ugly head in my heart again.

The turbulent 70s under Michael Manley’s Jamaica sent many Chinese packing to foreign lands – Lipton and I among them. We landed in cold, wintry Toronto in September 1975, and like my birth and heritage, this move was NOT my personal choice. I am told racism lurked unspoken in 1970s Toronto but while I was often the only non-white on the executive floors at work, I never felt more at home. In fact, the only source of resentment was from a Cantonese waiter who stuck his thumb in our soup when we ordered in English – “One Thumb Soup” arrived instead of “Wonton”. As new immigrants, we meekly drank it but today, I’m happy to say I would send it back to the kitchen and leave, after raising a helluva ruckus with management … my newfound Canadian backbone! (LOL)

Shirley's Memory Boxes

As a Hakka Chinese, I believe many of us carried a packed suitcase in our heads for many years – ready to flee and continue our fathers’ journey to better lands when we’re forced to. However, after a safe 40+ years in Toronto, that mental suitcase has greatly diminished in my head … and I hope is nonexistent in my children’s. As I watch my father’s descendants mature, find partners (frequently outside the Hakka community) and increase in numbers, firmly, prosperously and seamlessly entrenched in Toronto’s economic fabric, I silently thank my father for his fortitude in starting that journey so long ago, and weathering all the unmentioned hardships and sacrifices along the way.

As I strive towards my goals of being a better artist, sometime guitarist, etc., etc. … I watch my husband revel in his monthly get-togethers with valued “bros”; I watch my son, his awesome, hardworking wife; my daughter and wonderful son-in-law persevere and overcome obstacles toward their individual goals, while my granddaughters engage in their own struggles towards maturity … and I thank Canada for our wonderful lifestyle, and the peace and freedom to make our individual goals a reality. I have also slowly concluded we’re home. I carry my father within my heart - he is in my children and his descendants, and I believe his journey has finally ended. Dad would have liked that … I’m sure he and Mom are smiling down on us!

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