From the March 1, 1967 Stettler Independent “Mr and Mrs Harry Poon mark anniversary.”

The incredible story of the Poon family

Came to Stettler in early 1900s and accomplished a lot

By Alf Erichsen

I would like to thank Lisa Joy for giving me this opportunity to comment on the Chinese Canadians who came to Stettler, and especially Yick and Harry Poon.

Carson Ellis’s January 2019 article in Our Town Stettler mentioned “both of them, as well as countless other Chinese immigrants faced racial exclusion and ridicule by many in the white community.” I would like to break the white community into two groups. The largest, made up of working immigrant people, both farmers and small-town workers were racially tolerant and in large part, would not condone racial intolerance. The other smaller group was made up of the Victorian English elite, which governed Canada from 1850 to 1950, and were extremely hypocritical bigots and anti-Chinese.

The hatred of the Chinese started in that part of Canada closest to China, “Victoria, British Columbia”. The Victorian elite of the British colony had set a zero tolerance for Chinese immigration wanting to eliminate “The Yellow Peril.”

To help build the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the Fraser Valley, the American contractor Andrew Onderdonk appealed to Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald for permission to bring in Chinese workers. John A. gave the Victoria elite two choices – no railroad or Chinese workers. As a soother the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 placed a head tax on $50 on each Chinese immigrant coming to Canada.

Onderdonk would bring in between 15,000 and 17,000 Chinese workers mainly from Guangdong Province in China. The Chinese were paid $1.00 per day while white workers were paid $2.50 to $3. Welcome to Canada. Onderdonk would later testify before a Royal Commission that he thought only about 600 Chinese died in building the railroad. Other numbers, including that of the Government, put the loss at between three and four thousand. That put the odds of a Chinese labourer dying between one chance in five to one chance in 20 while working on the railroad.

In order to curtail the continued arrival of Chinese, under pressure from Victoria, the head tax on Chinese was raised by Wilfred Laurier’s Liberal Government to $100 in 1900, and then to $500 in 1903. To put that $500 into today’s purchasing power would be equal to between $48,000 and $50,000. It still didn’t stop the “Yellow Peril”. The number of Chinese in Canada rose from 13,000 in 1885 to 39,587 in 1921. Enough is enough. In 1923 the Asian Exclusion Act was passed, totally stopping Chinese immigration. And it worked. By 1951 the Chinese population dropped to 32,528.

But at a price to the Chinese community. In 1941, of the 29,033 Chinese men in Canada, 80 per cent were married with a wife and children stranded back in China.

The Exclusion Act reduced the Chinese to second class citizens. They could not vote, nor hold public office, nor own property. It limited their employment and restricted where they could live.

Which takes us to the Stettler Chinese of 1906. All natives of Guangdong, and former railroad construction workers, they were employed by the hotels doing dishes and laundry. The most senior of these that I know of was Poon Jun Wah, who died April 2, 1937. The Chinese form was to put the surname “Poon” first, but I will revert to the Canadian form and put the Poon surname last.

READ MORE: Our Town Stettler: Local immigrant first Chinese person elected to council in Canada. Came to this country with little, faced racial exclusion and ridicule but became successful

By 1909 the Stettler Chinese community had raised the $1,000 head tax necessary to bring 19-year-old Yick Fong (Sam) Poon and his cousin 25-year-old Yick Poon to Stettler. Sam was unmarried, but Yick had left behind a young wife, a daughter and infant son. They were able to rent the Astor House, a money-losing temperance hotel across the avenue from the Railroad Station and on Main Street. Here they ran a laundry service and a restaurant, The Club Lunch. The Stettler elite had so little to do with the Chinese community that they confuse two Yick Poons as one, and later The Club Lunch and The Club Cafe.

The Stettler Chinese community did bring at least two female members, Mrs. Lai Hum (1878 – 1970) and Kwan Tai Yu Poon (1909 – 1994)—a rare $1,000 expenditure to bring two women from China. Kwan would come as a young arranged bride for Sam Poon.

By 1920 the community brought Yick Poon’s son Thing Gue Poon to Canada. Thing Gue became “Harry” and started school in Stettler as a 13-year-old.

Sometime in 1921, the Chinese community had a chance to rent the Botha Hotel. This temperance hotel was built in 1910 by Herman Bertrand and was east across the street from the Hardware Store. It had been unprofitable as a hotel, and part of it had been altered by Curtis Bertrand to include a meat market “City Meats”. Yick Poon came to Botha sometime between 1920 – 1922 to operate the venture, along with his son Harry, who attended school in Botha as well as helping Yick.

Gertrude Thieme, in her Fleck Family History wrote “In March of 1924 my father came to Canada and directly to Botha. He boarded at Yick Poon’s. He paid two dollars a week for his board.”

My Great-Uncle Henry Drewes sold animals to Yick, as did many of his farming neighbours. For example, on Jan 17, 1924, he sold Yick 2 ewes (190 lbs) for $26.60 and 1 pig 123 lbs for $14.76. On Sept. 21 and 24, 1924 he sold two pigs for $8.60 each (72 and 86 lbs).

In 1928 Yick had the opportunity to rent a restaurant on Main Street in Stettler. The Poons would leave Botha and start the Club Café in Stettler. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Asian Exclusion Act would mean that Yick would never be able to see and hold the young wife he left in China. For poor Harry it meant he would never have the care of a loving mother.

For the Chinese community to enter the restaurant business after 1924 would require facing many “moral” challenges. Finally, a court challenge and a judge’s decision determined that the Chinese men were normal citizens of Canada. As a result a law was struck down that said Chinese men could not hire a white woman. No, not for prostitution – that’s still illegal, but to hire a white woman to be a waitress.

The use of the picture “Poon Yick” I find especially deplorable. A technique developed in the 1950s using the cameras of that day and their large flash bulbs to create caricature cartoon pictures. Two photographers would get close to their victim. The first would snap the flash, temporarily blinding the victim in order to get the eyes widely dilated. The second photographer would take the caricature picture. The picture would then be labelled with the victim’s ancestor to indicate where he came from. In the photo used by Mr. Ellis the victim, Harry Poon, who was normally slant-eyed is now wide-eyed. You get the picture!

As to the claim that Harry Poon was the first Chinese person elected to council in Canada, that would be nice, if true. On a national list of 52 Chinese Canadian politicians, Harry isn’t listed. It seems that it was a made in Stettler award. Maybe someone should work to get the national recognition that Harry deserves. Harry Poon was elected a town councillor on March 1, 1954.

Newsman Paul Harvey would end his radio program with “the rest of the story.” Which takes us to the rest of Harry Poon’s story. The 1923 Exclusion Act caused a life of pain and misery for Yick and Harry Poon. Harry had requested that at his death, his body be cremated and his ashes be put on his mother’s grave in China. It was a spiritual move showing his loss in the present world, and possibly expressing a hope that he, Yick and his mother would be reunited in an afterlife.

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