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Laundry Worker

Sam Wing, Innisfail laundry, Innisfail, Alberta, 1904. I was born in Canton, China, in 1889. My family made their living by cultivating the land with cows and growing crops of grain twice a year. I never attended school. In 1909, at twenty years of age, I was married in China. We had four children, but our elder daughter and son died many years ago.

In 1914 I decided to move to Canada in order to make more money. My brother lent me $500 to pay the head tax. When I was on my way to meet the ship which was to take me to Canada, I met a Chinese fellow who tried to convince me to stay in China. He said that there were a lot of Chinese Canadians who were unemployed and starving. Many of these people were committing suicide, he said. Because I had already invested money in the trip, I ignored his warnings.

In May 1914 I left China aboard one of Canadian Pacific's famous Empress liners. If I had waited until August 1914, I could not have emigrated because World War One would have prevented it. I wore Chinese clothes and shoes but had had my pigtail cut off when I sailed for Canada. I brought some Chinese herbs and coins with me. I paid fifty dollars to get a seat on the deck of the ship. For first class, you had to pay several hundred dollars.

After arriving in Vancouver I boarded a train to Calgary, where I lived and worked in a laundry in Chinatown. The rent of a a laundry then was about forty-five to fifty dollars a month; however, after World War One began the economy worsened, and the rent was reduced to fifteen dollars a month.

When the War began I lost my job and moved to Banff, where I worked at miscellaneous jobs for a month. I earned approximately twenty dollars; then, I was unemployed for three months and used up all of my savings.

Fortunately, I got a job in Calgary at William's Laundry, where I worked for twenty years. Since there was no hot water, I had to boil water in order to clean clothes. I scrubbed all the clothes with my bare hands. As a result, my hands had far too much contact with soap and washing-soda. They always had blisters and bled.

During the Great Depression, many Chinese Canadians in Alberta were unemployed and starved. The government didn't look after Canadians through programs such as unemployment insurance, and, as a result, many destitute and desperate Chinese in Calgary and elsewhere committed suicide. I only survived because of money sent to me by my brother in China.

When the economy finally improved, I got back my job at William's Laundry. I stayed there until I turned sixty-three years old, when I was forced to retire because of failing health.

Although I came to Canada in order to earn more money than I could have in China, I never made much money here. For many years I lived without a radio, telephone, or television because I couldn't afford them. Also, I rarely attended the Chinese United Church because I did not have the few dollars that members were expected to contribute to the church.

Chinatown has always been the centre of Chinese community life. There were some Chinese doctors in Chinatown many years ago, but they didn't have Canadian licenses. Only a few Chinese saw them; they were given herbal and other traditional remedies. In the early days there were no community-wide Chinese organization in Calgary, nor were there Chinese lion or dragon dances. We had Chinese newspapers to read and could purchase Chinese food very cheaply.

We spent a great deal of our spare time playing cards. Mah-jong, which uses tiles, was only recently introduced in Chinatown. Because it was illegal to gamble, various pillars and special doors were installed in Chinese gambling casinos to prevent squads of policemen from easily raiding our premises.

Reprinted from The Chinese Experience In Canada: Life Stories From the Late 1800s to Today by J. Brian Dawson and Nicholas Ting with permission of the authors.

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