The Choy Family Story
by Kenny Choy and Sue-On Choy
as told to John Jung
Imprisoned in China, mother and family reunites nine
years later in Canada
Canadian National Council ~ John
"They had these meetings and they used to dunk you in a
cattle trough and push you from corner to corner to get you to betray your
family or friends, try to get more money out of you." — daughter Sue-On
"Grandpa came here to Winnipeg, did not speak English, and people
made fun of his long pigtail. They gave him a rough time." — grandson
2011: BRANDON, Manitoba — 62 years ago, the fate of her people on
the brink of losing a civil war, Yook Hai Choi knew bad times would likely
befall her family.
Generations of the Choy family were nationalists in China and had been
part of the merchant class. On Oct. 1, 1949 in Beijing, Communist leader
Mao Tse-tung declared China a Communist state in his first address to the
Chinese nation. The advent of Communism in China would crush the hopes
and dreams of millions of Chinese including the Choy family.
The bourgeoisie or merchant class became the prime target of the new
regime. Their new rulers would make examples of the Choys as they did with
many others who were part of that entrepreneur class.
The 42-year-old mother of four would be imprisoned in 1951 after being
caught attempting to leave the country at the Hong Kong border. She had
already successfully smuggled her two youngest children, Kenny and Sue-On,
to Hong Kong.
“She was so desperate to leave China,” recounts her son Kenny, 13 at
the time. “So she paid somebody to take her from the old village to the
border between Hong Kong and China. She tried to cross the riverbank to
Hong Kong and she was caught in the bush.”
Her Communist captors jailed her for months. “We had no idea where she
was,” says Kenny. “They always kept members of the family there because
they keep wanting to get more money out of you.”
Although she would be released to her home village of Dae Gong, Yook
Hai Choi and her mother would be persecuted until she was allowed to leave
in 1954 to Hong Kong, her movements were constantly watched by her Communist
monitors for years.
“My grandmother was eventually allowed to go to Hong Kong but she went
through a lot of persecution as well,” explains her youngest daughter Sue-On,
recounting stories told to her. “They had these meetings and they used
to dunk you in a cattle trough and push you from corner to corner to get
you to betray your family or friends, try to get more money out of you.”
Sue-On would finally see her mother again when she was in pre-school.
It would take another four years for Yook Hai and her two children to reunite
with her husband, Soo Choy, who was in Canada. By 1958, it was 11 years
after the Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed in Canada, which the
family had hoped would be the year they would be all reunited in Canada.
“My parents had hopes we would all make it out of China by 1949, but hopes
and expectations are different. It didn’t happen,” says Sue-On.
It was in the small town of Newdale, Manitoba (pop. 265) where Soo Choy
was running a restaurant and hotel that the family would finally reunite.
Sue-On had not seen her father for nine years. For Kenny it was 11 years
and for his wife, it was 10 years since she had last seen him in China.
Prior to 1947, like other Chinese families, the family was separated
for 24 years because Canada’s 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act banned most Chinese
from coming to Canada. However, their father would make trips back to China,
as allowed under the legislation, in the years 1925, 1928, 1931, 1936,
and 1949. He married Yook Hai and would have five children, one who would
die quite young.
An older sister, Sue Sem, would marry in China and only reunite in Canada
years later. Their oldest brother Gene had been in the United States for
The odyssey of the Choy family began before the 1900s when their great-grandfather
Choy Yet Seed was the first to come to North America, landing in the state
His son Choy Him followed him in 1911 later to Canada as a merchant
and did not pay the $500 Chinese Head Tax. “Grandpa came as a merchant,
working for someone in Vancouver, learned a little English, then he ended
up in Winnipeg to be a houseboy for the Commissioner of Water Works,” says
Sue-On. Prior to that, Choy Him ran a restaurant in Ferrigan, Saskatchewan.
“Grandpa came here to Winnipeg, did not speak English, and people made
fun of his long pigtail. They gave him a rough time,” says Kenny. Back
in China, though, the country was still ruled by the Ching Dynasty and
the queue or pigtail was a requirement for Chinese to return to their home
“It’s all part of your heritage. You have to have it. It’s part of your
culture,” notes Sue-On. “White people didn’t understand it was part of
the culture just like the aboriginal people wearing braids. Cutting it
off was cutting off part of their life in the old days.”
“You have to have it,” explains Kenny. “The longer the queue, the more
respected they were. My grandfather was a teacher by profession in China.
So, he was well-respected in the home village.”
Choy Him would move to Newdale in the 1930s — a small town on Highway
16 west of Brandon in south-western Manitoba. He bought the Fairview Hotel
When their grandfather bought the hotel, it came with a beer parlour.
But a provincial alcohol law only allowed Canadians to run a beer parlour.
Like other Chinese in Canada in the 1930s, Choy Him could not be a citizen,
and had to sell the building. All Chinese in Canada were considered to
have “alien” status under the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act.
“He had to leave that and sold it, and then bought another building
and called it the Paris Café,” says Sue-On.
In 1923, Choy Him had sent for his son, Choy Soo, and he would pay his
$500 Head Tax to come to Canada. With his father’s help, he was able to
go back and forth to China bringing remittances home, despite the imposition
of Canada’s infamous 1923 Chinese Immigration or Exclusion Act.
But by 1937, their grandfather Choy Him had decided to go home to China
to take care of the family. He left the restaurant in Newdale for son Choy
Soo to run. Like others in his family, Choy Him would be stranded once
the Communists overran the country by 1949. But he engineered his own escape
from China in 1950.
“He pretended he needed Western medical treatment for asthma. He first
went to Hong Kong for a permit and got it. He came back to China with a
medical permit and in the middle of the night, he used the permit to get
out of China to Hong Kong. Then, he hid in a shack and built a stone house
in Hong Kong in the forest,” says Kenny.
There he would stay until his remaining days and his wife from China
was allowed to join him later when he was ill. Choy Him never returned
Meanwhile, his son had been running the Paris Café in Newdale
for more than 20 years by 1958. Once his family joined him, Choy Soo and
his family would run the restaurant for another 14 years before moving
to Brandon in 1972.
His children say their father never encountered the racism that grandfather
Choy Him experienced from 1911 to the 1930s.
“He had good friends, he ran a good business. He came in when he was
13. He spoke perfect English,” notes Kenny, adding his father was the first
Chinese-Canadian Master in the Masonic Lodge in Manitoba.” Dad was just
one of those guys who got along with everyone,” adds Sue-On.
Since 1919, a provincial law forbade the hiring of white women in Chinese
restaurants but that kind of discriminatory law had long been rescinded
by the time the family came to Newdale in the 1950s to help run the Paris
Café. “Grandfather and Dad ran it. When Dad ran it, he was able
to hire waitresses. Even after we came, we worked in the restaurant with
the waitresses,” notes Sue-On.
Even in her grandfather’s time, the men would run the restaurant, especially
if there was a father and son. Sue-On believes the provincial law was much
less enforced in small towns like Newdale than in Winnipeg or other cities
during the first part of the 1900s.
Kenny says when he came to Newdale in 1959 as a 21-year-old, he didn’t
experience any discrimination. “When I came here, I was able to communicate
with people, like my father.”
Small towns were a different experience for some Chinese families in
the 1950s, says Sue-On. “I fought with the boys. They did call you names,
but they didn’t really understand so I beat the hell out of them and we
became friends. It depends on who came before you.”
For the Choys, southern Manitoba has a long history of Chinese settlement
with most families coming from the Taishan region of southern China.
“There has been the Choys, the Lees in Minnedosa and Neepawa, a Yee
in Winnipeg, the Wongs and Yuens in Brandon. For our father to come to
Newdale, lots of our fellow immigrants came to this area because of him,”
After moving to Brandon in 1972, Kenny and Sue-On’s father, Choy Soo,
decided to open Soo’s Chop Suey House.
Choy Soo and Yook Hai finally retired in 1982. Father Choy Soo would
subsequently pass away in 1983 at 76 while their mother, Yook Chai, would
pass on in 2010 at the age of 101. She would be survived by four children,
11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Soo’s Chop Suey House would be run by Kenny and his wife Rebecca for
10 years until 1992. Then Sue-On and her husband Bill took it on until
it officially closed in 2002. Soo’s Chop Suey House was the longest-running
Chinese restaurant in Brandon for 30 years and owned by the same family
during that time.
West on Highway 16 on the Yellowhead, Chinese cafés and restaurants
dot the landscape on this major highway in towns like Newdale, Gladstone,
Plumas, Neepawa, Minnedosa, Newdale, and Shoal Lake. “In earlier times,
these people all came from our village, including Ethelburg, Saskatchewan,”
“It’s because of one man and they sponsored another one and would bring
them. In another town, another family would come. I know there were a lot
of Choys in Neepawa, Newdale, Gladstone, Plumas, and in Shoal Lake, there’s
one. Sometimes there’s a descendant on the wife’s side or a connection
from the past.” Today, some of the restaurants are run by Chinese families
from China, but many of them are Korean-owned now.
In Brandon, the Chinese community has expanded in recent years as employers
like Maple Leaf Foods hired new immigrants from China, Mauritius, and the
Ukraine to fill vacancies in their plant. The city’s Chinese community
has increased dramatically, composed of those families who came from the
past — the Toishanese, and those who have come recently from northern China,
most whom speak Mandarin.
Since 1991, Kenny had been thinking about some kind of memorial to dedicate
to the Chinese ancestors who once settled the community. Many of them are
buried in the Brandon Municipal Cemetery on 18th Street South, including
“Some of the graves have been about 100 years old. A 23-year-old young
man came here, must have got a disease, then died. Nobody ever has put
incense and flowers, so we started that again. Many of our relatives are
buried there,” notes Kenny.
Every year during Ching Ming (Qing Ming in China) time from April to
June, the Chinese community would go to the cemetery and honour those who
had passed with incense, flowers, and food offerings. Ching Ming or Clear
Brightness Festival is a traditional Chinese festival observed to pay tribute
to ancestors by mourning the dead and visiting their graves. It’s also
a chance to attend and clean up the graves of relatives. It is still observed
throughout Chinese communities in Canada and in other Asian countries.
As Ching Ming observances grew with more and more Chinese coming to
the Brandon cemetery, there was a need to bring people together after private
observances at the cemetery. Each year, a banquet is now held at a local
restaurant for all Chinese in Brandon during Ching Ming time.
For Kenny, however, more was needed to honour the history of the people
who were part of the Chinese community in Brandon. “We needed something
to remind the new immigrants and to remind the young Chinese people that
are coming up in the next generation to remember what kind of sacrifices
were made by their ancestors. It’s because of their ancestors they had
the opportunity to come,” notes Kenny.
Sue-On, who teaches at Brandon University, says there is no curriculum
or resource material in Manitoba on the Chinese-Canadian experience or
history of the community in high school. Not one of her students knew anything
about the history of Chinese in Canada. “They knew nothing about our history.
They had no idea about the Head Tax,” she says.
Kenny’s idea would become a practical plan to build the first Head Tax
Monument in Canada. And the formation of the Westman Chinese Association
in Manitoba in 2007.
The end result was an 8-foot-diameter bronze Chinese coin, depicting
different eras of the Chinese-Canadian settlement and history in Canada
and in Brandon. It would be unveiled officially at Brandon Municipal Cemetery
on June 26, 2011, attracting hundreds of local residents from the area
and many more from outside since.
Noted sculptor Peter Sawatzky would be commissioned to produce the coin,
which has a marble granite base footing. “The reason we had marble granite
was that the Chinese worked hard and established themselves as contributing
citizens. Marble probably came from China, but it represents a black period
in our history,” says Kenny.
Mr. Sawatzky thought the concept of a coin would be appropriate because
during the time that the Chinese were coming to Canada, the Ching Dynasty
ruled China and the bronze coin was used as currency during that period.
“Everything with this monument has a meaning. It’s a symbol. The reason
for the coin is the money when the Chinese first came to Canada. The reason
we came here was to make money. And to help our families in China,” says
There are also etchings on the coin, depicting different periods of
time for Chinese Canadians — the gold mine era, building the Canadian Pacific
Railway, the Head Tax years, the Exclusion era, the repeal of the Chinese
Exclusion Act, and later the advent of technology as Chinese become more
successful and are allowed to pursue professional work in Canada.
A laundry and Soo’s restaurant are also on the coin representing the
only ways early Chinese could earn a living in Canada, as is an immigration
officer collecting the Head Tax.
The coin was struck in Montana and was shipped up to Brandon, taking
a year to build. Including volunteer time, Kenny says the cost of the project
amounted to about $160,000. The Choy family donated money, as did local
people like the Rotary Club and other Chinese-Canadian families affected
by the Head Tax. Kenny was also able to receive federal grant funds under
the Community Historical Recognition Program. The city of Brandon donated
the land and the provincial government helped in ensuring the project was
completed. The calligraphy in Chinese was done by a new immigrant. It means:
“In remembrance of our ancestors.”
The Chinese Head Tax Monument is pointed to the northeast, towards China,
once the homeland of all the Chinese people who came to Canada. There is
a place for visitors to put incense and offerings.
“It’s not only for Chinese people but also for Canadians, and a point
of interest for tourists. They’re learning about history. There‘s nothing
like this in Canada. It‘s a lasting monument,” notes Sue-On.
“People don’t know about the Head Tax. Lots of people know about it
now,” observes Kenny. “I didn’t want a headstone, I wanted a piece of art
that would last.”
For the Choy family, their history in rural Manitoba is part of a long
lineage of Chinese-Canadian settlement in Western Canada that only many
residents and other Canadians are beginning to understand and appreciate.
An 8 ft. Chinese coin will preserve that collective legacy for generations