‘All Our Father’s Relations’ and the importance of stories

Last year, to commemorate the centennial of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the City of Burnaby launched its reconciliation efforts with the Chinese-Canadian community in Burnaby. Reconciliation does not happen overnight; it involves facing difficult truths, redressing wrongs, and reaching a new understanding. Part of the reconciliation process involved discussion sessions with members of the Chinese-Canadian community in Burnaby, the publication of the book Rooted, and a concerted effort by the city to listen to and collect the stories of the community and its history.

On Tuesday, April 30, the City of Burnaby held a screening of All Our Father’s Relations at Shadbolt Centre for the Arts as part of Connect Fest Burnaby.

The screening was followed by a panel with three of the main people featured in the film: Howard and Larry Grant, and Edmond Leong. The film follows the journey of the Grant brothers, Howard, Larry and Gordon, who travel to China for the first time at the urging of their cousin, Edmond Leong, to visit their father’s village. The Grants, who are half-Chinese and half-Musqueam, had never visited their father’s homeland before. With Leong’s coaxing, they agreed to travel to their father’s village and meet their Chinese relatives for the first time.

Leong was the first to embark on his own journey of discovering his Chinese roots when he visited China for the first time in 1987.

“I found China very fascinating,” Leong told the Beacon. “It brought so much emotion for me.”

At the time, Leong’s aunt, his father’s sister, lived in a remote, rural area in Guangdong Province where she had no TV, stove, fridge, or other modern conveniences. Leong did not know what to expect before the trip; would his cousins and aunt meet him? Would they know him? Would they welcome him as part of the family?

His worries were laid to rest when he arrived, and his extended family warmly welcomed him, embracing him as one of their own. Leong went again in 2003, and China had begun modernizing at the time.

“It took two or three years of talking to the siblings before anything happened,” Leong said in reference to the Grants. “They were hesitant because of not knowing how they would be received, or if their cousins would show up in China.”

A still from the film showing a photo of the Grant Family
A still from the film showing a photo of the Grant Family

The film starts with Leong finally convincing Howard to join him on his third trip to China. Howard’s brothers, Larry and Gordon, decided to come along too.

When they arrived in China, the local government welcomed the Grants and Leong warmly and even provided a bus and three interpreters to accompany them to their village.

At their father’s village, more than 50 extended family members welcomed them, and they had lunch, soup, and dumplings. After lunch, their relatives showed them a family tree book with 17 generations of the family. Leong said that Gordon, Larry, and Howard were amazed that their names were in that book; however, unfortunately, the women in the family were not mentioned in the book.

“Everyone has a story, we’re all immigrants.”

While the film follows the Grants’ unique and moving story, it is also essential to recognize the rich history and the fascinating and unique stories of Chinese Canadians in Burnaby. One example is Leong’s own story.

Leong’s father moved to Vancouver in 1937 as a young man. Leong describes his father as a survivor who got on a ship during a difficult time in Chinese history and traveled across the ocean to find a better life. As the tenth of eleven children, Leong’s father left home at a young age after Japan invaded China in the 1930s. Leong describes it as a time of hunger in China.

From left to right: Edmond Leong, Larry Grant, Howard Grant
From left to right: Edmond Leong, Larry Grant, Howard Grant

The ship landed in San Francisco, and Leong’s father worked his way up to Vancouver, where he was detained for half a year because he lacked the necessary documents.

After his release, he moved to the Musqueam reserve, where he leased a plot of land and worked as a farmer. There were around 15 farms in the area, worked by Chinese immigrants. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Leong’s father was afraid to return to China until the 1950s because he was worried he would not be allowed to return to Canada. In the 1950s, he returned to China with a young wife, Leong’s mother.

Leong remembers that relations between the Chinese farmers and the Musqueam people were good, and while his childhood was simple and they did not have many luxuries, he said it was a good childhood. The Leongs worked hard and the children had to work on the farm during school holidays.

At school, Leong struggled with the culture and language. He remembers how he struggled to write an essay about summer vacations. Other children wrote about their family trips and activities during the summer, and Leong thought writing about working on a farm would make him stand out too much.

“I had to lie through it. I said I went camping, and I went on a trip,” he said. “We tried to be like the regular kids in school.”

The Leong family moved to Burnaby in 1966 when Edmond was 11. They bought a five-acre farm in the Big Bend area, which Leong later turned into greenhouses, and he still owns and manages it today.

“The reason we had to leave Musqueam is that the lease was terminated. New houses were being built on the farmland,” Leong said. “It was a long trip to Burnaby by car, by Marine Drive, a good 35-40 minutes. Mum and Dad bought five acres. It was filled with tree stumps. We had to work at it to clear the tree stumps.”

Today, Edmond Leong lives in Burnaby with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Nancy. Their two children are grown up, with their eldest son Jeffrey, a family doctor in Burnaby, and their daughter Caitlyn working with her parents to manage the family business. Leong said his children love the farm, and Jeffrey even works there on weekends.

Leong graduated from Burnaby South and attended UBC for two years but left when his parents started aging and went to work on the farm to help his parents. His three siblings continued their education. “I always said to myself, when I reach 30, I have to return to school. But I never did.”

But Leong does not regret that decision. He loves the farm and has turned it into a successful business, Leong’s Nursery.

Greenhouses at Leong's Nursery
Greenhouses at Leong's Nursery

“At one point, the Louie family had 44 stores in the province, and we supplied all 44 stores throughout BC. I was driven to provide the plants for the stores. It was a business that I created.”

Leong said he relates to immigrants and refugees worldwide today, whose stories are not that different from those of his own family.

“We all have a story; we all have a family story. Every day there’s new stories, of families just trying to survive. And today’s immigrants, I feel for them, but I don’t know the answer. Nobody has the answer. Especially the children; you see them crossing the border into Texas, it’s hard. You see the migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Greece or Italy. It’s heartbreaking because we could be like them,” he said.

Exclusion and separation

Burnaby councillor, Richard Lee, has had a long and illustrious political career in Burnaby. Lee served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia from 2001 to 2017. In 2022, he was elected as a member of the Burnaby City Council and has served as city councillor ever since.

Besides his long political career, Lee has his own story that intersects with that of Leong and the Grants, a fascinating snapshot of Chinese-Canadian history that extends back to the early 20th century.

In May 1913, Lee’s grandfather, Kwong Quai Lee, moved to the Vancouver area from southern China to build a better life for himself and his family. He was born in 1889; he was 24 years old when he came to Canada. First, he moved to Victoria, then to the Musqueam area, where he farmed for over 30 years.

While in China, he was married to Lee’s grandmother, and they had several children, but life in the Guangdong Province was hard in those days, and as many did before him and after him, Lee’s grandfather boarded a ship across the ocean to Canada.

He ended up on a farm on the Musqueam reserve, and although he wanted to bring his family with him, they could not join him in Vancouver due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. For decades, Lee’s grandfather worked and lived alone with other Chinese workers who had left their families behind, and he sent money back to China to provide for his children and grandchildren.

“Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he got married and couldn’t bring his wife, my grandmother, to Canada,” Lee told the Beacon. Lee said there were about 20 Chinese market gardens in the area when his grandfather was farming on Musqueam land.

During his time on the farm, he was able to see his family only four times, risking only a few visits to China out of fear that he would not be allowed back into Canada. This meant the family was separated for more than 30 years. Lee’s grandmother was effectively a single mother, raising her children alone with the help of extended family, but without their father.

Finally, in the 1960s, Lee’s grandfather sent for the rest of the family. The immigration process was very long and expensive. During that time, Lee’s parents, siblings, and grandmother resided in Macau, waiting to join his grandfather in Canada.

“In the ’60s, my mother and grandmother moved from the village to Macau. My grandfather wanted to apply for immigration for the whole family. The whole family stayed in Macau in the ’60s, but it was a long process. My grandmother passed away in Macau before she got the opportunity to come to Canada,” Lee said. “We moved to Canada in 1971, my father, mother, brother and sister. In 1971, it was the first time I had the chance to see my grandfather.”

Lee’s grandfather passed away in 1974. They only had three years with him.

Lee said an important part of the reconciliation process is that this type of discriminatory legislation should never be repeated. As for what he thinks of the city’s efforts for reconciliation, “It’s a way to recognize the past and also past wrongs.”

Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon