Ning (Fon) Yee
Life and Work
Ning Fon Yee was born January 21, 1891, near Toisan, in the Canton or Guangdong (廣東) province of China. A history of Chinese emigration tells us that most of the Canadian railways workers in fact came directly from the province of Guangdong. Being that slavery was abolished in the early 19th century across much of the world, cheap labour was something that Canada and most industrialized countries wanted desperately. The influx of Chinese provided many countries with the inexpensive manual labourers that they were in need of, at the expense of the Chinese workers themselves.
Another reason for the extreme emigration from Guangdong and other Chinese provinces was the turmoil that existed in China at the time. The Qing Dynasty had been in place in China since 1644, with increasing dissent from the people and ongoing decline of living conditions. Ning Fon lived through both world wars, as well as the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. She also lived to see the rise of communism in China, the ruling of Mao Tse-tung, and the extreme famines, poverty, purges and ultimately death that went along with his rule. She married at a young age, and maintained a three-acre farm on which she grew bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and eye medicine plant. She maintained this farm after her husband’s death, through the droughts and the Great Chinese Famine from 1958 to 1961, and up until the time she moved.
In the late 1960’s, at the age of 79, Ning Fon moved to Canada to be with her only son, Kimmie Yee. She gained her citizenship in 1970, shortly after the immigration points system had been integrated in Canada. A likely hindrance to Ning Fong moving earlier in life was the extremely racist system of immigration that our country had implemented: after the Chinese workers had completed the BC portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada adopted a head tax on all Chinese immigrants. The tax was originally set at $50 in 1885 because the Royal Commission determined that a Chinese labourer would only be able to save $43 annually after expenses, so the $50 fee should have been enough of a deterrance. The head tax increased gradually and was up to $500 by 1903, which was the equivalent of two years labour for a Chinese worker in Canada.
Because it was predominantly men emigrating from China to work either in the gold mines or on the CPR, Canada had a severe lack of Chinese women. In 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act was introduced, ensuring that only Chinese immigrants who were over-qualified were allowed to enter Canada. This further discriminated against Chinese women, who then had both race and gender acting against them.
Ning’s only child Kimmie, nicknamed Charlie in Canada, was born in China. He married twice and had 5 children during his life. He emigrated from China earlier than his mother, and had four sons; Kimson, Willson, Bingson, Tookson, and one daughter, April. Kimson, the only child from Charlie’s marriage to Florence, his second wife, moved to China and little has been heard from him since then. Three of Charlie’s children married and had children of their own, making Ning Fon the proud great-grandmother of eleven. She was also a great-great-grandmother, with 12 great-great-grandchildren in the family. Charlie immigrated at the time when a head tax was still being charged on all Chinese immigrants to Canada, and his daughter April recalls him speaking about having to repay his uncle the amount of the head tax. Charlie was a very hard worker, even though the jobs available to him were primarily cooking and maintenance.
Chinese immigrants to Canada often opened laundries and restaurants, as these were jobs that were deemed acceptable for them, and they were mostly jobs that the white settlers did not want to do themselves. Charlie worked as a cook at the Stanley Cafe here in Wetaskiwin for a number of years, and as April recalls, he also worked in greenhouses and fields in Calgary, and as a cook at a lumberyard. He worked as a cook in various places almost all of his life, and there were times when he was underpaid or simply not paid at all for labour that he had done. This was a reality for Chinese immigrants at the time, and one that was often difficult to face, particularly for the men that were trying to send money back to their families in China. Charlie worked hard to maintain his family here in Canada, as well as to support his mother back in China and repay his uncle for the head tax.
April Mercredi, Kimmie Yee’s only daughter, was born in Calgary, and is the individual that nominated her grandmother as a Woman of Aspenland. April is an emerging artist in Alberta, and her unique Chinese/Cree background gives her inspiration and influences her art heavily. April holds a Visual Arts Diploma from Red Deer College, has exhibited in several art shows, and has received several awards for her colourful and imaginative art. April has three children, and several grandchildren.
Ning Fon Yee was a strong woman who may not have been openly active in the Wetaskiwin community given her language barrier and her age, but she was sociable within the Chinese community of Alberta. She was very independent; she once fell and broke her wrist, and then proceeded to bind it and tie it up on her own, rather than going to see a doctor. She lived to be 103 years old, and even at that age, she still climbed stairs herself and found the strength to do some housework, although she was given much help from her daughter-in-law Florence as time progressed. Particularly in her later years, when she was admitted to the hospital, Florence took care of Ning, given that Charlie had passed away by this time. Arlene Elliot, a nurse at the time, recalls that Ning was feisty, even at her age. When she was agitated, the nurses would give her a baby to hold, and she would calm down immediately, cooing and rocking it. Ning Fon Yee passed away on May 4th, 1994, at the age of 103 years, and she was given a traditional Chinese funeral.
Compiled in 2009.
Compiled by Ashley Valberg
Sources: April Mercredi, Wetaskiwin City Archives