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Oct 14, 2002

Shui Jim Wong
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Final dignity for a homeless man: Friends seek his posthumous citizenship

          by
Nicolas Keung, staff reporter

Toronto Star, March 11, 2002

During the 47 years Shui Jim Wong lived in Canada he didn't call himself a Canadian - in fact, he couldn't even live under his own name.

But now friends and advocates for the 72-year-old homeless man, who died a pauper's death in Toronto last Wednesday, hope to persuade government bureacrats to give Wong back his name and posthumously, declare him a Canadian citizen.

They're also raising money to pay for his funeral and a headstone - with his real name - to mark his grave.

"He came here alone and had had to die here alone with no money, no family and no dignity - it's a real shame," said Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeat Asian Legal Clinic, who fought for years to regularize Wong's immigration status.

"He died as On Wong. He never got to reclaim his identity back. Can you imagine? You (die) and still couldn't be who you were!"

Wong, a native of Guangzhou who arrived in Canada in 1955, spent decades toiling in Ontario's underground economy, working for cash and forgoing benefits such as pension and medical insurance. Unable to develop the linguistic skills that would put him at ease in English, his efforts at gaining legal immigrant status went nowhere.

Because Canada's restrictive immigration laws tended to exclude Chinese, Wong entered Canada as a "paper son" - one of 11,000 Chinese migrants who posed as someone else to get in.

"Paper son" referred to the practice, common in the 1950s, of buying the immigration papers of an unrelated Canadian-born or naturalized Chinese man who died.

Wong's story, Go said, "highlights the sad legacy of the racist immigration policy during early years towards Chinese migrants."

Wong came to Canada at 26 with the help of an uncle, who represent his nephew as another man's son.

The Chinese Adjustment Statement program was introduced in the 1960s to allow those who came in under other names to reclaim their original identity. Wong applied but never heard back. Because of limited English, he though he had become a permanent resident.

For years, Wong assumed the name of On Wong to hide his identity. He worked as a chef at Chinese restaurants across Ontarion until 1985, when he was laid off by an employer in Fort Erie because he was considered too old.

Since he was in Canada illegally, Wong was not elligible gor social assistance. Homeless, he stayed in garages, abandoned buildings and bus shelters. He lost his papers in a roberry.

It wasn't until October, 1997, when he was brought to Seaton House, that social workers discovered he had no social insurance or health card, or personal ID.

Staff there and at Birchmount Residence, a shelter where Wong stayed the two years before his death, worked with Go's legal clinic in a fruitless attempt to give him his identity back.

In an appeal to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, shelter worker Michael Selnick described Wong as "an excellent candidate" for permanemt status.

Despite his limited English, Wong was assigned as a resident staff assistant to the shelter's recreation therapist because of his interest in helping others.

"He displayed his appreciation for our help to him by showing a willingness to help staff wherever and whenever he could. He earned his recognition as a trustworthy and valuable asset to our program," said Selnick.

Shelter worker Michelle Baptie described Wong as her adopted grandfather and just addressed him as "Onie."

"He was a kind and caring person, and just didn't belong to a shelter. He would go to Chinatown and pick up some broccoli for me when they were on sale. He had little money, but he would bring in chips and KFC chicken he had won at a bingo hall to others in the shelter," Baptie recalled.

"Onie started going to an ESL class last year and never missed a class. The instructor said he was the best student he'd ever had."

Despite the arthritis and bad legs, Wong was active and even volunteered to deliver community papers.

"He was very much looking forward to getting his Canadian citizenship and kept telling me he would "get his (false) teeth" first when he became a citizen," Baptie added. "Yes, we could bury him with a government welfare funeral, but we wanted to go an extra mile to get him a headstone, so he could be buried in dignity."

Wong had a wife, son and daughter in Hong Kong, but lost touch soon after coming to Canada. He also lost touch with a Toronto uncle and cousins.

Go and shelter staff are raising money for his funeral and asking funeral homes to donate services.

Donations can be made under C.C.N.E.F in memory of On Wong to the Chinese Canadian National Council, 302 Spadina Ave., Suite 507, Toronto M5T 2E7. For details on his funeral, contact Michelle Baptie at 416-392-6290.


A fond farewell to a man without a country: Kind 72-year-old fought for Canadian citizenship

          by
Nicholas Keung, staff reporter

Toronto Star, March 17, 2002

They each knew a different facet of Shui Jim Wong during his life, but it wasn't until they assembled to mourn his death that a complete picture of the homeless Chinese man began to emerge.

In recalling the "kindness and generosity" of the 72-year-old man who lived in Canada with no real name and family, they saw beyond the stark facts of Wong's life. Instead of his poverty, isolation and homelessness, they focused on the good he did during his life, and the bonds he forged at the end as he worked as a counsellor in a Toronto homeless shelter.

"Perhaps it is precisely the ordinariness of his life which made the circumstances of his death so much more compelling and tragic ... and brings us all together to understand what his life and his death mean to us," Avvy Go told 100 mourners yesterday during her eulogy. Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, befriended Wong during his last years as she pitched in to help the man fight for the Canadian citizenship he'd been denied for years.

Many of the people who mourned Wong's death yesterday didn't know about his struggle for survival until reading about it in The Star last week. But they were among the first to offer assistance to ensure the elderly Chinese immigrant received a dignified burial.

Wong came to Canada from Guangzhou in 1955 as a "paper son" - one of about 11,000 Chinese migrants who purchased the immigration papers of an unrelated Canadian-born or naturalized Chinese man who had died - during an era when restrictive immigration laws tended to exclude Chinese. He died of a massive heart attack last Wednesday.

For years, Wong assumed the name of On Wong and worked as a chef at Chinese restaurants across Ontario. But in 1985 he was laid off by his employer in Fort Erie because he was considered too old. Homeless, he stayed in garages, abandoned buildings and bus shelters. At one time, he applied to become a citizen under a federal program, but it was never followed up.

He did not have any family in Canada other than a supportive "adoptive family" at Seaton House and Birchmount Residence, where he stayed the five years before his death.

James Pong, who met Wong in the 1950s while the two were working in the food industry, was shocked when he read about his pauper's death. "I last saw On Wong in the mid-1960s. You can't help feeling sad for the sorry ending of a great man like On Wong," said Pong, who is now a director at the Cheung On Chapel/Ingram Funeral Home.

Pong immediately contacted Wong's shelter workers to provide a free funeral service. A woman also donated a plot at the York Cemetery at Sheppard Ave. and Yonge St., where Wong was buried with a headstone marked with his real name.

Friend Ken Wong, 74, said Wong was very generous and would always lend a helping hand to others in need. Ironically, Wong was a community activist in his early days in Canada, helping new immigrants from his homeland, said friend Jeffrey Wong. "On Wong helped run a credit union to help others with money problems. He worked in a restaurant for 13, 14 hours a day, but still contributed a lot to the community," said the 78-year-old man. "But On Wong was a very dignified man. Even in his homeless days."


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