"... he [Grandfather] ... always prided himself that ... he never did any of the dangerous work. He didn't have to do any of the dangerous building."

- Alexandria Sham

Alexandria Sham

Alexandria "Alex" Sham comes from a family of Chinese labourers who helped build railways in Canada and New Zealand. Despite her family having a presence in Canada for 100 years, the Calgary businesswoman is the first to be born here.

Alex's paternal grandfather, Sum Yong Tai, came to Canada in 1910 from the Cantonese village of Panyu, now part of modern day Guangzhou, and found work as a cook for Chinese labourers working on the railway around Hope, B.C. He was able to pay the $500 head tax that Canada imposed on all Chinese by borrowing money from others in his village. Coincidentally, he was lent money by Sham's maternal grandfather, who worked on the railway in New Zealand, but many years before her father and mother married.

While working as a cook, Alex's grandfather also started mending and sewing clothes, starting a tailor shop in Barkerville, B.C., and then moving to Vancouver. He saved some money and traveled back to China at least twice, once in 1928 to marry his first wife, then in 1932, after hearing that she had died, to find a second wife.

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At Sum Yong Tai's second wedding, his first wife appeared during the tea ceremony! Both wives had sons - good to carry on the family name - but the first wife's child died, leaving Sham's father, Sham Won Chew, as the only son.

Alex's grandfather had to be back in Canada within a certain time or forfeit his right to return, but he was unable to bring his family with him, because of the Exclusion Act. The family survived decades being separated by the Exclusion Act, through World War II, and into the 1960s.

"It took 17 years. So when my dad was seven months old, my grandfather came back to Canada, and my dad didn't get to Canada until he was 17," says Alex. "He had no memory of his dad, no concept of having a father ever, because he'd always been away." Alex's mother and brother arrived in 1969, and Alex was born the following year, followed by a younger brother and then a sister.

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Alex talks about her grandfather ...

Alex explains about her maternal grandfather ...

Alex describes her grandfather working as a cook ...