CBC In Depth
Chinese Immigration
CBC News Online | Updated June 10, 2004

Gold Mountain I

Emigration from China was once a capital crime - because surely only enemies of the imperial court would choose to abandon the greatest civilization on Earth. In 1712, the emperor decreed that anyone who settled overseas should go back to be beheaded. Leaving China was also regarded as un-Confucian. Sons were meant to stay in the home village, to keep the ancestral graves clean and the clan's lineage unbroken.

In 1788, British explorer John Meares landed at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island with 70 Chinese carpenters he brought from the Portuguese colony of Macao. They built him a boat and then, it is thought, married into native communities on the island, their cultural traces soon lost. They were the first Chinese to set foot in Canada, and the last for 70 years.

The story of the Chinese who decamped for Canada really begins in the mid-19th century. Agricultural productivity in China could not keep pace with rapid population growth, and wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small land-owning class. The Qing dynasty, weakened by defeat in the 1839-42 Opium War with Britain, was pressured into concluding emigration treaties with Western powers.

The United States, for one, was scouting for a new pool of cheap labour following the abolition of slavery, and found it in China's pauperized landless peasantry. The migrants came mostly from the densely populated coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. They traded poverty and social unrest at home for a life of hard labour and racism abroad.

The first major wave of Chinese immigrants to North America was swept up in the gold rush. They began arriving in San Francisco - Gold Mountain in Chinese - in 1849. A decade later, California's gold veins were drying up as fast as anti-Oriental feeling was growing. When word filtered down of a gold strike in the Fraser River Valley in 1858, Chinese prospectors were among those who pursued the rumour north. They didn't know they would be allowed to work the mines only when white miners had moved on.

In 1860, others began to arrive in British Columbia directly from China. The following year, the first Chinese-Canadian baby was born.

Bitter labour

Few of the men squeezed out of tumultuous, overcrowded southeast China in the 19th century had any intention of sinking roots abroad. Called coolies - from kuli, "bitter strength" - some left China willingly, while others were kidnapped by press-gangs. But many did end up staying in the New World. As well as seekers after gold, they were builders of the daunting B.C. section of the Canadian Pacific Railway; 700 of them died in the process. The 17,000 Chinese who helped build the railway were paid half as much as white workers. This wage differential was the norm for Chinese in Canada well into the 1930s.

Chinese migrants also worked as cooks and launderers. Their reputation in both spheres harks back to the early mining and railway camps, where they filled the gaps in those lopsided communities - they could have the "women's work" and welcome to it. They toiled in fish canneries. Or they worked for wealthy white families. They often show up in early photographs - it was a status symbol to have a Chinese houseboy hovering at the edge of a family portrait.

The Chinese were tolerated when they were a useful source of cheap labour. In 1861, a Victoria newspaper was welcoming: "We have plenty of room for many thousands of Chinamen. � There can be no shadow of a doubt but their industry enables them to add very largely to our own revenues."

But in 1885, after the last spike was struck at the end of the CPR track, many thousands of labourers were laid off. And at a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, Chinese were often described as taking work away from white workers. Later that year, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese seeking to enter the country. After the railway work ended, many Chinese drifted eastwards within Canada, and some returned to China.

Chinese labourers were at the centre of a little-known chapter of Canadian First World War history. For a year, beginning in April 1917, close to 80,000 men were shipped from China to British Columbia, then transported across the country by rail and dispatched from east-coast ports to the trenches of France. One of the governments ruling China at the time had joined the war on the side of the Western allies and offered some of the labourers it had in spades to the war effort. After the armistice, the Chinese labour battalions were repatriated along the same route. In both directions, they were transported in sealed cars lest they try to "jump train" and avoid the $500 head tax levied at the time against Chinese immigrants.

Humiliation Day

After the First World War, wartime industries closed, and demobilized soldiers were looking for work. On July 1, 1923, amid a post-war recession, Chinese became the only people Canada has ever excluded explicitly on the basis of race. For the next 24 years, virtually no Chinese were allowed to immigrate to Canada, and Chinese Canadians observed July 1 as "Humiliation Day", closing shops and boycotting Dominion Day celebrations.

In this era of discrimination, many Chinese created opportunities for self-employment. Family-run businesses, such as restaurants and laundries, sprang up both in small towns and in the Chinatowns that had emerged in the bigger cities across Canada. These small businesses became havens for Chinese people, both to operate and to work in. Discriminatory laws encouraged Chinese-only enterprises - in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario, for instance, Chinese employers were prohibited from hiring white females.

Vivienne Poy, the first Chinese-Canadian appointed to the Senate, devoted her February 1999 inaugural speech to the history of the Chinese in Canada. "During the Depression, the Chinese in Alberta received relief payments of $1.12 a week, less than half the amount paid to the rest of the population in need," she said. "Despite that, many prairie farming families owed their lives to the credits given to them by the Chinese store owners in their purchase of daily necessities during those difficult years."

Depression-era Chinatowns were lonely places. Those were the bad old bachelor-community days, when the immigration restrictions prevented Chinese men from bringing in their wives and families. In 1931, there were 1,240 men to every 100 women in Chinese Canadian communities. Census data show that most of the men were married. But their wives were in China and prevented from joining them.

For years, the president of the Vancouver Chinese Benevolent Association made an annual trek to Ottawa to petition for the law to be amended. "What we ask is not an open door to all Chinese who wish to come," Foon Sien told the authorities. "Our appeal is that the Chinese Canadian may have his family with him - a complete family, not one part in Canada and the other part in Hong Kong or China." With no new immigrants allowed in and some returning to China, the Chinese population of Canada declined from 46,500 in 1931 to 32,500 in 1951.

Post-war revival

China had been an ally in the Second World War, and 500 Chinese Canadian men served in the Canadian army. The Chinese Exclusion Act - which contravened the United Nations charter of human rights that Canada signed after the war - was now out of step with the times. It was repealed in 1947, four years after the United States lifted a similar ban.

In the next few years, most of the other legislation that discriminated against Chinese Canadians was dismantled. They had, for instance, been disenfranchised during the First World War. Before he died at age 94, Won Alexander Cumyow - that first Canadian-born Chinese baby, born in Port Douglas, B.C., in 1861 - got his chance to cast a ballot. Chinese Canadians regained the right to vote in federal elections in 1947.

In the 1950s, most immigrants from China were wives and children of men already settled in Canada, and Chinese communities started to become less overwhelmingly male. But against the backdrop of Cold War-era anti-Chinese feeling, immigration policy still favoured Europeans over Asians. It was not until 1967, when the points system was introduced for selecting immigrants, that Canada began admitting Chinese using the same criteria as for any other applicants.

Changes to the immigration law in 1978 and 1985 promoted the arrival of wealthy entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They had to show a net worth of at least $500,000 and investment in a Canadian business venture of at least $250,000. The changes were introduced just as Hong Kong money was growing twitchy about the approach of the colony's July 1997 handover to China. In 1990, fully half of all business-category immigrants admitted to Canada came from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

In recent decades, however, most new Chinese Canadians have actually been middle-class rather than super-rich. Indeed, in the past 50 years, more than half the Chinese who have immigrated to Canada have been in white-collar occupations. They have tended to settle in suburbs of major cities, particularly Toronto and Vancouver. The last national census, in 1996, put the Chinese Canadian population at more than 920,000, with 46 per cent in Ontario and 34 per cent in British Columbia. Highly educated and upwardly mobile, the recent arrivals have transformed Canadian society and the Chinese communities within it.

Bridge builders

The growth of the Chinese Canadian population, and the emergence of a middle class, has led to increased political participation.
  • Douglas Jung of Vancouver became the first Chinese Canadian Member of Parliament in 1957.
  • Bob Wong became the first Chinese Canadian cabinet minister when he served in the Ontario Liberal government in the late 1980s.
  • David Lam was appointed lieutenant governor of British Columbia in 1988.
  • Vivienne Poy became the first Chinese Canadian Senator in 1998.
  • Adrienne Clarkson was appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1999.
Pressure groups have also emerged, notably the Chinese Canadian National Council. The Toronto-based organization has spearheaded a campaign seeking redress from Ottawa for the head tax and the injustices that resulted from the 1923 Exclusion Act. The issue has yet to be resolved.

Along with the influx of Hong Kong wealth in the 1980s, racial tensions surfaced, particularly in Vancouver. There was a widespread perception that Hong Kong money was being arrogant, moving too fast, driving up property prices and rapidly altering established neighbourhoods with the construction of opulent "monster homes."

But now there were voices in high places to help build bridges. David Lam, who served as B.C.'s lieutenant governor for six years and who himself emigrated from Hong Kong in 1967, called the new wave of immigrants "one of the best things that will ever happen to Canada."

"Those talents, education and experience represent billions of dollars of time and investment. We get all that plus the entrepreneurial spirit and the capital," Lam said. "We should learn to celebrate the differences, rather than merely tolerating the differences. We can turn diversity into enrichment and perplexities into strength." (Lam is quoted by Peter Li in an excellent survey of Chinese-Canadian history in the new Encyclopedia of Canada's People.)

In her maiden speech to the Senate, Vivienne Poy recalled the tensions that accompanied the arrival of large numbers of Chinese in a Toronto suburb. In July 1995, she said, the deputy mayor of Markham "made inflammatory remarks that the residents of Markham were being driven out by the Chinese and their businesses."

"Attitudes are difficult to change," Poy observed. "The difference today is that when the Chinese move in, property prices go up."

Gold Mountain II

Little is known about the individuals who have journeyed by boat from Fujian to British Columbia in the summer of 1999, but they have something basic in common with the earliest emigrants from China, who also undertook a hazardous sea voyage in their quest for a better life. Now, 150 years on, gangs are roaming southeast China, looking for people to entice with tall tales of easy prosperity overseas. They have little trouble finding takers for this seductive dream. But first the dreamers must pay – or promise to pay.

The recent "boatpeople" are not super-rich - neither, probably, are they dirt-poor. Coastal provinces such as Fujian are far more prosperous than most inland areas in China. But when they promise $50,000 to the snakeheads, as the human smugglers are called, in exchange for transport to a mythical land of plenty, they sign away years of their lives. If they make it to North America, they will work as virtual slaves until their debt is paid. If they default or die, the debt is transferred to their families in China.

In some quarters, the boatloads of prospective immigrants raised the spectre of a wave of illegal "economic migrants" washing up on Canada's shores. People who arrive in this dramatic fashion attract media attention, but in fact have been a rarity. The Chinese who landed in the summer of '99 were the first such arrivals since 1987, when 174 Sikhs from India waded ashore in Nova Scotia.

The Chinese boatpeople also represent a fraction of those trying to circumvent the normal immigration process. Some other nationalities have a much easier time getting to Canada. During an 18-month span in the late 1990s, for instance, immigration officials at the Vancouver airport expelled almost 700 South Koreans suspected of trying to enter the country illegally. South Koreans don't need a visa to enter Canada and can take advantage of relatively cheap flights. The immigration minister at the time, Elinor Caplan, said that, in all, officials intercepted almost 6,300 would-be illegal immigrants destined for Canada in 1998, mostly at airports

Chinese Canadians have been among the boatpeople's harshest critics, but some also felt sympathy. Vancouver lawyer Mason Loh told the Globe and Mail that it was not entirely fair to criticize the newcomers for "queue-jumping" - when in reality there was no queue for them to join in China. Legal immigration is only open to people with money, marketable skills or immediate family in Canada - not things that people who huddle in the hull of a ship for a long, perilous journey are likely to have.

Meanwhile, the number of people applying to immigrate legally has fallen in recent years. And as a result, Canada took 20,000 fewer immigrants in 1998 than it had anticipated. The growing wealth gap between rich and poor countries makes it surprising that more people do not either attempt to immigrate by legal means - or, if that avenue is closed to them, try their luck on a decrepit boat.


VIEWPOINT: Sylvia Yu: China-Japan conflict Patrick Brown: Policing parliament: hear no evil, see no evil Patrick Brown: Happy birthday dear leader Jacob Moeller: China: waiting for democracy Jacob Moeller: That Christmas Old Man has come to town Kirk Kenny: Have you eaten? Kirk Kenny: A look at China�s �Academic Army� Sylvia Yu: The new revolution brings smog and suburbs
PHOTO GALLERY: Xinjiang: China's Muslim West
MULTIMEDIA: Xinjiang Market Audio slideshow
RELATED: Chinese head tax FAQs Japan North Korea China's great leap Comrade Bethune


Chinese fugitive denied refugee status (Feb. 4, 2004)

Accused smuggler fights to stay in Canada (July 14, 2003)

Chinese refugees face SARS discrimination (April 5, 2003)

'Unmanageable' backlog of Chinese immigrants to Canada (March 6, 2003)

Alleged human smuggling ring found on Burnt Church reserve (Nov. 22, 2002)

Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing released (June 28, 2002)

Lai may face criminal charges in Canada (June 25, 2002)

Chinese fugitive denied refugee status in Canada (June 21, 2002)

Chinese families seek head tax compensation (June 10, 2002)

New immigration rules could disqualify thousands (Dec. 18, 2001)

Nine Chinese men held for illegally entering Canada (June 12, 2001)

Background on the pre-existing tension between China and Japan from The Hour. (Real Video runs 1:47)

PM urged to discuss human rights on China trip (Jan. 13, 2005)

China, Taiwan discuss possible holiday flights (Jan. 10, 2005)

China to outlaw aborting female fetuses (Jan. 07, 2005)

China's population set to top 1.3 billion (Jan. 03, 2005)

Chinese economic growth slowing ... slightly (Oct. 22, 2004)

China bans 18 athletes for doping (Jun. 02, 2004)

Chinese economy will boom with WTO admission: economist (Dec. 11, 2001)

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. Links will open in new window.

Basic Law

Hong Kong government

CIA World Factbook: China

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Text of anti-secession law from People's Daily
Print this page

Send a comment

Indepth Index