Maritime Experience

Early Chinese History – The Maritimes
By Albert Lee

The earliest recorded arrival and settlement of the Chinese in the Maritimes was in the late 1890s — 30 years after their arrival in British Columbia. In one Maritime city after another, small groups of Chinese male workers arrived in search of employment and opportunities, finding work as cooks, kitchen hands and domestic help. Many set up small hand laundries to serve the needs of local communities.

As early as the 1890s, Chinese hand laundries began to appear in Maritime cities, such as Halifax, Saint John, and St. John’s (then-Colony of Newfoundland). From the 1890s to the 1920s, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants who settled in Atlantic Canada moved from Central Canada and the west coast. However, some of the earliest arrivals came from much farther away. One adventurous young man was Fong Choy. He was said to have been the founder of several Chinese laundries in Halifax and St. John’s in the early and mid-1890s.

Then there is the story of Louisa Maria Hooper. Her birthplace is listed as “China” but in all likelihood it was Macau, then a Portuguese colony in southern China. She was of Chinese and Portuguese ancestry — not uncommon among the residents of Macau. She arrived in Prince Edward Island on July 30, 1850, after marrying William G. P. Hooper (1824-1899) in 1847 in Bermuda, where he served as her Majesty’s Commissariat.4

The earliest record in New Brunswick of any mention of China came from a newspaper ad from the 1850s. It was advertising orders for tea, direct from China with delivery of goods in six months.

In Nova Scotia, my grandfather, Ngoon Lee, arrived in Halifax in 1906. At the time, the Chinese population numbered about 20. My father was brought over from China to Halifax in December 1916, when he was a nine years old. He was the only Chinese boy in the city at the time.

Both my grandfather and father each paid the Dominion of Canada Chinese Head Tax – a sum of $500 – to enter Canada. They lived on Bliss Street in a drafty, former boat shed. It was converted into the Sam Wah Laundry, which my grandfather owned.

The early arrivals would save money to assist their relatives to immigrate. Small cafes were also set up by pooling of resources from partners. In the 1930 and 40s, Chinese cafes and laundries in the Maritimes were well located near train stations or in Halifax, Saint John, St. John’s, Charlottetown and Sydney, near the waterfronts — areas with high pedestrian traffic. There were no Chinatowns like there were in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal because the Chinese were small in number and there were no restrictions on where Chinese could buy property or conduct business.

But there was one common similarity to the larger cities – the disproportionate large numbers of “bachelor men” and very few Chinese women. The Chinese Exclusion Act from 1923 to 1947 kept those who were actually married separated from their wives and children who remained in China. Visits to China were limited to a period of two years under the provisions of the Head Tax legislation.

Life was often difficult for the “bachelor men.” Language barriers and racism in local towns offered few choices of where they could socialize and find comfort. Money earned from toiling in a laundry or café would be sent back to their families in China, saved for family visits to China or for establishing a future business.

Enormous cultural differences, along with financial and family pressures, forced some bachelor men to pursue gambling or drinking. Some early Chinese immigrant deaths in Prince Edward Island were reported as suicides. Some of these early immigrants were never able to return to China, having lost large sums of money or businesses.

In Halifax, there was an interesting connection between Acadian (French) women and the Chinese “bachelor men.” Some Acadian women became common-law wives and children were born to these relationships. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and the Chinese wives started to arrive in Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Acadian wives were asked to leave with their mixed race children — a very tragic and untold story.

My father, Chuck Lee, was the first Chinese graduate from a university in Nova Scotia. He graduated in 1937 in civil engineering. Being educated and speaking fluent English, members of the Chinese community in Halifax would seek him out. Among one of his duties, before the arrival of the Chinese wives, was to find homes for the children who had been born to the “bachelor men” and their Acadian wives.

Annette Ling (Landry) of Charlottetown, who is now 83, married George Ling in 1945. Annette was from River Bourgeois, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. She arrived as a young girl in Prince Edward Island to pick potatoes. She met George Ling, who was 30 years older, and they had 12 children (she now has 23 grandchildren). George Ling passed away in 1987 and had lived in Canada for 75 long years. There was one secret he had never shared with his Canadian family: he had another family back in China. In a locked trunk that he had guarded zealously were old photos and documents of a Chinese wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A group photo, taken on VJ Day in 1945 in Halifax, was on display for several months in 1997 during my exhibit Growing Up Chinese in Halifax at a local museum. The photo showed the Chinese community on downtown Grafton Street in front of the Chinese Benevolent Association Building. Several requests were made from individuals for a copy of the photograph. When I met the five or six individuals who had made the requests, they were of Chinese and Acadian ancestry. The photo was the only one they had ever seen with their father in it. Often, they had never met their father. In most cases they were brought up in Acadian villages after their mothers were asked to leave.

For many years, I attended the annual Ching Ming with the Lee Society, which was formed over a hundred years ago. Every spring in late May or early June, gravesites of the early Chinese settlers were visited and tidied up. Flowers would be placed on the graves. Food and a bottle of beer would be offered. A clan association, the Lee Society members had family origins from the same village in China and looked after important needs of the clan: loans, arranging overseas trips and finding suitable accommodation for new arrivals. I would mention the Acadian wives and children to the few remaining elders in the Lee community who attended Ching Ming. But the topic was always avoided and the elders refused — point blank — to even discuss it. It was too painful.

About 15 years ago, I met a Chinese Acadian man in his mid-60s in the apartment building where I was living. I asked him about his background. Each time he would comment: “It was very painful when I was a child. I never met my father. I was brought up in Saunierville, near Digby, Nova Scotia. My grandmother brought me up while my mother worked in Halifax and sent money home. When I was 17 years old, I joined the army and left home.”

His story, like so many others, is a testament to the hardships and anguish experienced by Maritime families due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some of the Acadian wives were abandoned and left to raise their children on their own. Until I uncovered this story, it had gone unrecorded — a little known and neglected part of Maritime history.

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