Jonathan Lee

Chinese Canadians: A Story of Hardship and Success by Jonathan Lee

The Chinese in Canada are an important part of our nation’s history and heritage. Since the early years of immigration, the Chinese have been treated with extreme racism and disrespect, with no thanks given for their contributions to Canada. Many Chinese men worked to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were treated with racist acts during their lives in Canada. They paid racist Head Taxes. Many could not enter the nation to join their family due to exclusion. Families were separated when men left to find work and a new life in a new country.

Rioters vandalized honest businesses and beat up the Chinese.

The successes of the Chinese have shaped the diversity of our nation, and the legacy that they have today. All of these past events and experiences have become a part of our heritage and history as Canadian citizens. But it is one of the least known chapters — of the years from racism to success.

The first known report of Chinese people in Canada documents 50 Chinese artisans who came to Vancouver Island with Captain John Meares to build a trading post in 1788. The first boom of Chinese immigration occurred in 1858 during the gold rush in the Fraser River when many men came gold prospecting and seeking a fortune. After the end of the gold rush, many Chinese workers tried to find jobs to stay in Canada and start a better life. They hoped to eventually bring their families over to escape poverty in China. Many found jobs in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

During the time period of 1800 and 1885, around 15,000 Chinese men came to British Columbia to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese workers were put into the dangerous jobs, such as planting explosives and carrying large rocks. Many workers were killed due to dynamite blasts. Others died from diseases because they were not given medical attention. Some suffered from scurvy. Because of their low salaries, they could not live in good housing; instead, they lived in canvas tents that gave them minimal protection from weather and landslides. Many deaths occurred due to disease, fires, and work accidents. The families of these workers were not notified of the death of their loved ones, and waited for a return that would never come. It has been said, that for every mile of track, there is at least one dead Chinese man.

The Chinese were forced to work with less pay. When the pay for a Caucasian man was $2.50, a Chinese man’s pay was $1.00. This low pay was the cause for scurvy because they could not afford fresh fruit. Low pay was also the cause for the poor shelter. Many Chinese workers never earned enough money to go back home by the time the railway was built. Its completion was marked with the driving of the last spike by Donald Smith. Chinese workers were not invited to this historic event even though they did most of the dangerous work. Some of the old Chinese workers have said that it was Chinese workers who drove the last spike. The railway could not have been built without the Chinese.

In 1885, now that the railway was completed, the Chinese were not needed as “cheap labour.” Chinese labourers also had to compete with Caucasian workers to get new jobs. The Chinese were paid less than the Caucasian males for the same work. The work quality and the fact that they could be paid less became an incentive for hiring Chinese workers.

Caucasian men were outraged that their jobs were going to “aliens.” They pressured the government to do something about Chinese immigration. The Canadian government created the Head Tax for all Chinese people who wanted to come to Canada. During the settlement of the West, land was offered for free as an incentive for immigration of white settlers. The Chinese, on the other hand, had to pay for their entry. The Head Tax started with a charge of $50 in 1885 to discourage Chinese immigration. In 1900, it was increased to $100.

At that time, it would have taken many years for the Chinese, usually poor farmers, to get that amount of money in China. The irony is that the point of moving to Canada was to evade poverty and start a prosperous life. Villagers and farmers back in China who wanted to come to a prosperous and peaceful nation could not afford to come. Many died from attacks on their villages during the civil wars and Sino-Japanese War. They could have been saved if they had made it into our country.

In Canada, the Chinese struggled to save money. The goal was to work and save enough money to bring over the family or to go home. The men worked long hours making $1 per hour if they worked for someone else. Small business owners, such as laundrymen and grocers, on the other hand, could spare more money to send back to their families.

The Head Tax was increased to $500 in 1903 because Chinese people still kept coming into the country. By then, the Head Tax was worth about two years’ pay. Because many men could not afford to bring their families to Canada, they never saw them again. In the Chinese culture, family is everything. Not being able to see their family again was devastating.

Although the Head Tax discouraged many Chinese people from coming, it was not considered effective enough. As a result, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 to ban all Chinese immigration. By this time, a total of $23 million had been collected from the Chinese immigrants for the Head Tax. As racist as the Head Tax was, the Exclusion Act remains one of the most racist things that our country has done.

The Caucasians thought of the Chinese as dirty, prone to disease, dishonest, and immoral. They were outraged when Chinese men got jobs that they were trying to get. In their opinion, Canada was “their land.” The Chinese who tried to come to Canada to seek shelter from the wars in China were barred due to the anti-Chinese immigration law. During the time of the Exclusion Act, marriage between the Chinese and any other race was strictly banned. This law was made to deter the birth of any children. The Canadian government wanted the Chinese to disappear.

Today, Chinese businesses have become an important part of towns and cities in Canada, from Vancouver to St. John’s and have contributed to their multicultural diversity. Chinese restaurants are found in almost every city and town in Canada. They have become very popular dining destinations, enjoyed not only by the Chinese, but also by non-Chinese. During the 1950s and 1960s, Vancouver’s Chinatown became a trendy destination due to Chinese restaurants that served food that many had not tried before. This Chinatown added greatly to the cultural diversity of Vancouver.

The Chinese hand laundry was a popular and valued business in many towns. As an example, Lee’s Laundry in Oshawa, Ontario, which was owned and operated by my great-grandparents, provided services for some of Oshawa’s notable citizens, including R.S. McLaughlin, the founder of General Motors, and E. P. Taylor, the owner of Windfields Farm and the great Canadian race horse, Northern Dancer. The laundry was used by many people in Oshawa during its 51 years of operation. It was honoured by the city and the local newspaper for its importance in Oshawa’s history. These kinds of laundries have become scarce in Canada due to the efforts needed for hand washing and drying.

Asian businesses have not always been appreciated by Caucasians. In 1907, anti-Asian work league leaders came from the United States to talk to Caucasian workers in Vancouver. A meeting, held two blocks from Chinatown, gathered support to start a movement to get rid of all Asian workers. The Caucasian men were outraged that the Chinese were taking the jobs that they wanted for lower pay and that they were not from Canada. To them, all of the Chinese workers were immigrants although some were born in Canada. The workers thought of the Chinese as “less clean, susceptible to disease, dishonest and immoral, un-hygienic and not suited to the Canadian climate.”

The meeting got out of hand and spilled out to the streets of Chinatown as an all-out riot, with men smashing windows and storefronts, looting stores and businesses, and beating up the Chinese. Known as the Anti-Asian Riot, it trashed Vancouver’s entire Chinatown. The Chinese were very unhappy with the government’s subsequent help with fixing their buildings after the Chinatown riot. The government’s stance was not in favour of the Chinese and they were not fairly compensated.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted on July 1, 1923, a day Canadians celebrated as Dominion Day (now Canada Day), events like this and the Head Tax led the Chinese-Canadian people to call it “Humiliation Day.” All the wrongs and the racist laws against them were the reasons that they could not celebrate July 1st.

Despite all of the racism and hardship that they have endured, the Chinese have had many successes that have changed the history of our nation and brought diversity. In 1957, Chinese-Canadian lawyer Douglas Jung ran for a seat in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament (MP), and won in the riding of Vancouver Centre. He became the first Chinese-Canadian MP and helped to break the ethnic barriers into Canadian politics. Bob Wong was the first Chinese-Canadian Cabinet Minister who served in the Liberal government for Ontario. In 1988, David Lam became the first Chinese-Canadian Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Adrienne Clarkson, an immigrant from Hong Kong and with a family ancestry going back to Taishan, in Guangdong, China, moved to Canada with her father and brother. On October 7, 1999, Adrienne Clarkson was sworn in as Canada’s first Governor General of a minority background. She is one of the most famous Canadian Governor Generals due to her many initiatives including the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She was named an Officer and Companion of the Order of Canada. Vivienne Poy became the first Chinese-Canadian appointed to the Senate of Canada.

On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a full apology to all Chinese-Canadian immigrants who paid the Head Tax. After a long struggle by the Chinese Canadian National Council, supporters, such as the late Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow, and renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the long awaited apology was given, and an ex-gratia payment of $20,000 was given to living Head Tax payers or their surviving spouses. Most were not alive by the time of the apology. There were an estimated 50 surviving Head Tax payers who lived to see the apology and my great-grandfather was one of them.

Chinese immigration has been a large part of my family’s heritage. My great-grandfather Chow Lee came to Canada in 1921 with his mother from Wang-Hang, in Guangdong, China, at the age of eight. Many Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong, China, including the former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. My great-grandfather, Bak Gung, the Chinese title for great-grandfather, paid the $500 Head Tax in Vancouver after taking a very shaky boat ride on a Canadian Pacific ship called The Empress of Russia.

Once in Vancouver, he took the long ride east to Cobourg, Ontario, where his father had already settled and set up a laundry called Lee’s Laundry. As a young boy, he had to collect laundry from customers on his bike before school, and deliver clean laundry after school. Later in life, he temporarily moved back to China to get married, and have a child. He soon had to go back to Canada to work to send money to his family. My great-grandfather, at age 24, opened a laundry at 18 Ontario Street with his brothers and named it Lee’s Laundry. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he was not able to bring his family to Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act had an effect on our family. How long it would be until my great-grandfather could see his family again.

On June 22, 2006, my great-grandfather was one of about 50 surviving Head Tax payers who lived to see the apology and he was interviewed by many television stations. I was also interviewed about my stance on the Head Tax. The Head Tax is part of my heritage, and it is a sad look at what our Canadian government did to people of Chinese heritage. It is also a tribute of how my great-grandfather persevered past racism to become the owner of a business that is a part of Oshawa’s history and that was loved by all of his customers. He is one of many Chinese immigrants who came with humble beginnings in Canada after paying the Head Tax. Chinese immigration of the past, with roots in the Head Tax, is part of my heritage as a Chinese Canadian.

Ultimately, Chinese immigration has shaped the history of our nation with the amazing successes and the many hardships. Chinese immigrants helped build our nation into what it is today. The dark racism inflicted by citizens and the government is a part of the history that is largely unknown to many Canadians to this day. We would not have had the same nation without the labour of Chinese immigrants who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, the many Chinese workers who gave their lives to make that dream of a nation from coast to coast a reality. We would not be as diverse a nation without Chinese businesses, and the way of life that the Chinese brought with them from their country. We would not have experienced the very popular Chinese cuisine or their ways of cleaning laundry. Through hardships and glories, the Chinese are an important part of our Canadian heritage and history.

Canada in the Making: Asian Immigration.

Canadian Settlement: Chinese.

The Chinese Experience in B.C., 1850-1950.

Chinese Canadian National Council – Chinese Head Tax.

“Chinese Immigration.” CBC News, June 10, 2004.

Cunningham, Bill. “Entering the Professions.” CBC News, July14, 1957.

Fisher, Kay. “Traditional Chinese Laundry to Close Doors after 51 Years.” Oshawa Times, May 25, 1989.

Krishna, Sudha. “Chinese Finally Get the Vote in 1947.” CBC News, May 15, 1997.

Moscovitz, Jason. “A Chinese-Canadian Governor General.” CBC News, Oct 7, 1999.

“The Personal Impact of Racism.” CBC News, June 22, 1999.

Savory, Eve. “Not Welcome Anymore.” CBC News.

Library and Archives: Why the Chinese Came to Canada.

Working Across Canada: Chinese Laundries and Cafes.



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