CM . . .
. Volume xxi Number 25 . . . . March 6, 2015
From 1885 to 1923, 81,000 Chinese immigrants paid a total of $23 million in head taxes. But the cost to those who left China was far greater: immigrant life was lonely and isolated, fraught with continual concern about family still living in China, and ongoing suspicion, discrimination, and outright hostility from the white community. The Chinese Head Tax and Anti-Chinese Immigration Policies in the Twentieth Century is the story of Chinese immigration to Canada, the experiences of those immigrants, of a Canadian federal policy of systemic discrimination, and of the fight for an official apology and compensation for head tax payers. Arlene Chan, a third-generation Chinese Canadian and retired librarian, has done a masterful job in authoring this book, the fourth volume in Lorimer’s “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series.
As in the previous volumes of the series, the “push and pull” factors which, in this case, drove Chinese immigration to Canada are detailed. Although rich in culture, civilization, invention, and trade with others, China was a largely agrarian country, and farmers were overwhelmingly poor and illiterate. Over-population, recurring famine, and a feudal system of landownership, concentrated in the hands of a very few, created a situation of extreme poverty. Imperial expansion by Britain, France, and Russia, into the countries bordering China diminished a once-strong sense of pride, and the country, itself, experienced territorial domination through the loss of Taiwan and Hong Kong and flourishing foreign trade in cities such as Shanghai.
The discovery of gold in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley lured Chinese who had previously mined the California gold rush of 1848. The first wave of immigrants arrived in 1858, and whether from California or China, all were in search of Gum Shan, Gold Mountain, which “became the name for any place that fuelled the dream of attaining riches.” (p. 12) Later, the need for labour to build Canada’s railway resulted in the hiring of nearly 17, 000 Chinese men who were paid a dollar a day while white workers received higher wages and, unlike their Chinese counterparts, did not have to pay for their food, equipment, or lodging. The Canada of the 1880’s was a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominion, flying the Union Jack as its national flag, and singing “God Save the Queen” as its national anthem. The idea of hiring Chinese to work on the national railway was objectionable to many, but there seemed little alternative. Prime Minister John A Macdonald stated that “Either you must have this labour or you cannot have the railway.” (p. 22) With China experiencing yet another famine at the time, recruitment of necessary workers was not difficult.
Work on the railway was hard and dangerous, and these men faced cold, loneliness, accidents, illness, and malnutrition. Yet, when the last spike was driven into the ground at Craigellachie, BC, no Chinese labourers participated in this historic event, even though their hard labour ensured that the project was completed six years ahead of schedule. But the conclusion of a large-scale project of this type inevitably leads to large-scale joblessness, as well. The economy in BC was failing, and the Chinese quickly became targets for general feelings of anger and unrest. As a result, in 1885, following the Royal Commission on Chinese immigration, the first of many anti-Chinese immigration laws was passed, resulting in immigrants being required to pay a $50 head tax. Significantly, this tax was the only one of its kind, singling out a group and restricting entry to Canada, purely on the basis of their racial origin. It was a huge financial burden and drastically reduced immigration to a mere 212 in 1886.
Those who had worked on the railway sought alternative employment; some stayed in BC, working in coal mines, labouring on farms, or as gardeners, cooks, or domestic servants. “Others moved east, settling in towns and cities along the railway, and opening laundries, grocery stores, and cafés.” (p. 30) Not surprisingly, many prairie towns along the CPR line had (and continue to have) at least one Chinese restaurant. Still others found work wherever they could, and whatever that work was, it was hard and poorly paid. As one son of a head tax payer stated, “There was no negotiating. We accepted it. Every penny counted.” (p. 31)
So, why, despite experiencing such hardship in a land which promised so much, did they continue to emigrate from China? Kinship ties were strong, and relatives sent money back home to relatives who then followed them to Canada. Once here, immigrants clustered in “Chinatowns”, not just because white Canadians didn’t want them living nearby, but also to sustain community ties and support each other. In larger centres, such as Victoria, Vancouver, and Winnipeg, various associations and organizations were founded, some of which were cultural, while others offered economic and social services to both newcomers and those who were settled. While they were not the only non-whites who faced discrimination within Canada, the Chinese faced extreme hostility. In BC and Saskatchewan, those of “Mongolian and Chinese race” were denied the vote (p. 44), and, by extension, the opportunity to be nominated for any political office. Barred from the professions, those who wished to become pharmacists, doctors, or lawyers had to move elsewhere (usually, Ontario), in order to undertake professional studies. Segregation of the sort seen in the American South also existed in such facilities as swimming pools, stores, and restaurants.
Nevertheless, when World War I broke out, nearly 300 Chinese men volunteered to serve, leaving BC to enlist in other provinces where they would not be refused by recruiters for whom it was “a white man’s war”. (p. 50) Ironically, a desperate need for labour once again brought Chinese to Canada, although they did not stay. A group of 80,000 were transported from China to Canada, landed in BC, sent by sealed railway cars to Halifax, and then boarded ships bound for the western front in France. Once again, they worked at back-breaking labour, and, on the battlefields, “helped bury the dead and clean up the battlefields. Afterwards, they were shipped back to China. The Canadian government enforced a media blackout about these workers and their contribution remained top secret for years.” (p. 51)
The years following World War I saw successive increases in the Head Tax, followed by the “Chinese Immigration Act” of 1923, known in Chinese communities as the Chinese Exclusion Act. This legislation denied entry to Canada with the exception of merchants, students, and diplomats. The Chinese community in Canada was overwhelmingly male. “. . . the head tax made it financially prohibitive to bring wives, children, and parents. Eighty per cent of the men had left wives behind China.” (p. 49) Living frugally in “bachelor societies”, some were able to send money to family in China, and some were able to make occasional trips back to their home country. The Great Depression of the 1930’s made for great economic uncertainty, and political unrest in China made it nearly impossible to allay unease about the safety of family members in China. And when war broke out in 1939, BC and Saskatchewan once again excluded Chinese, even as conscripts. Nevertheless, some men chose to enlist in the Army, as both the Navy and Air Force refused them. However, the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour was a game changer. Suddenly, Japan was a common enemy for both Canada and China.
The end of World War II brought about significant changes in attitude towards the Chinese in Canada. Chinese-Canadian contributions to the war effort, both on the battlefield and on the home front, were noteworthy, and by 1947, the “Chinese Immigration Act” was repealed, and Chinese Canadians finally gained the vote in all provinces. That right is treasured; Sid Chow Tan, who later became an activist in the redress movement, stated, “I’ve never missed a vote in my life. My grandfather didn’t either. We would go together. We’re talking about every vote. My grandmother as well.” (p. 65) The reunification of families, as a result of the separation enforced by the Exclusion Act, was not easy for the Chinese Canadian community; stringent restrictions made it difficult for sponsorship of family members. It was not until 1967 that Canada’s immigration policy allowed ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China, to apply for entry to Canada on the same basis as other immigrants.
But it was not until the 1990’s that the movement for redress of the wrongs of the Chinese Immigration Act became a political reality. It culminated in 2006, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper offering an official apology, and the distribution of payments of $20,000 to each head tax survivor and the surviving spouses of head tax payers. And the fight for “inclusive redress” continues, offering the potential of compensation for the sons and daughters of head tax payers. They and their families suffered from the pain of absent fathers, fears of possible deportation for those who were “paper sons”, and the denial of basic rights of citizenship.
The Chinese Head Tax and Anti-Chinese Immigration Policies in the Twentieth Century is a powerful story. More than 200 full-colour and black and white visuals (archival and family photos, document facsimiles, and political cartoons) tell the story through richly informative captions. Additional notes to view video and audio clips heighten the experience. Deeply moving and hugely important are the many recollections offered by eight Chinese Canadians who suffered with their families as a result of the head tax and the 24 years of the Exclusion Act. Now in their senior years, they have made the personal commitment to give voice to their painful experiences in order that the work of redress continues. A “Timeline” of events (from the landing of the first Chinese in Canada to the present), a “Glossary” of terms, a listing of “Further Reading” in a variety of media, and an “Index” all add to the book’s accessibility. As with other volumes in the “Righting Canada’s Wrongs” series, the historical content and first-person accounts combine to produce a work greater than the sum of its parts. The Chinese Head Tax and Anti-Chinese Immigration Policies in the Twentieth Century has a place both in high school libraries and as a supplementary text for social studies classrooms. High school students and teachers of Canadian history and human rights courses will learn much from this book. Sadly, one of the lessons learned is that Canada has not always been a “just” society.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.