Historical Background of Anti-Chinese Discrimination in British Columbia

Men from southern China came along with the earliest non-indigenous migrants to what later became British Columbia, for instance as carpenters and ship’s crew on-board former British naval officer John Meares’ private expedition from Macau in 1788 to (unsuccessfully) establish a trading fort in Nuu-chal-nuth territory on what is now known as Vancouver Island. When large numbers of migrants came from around the globe as part of the gold rushes to British Columbia in the late 1850s and 1860s, Chinese were a significant proportion of the arrivals, and many remained as laborers, miners, farmers, shop owners, and merchants even as the majority of adventurers looking for gold had moved onwards. Chinese in British Columbia helped develop much of the agricultural and small business infrastructure in the interior of British Columbia, as well as in the two main ports of Victoria and New Westminster. Connected to well-organized networks that linked them all around the Pacific region to the developing Australian colonies, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States, and to established economies in Southeast Asia and China, the Chinese in British Columbia were effective at establishing themselves quickly in new places as productive and entrepreneurial arrivals. Their ability to thrive often led to mutually beneficial arrangements with indigenous peoples as well as to other migrants (in particular in colonial societies in Southeast Asia), but at other times their efficiency and their tendency to out-perform European migrants led to conflicts.

During the late 19th century in the Australian colonies, in the western United States, and in British Columbia, many ambitious migrants began sharing and using the ideal of white supremacy* as an effective tool for politically organizing newly arrived European migrants. With the confederation of British colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, including the joining of British Columbia in 1871, Anti-Chinese agitation increasingly became a powerful political tool in British Columbia. Enfranchising only those migrants who could qualify as “white” was a particularly effective, and widely emulated mechanism for exclusion and scapegoating in political decision-making. Before Confederation, early Chinese residents in the colony of British Columbia could purchase land and property and voted in several elections. After becoming a province in 1871, however, one of the first items on the agenda of the newly formed provincial government was to pass legislation to take away the right to vote from “native Indians” and “Chinese.” Disqualification from the provincial franchise removed the Chinese from representation at different levels of government and allowed anti-Chinese legislation and policy to be passed without heed for electoral consequences from the disenfranchised. The legislation also provided a mechanism for the exclusion of Chinese from professions such as law, pharmacy, and dentistry by using the standard of voting rights as a basis for inclusion. The disenfranchisement of Chinese Canadians and the building of legalized racism and exclusion at multiple levels of government continued for the next 75 years (half of Canada’s history at its 150th anniversary this year). After a long struggle lasting three-quarters of a century, the franchise was finally and completely reinstated to Chinese Canadians in 1947, with the last franchise, the municipal one, granted by the City of Vancouver in 1949.

Note: The term “white” is historical in usage, for instance as used by Premier Richard McBride (Premier of BC 1903-1915) in referring to a “white man’s province.” The category of who counted as “white,” however, was malleable, and organizers using the politics of “white supremacy” could also promote other forms of discrimination and exclusion, for instance around religion, gender, and sexuality. When the Ku Klux Klan organized in Vancouver in the 1920s, for instance, it used antiAsian rhetoric and demanded the separation of “whites” from “Chinese,” “Native Indians” and “blacks,” but also explicitly targeted Jews and Catholics. However, the benefits of white supremacy could expand to include European migrants in ways that were not available to those considered non-white. European migrants who were not British Protestants—for instance Jews, Irish Catholics, and Ukrainians—could become more generically “white” by learning to speak English with the proper ‘accent,” changing their names to be less overtly ’ethnic,’ and hiding outward indications of non-Protestant religious beliefs. 

A preliminary survey of legislation, policies, and practices implemented by the municipal government of Vancouver reveals that there were four broad areas in which the statutory power and governmental practices of City officials were applied in discriminatory ways against residents of Chinese ancestry. These four areas may be summarized thematically as policies and practices bearing upon:

  1. Voting (the exercise of the franchise)
  2. Exclusion (immigration and settlement restrictions)
  3. Restriction of livelihoods (employment, business and commercial enterprise)
  4. Segregation (restrictions in housing and the use of public and private space)



Disqualifying the Chinese Legislative documentation reveals how the provincial government disqualified persons of Chinese descent from voting in the provincial election in 1872 and from running for office in the provincial government and voting in municipal elections in 1876. The City of Vancouver (hereafter ‘the City’) confirmed the provincial veto on the Chinese right to vote in municipal elections in 1886. The provincial government further specified the denial of the provincial franchise to “naturalized and Canadian-born subjects of Chinese (and Japanese) origin” in 1895.

A Vancouver newspaper presented an alternative view from a reader who had worked at an election regarding the right to the franchise for British subjects who happened to have Chinese ancestry: “If all other aliens who are British subjects are allowed on the voters’ list, why not the Chinamen?…the stand against the Chinese British subjects is indefensible, and they should be granted the franchise the same as other aliens…” (Vancouver Daily Times, Letter to Editor, 1919).

Politicians and private groups continued their opposition to enfranchisement of Chinese and Japanese. The status of what it meant to be a British subject of Chinese ancestry, including whether born in Canada, was contested and never conclusively made clear. This ambiguity impacted many aspects of identity and everyday life for Chinese Canadians, especially as those born and raised in Canada began organizing socially and politically to assert their inclusion and belonging in Canadian society. This was evident when the Attorney-General made his statement in 1940 to disarm “the enemies…Chinese and Japanese.” C.E. Louie responded: “I am one of the hundreds of Canadian-born Chinese, of military age, and glad of the privilege of fighting and dying for Canada. Although my parents are naturalized British subjects for 35 years and myself born in Vancouver, I am not allowed to vote. Second, although I possess registered firearms for hunting, I must surrender them by September 30, 1940. The government’s reason, I am an alien. Third, Canada adopts conscription, therefore I am drafted into the Canadian army. The government’s reason, I am a British subject.” (Anderson, 1991, p. 171)

Such reports in the English language media, although generally rare, provided the perspective of those who had been disqualified from belonging within the political system, as they were being labeled “aliens” who were ineligible to vote. An ambiguous yet perpetual category of not-belonging, being Chinese meant being an “alien” even if the person had been born and lived in Vancouver their whole life, and even if they were willing to fight and die for Canada.

During the First World War, both Chinese Canadians and Japanese Canadians had volunteered and served in the armed forces. After the war, Japanese Canadian military veterans asked for the right to vote, struggling until 1931 to finally receive the right to vote from the B.C. provincial legislature. Because of this, several branches of the Canadian Armed Forces at the beginning of the Second World War created a policy of turning down both Japanese Canadians and Chinese Canadians volunteering for service, in order to prevent them from demanding the right to vote after the war. However, many Chinese Canadians found ways to join despite these policies, and during the war, many Chinese Canadian men and women like C.E. Louie served. The English language media reported more and more often voices from the Chinese community questioning conscription without enfranchisement. Chinese Canadian veterans, including many who had become officers and leaders, were particularly vocal in asserting the inequity of the willingness of Chinese Canadians to sacrifice their lives for the country even as they were being denied the same rights as other Canadians. By 1945, approximately 600 Chinese Canadian men and women had served in the armed forces.

In 1947, the BC government finally granted the franchise to all Canadian-born residents and citizens in BC of Chinese origin. The federal government followed in 1948, enfranchising all British subjects by birth or naturalization. The City of Vancouver, however, cited “difficulties” such as distinguishing Chinese names and “look-alike” faces and refused to grant the municipal franchise to Chinese Canadians. Only in 1949 did the city finally concede and recommend without dissent the removal of the disqualification from the Municipal Elections Act.


Removing the franchise was a direct method to facilitate the passage of legislation that could limit, control, and exclude people of Chinese ancestry from receiving the same privileges and rights as others. Political exclusion paralleled measures that created social exclusion and the denial or limitation of access to resources, including the ability to enter Canada. Anti-Chinese organizers and political leaders used various tools, ranging from political lobbying for immigration exclusion to prevent new Chinese migrants from landing, to violence and intimidation to harass or physically remove those already in British Columbia.

In the winter of 1885-86, workers organizing around white supremacy used vigilante violence to attack Chinese workers hired to help clear land for the newly developing City of Vancouver. In the face of this overt use of racial violence, which was also employed in the United States and the Australian colonies as a powerful political tool, the Chinese community organized petitions for justice, and the workers received compensation for their losses, soon returning to work.

Intense lobbying from the provincial government of British Columbia and anti-Chinese organizations led to the discriminatory Chinese Head Tax of 1885, a payment only imposed on the Chinese upon landing. Modeled after the similar Chinese Poll Tax passed in New Zealand in 1881, anti-Chinese organizations in the United States, the Australian colonies, and Canada often shared ideas and techniques on how to organize around white supremacy. Legislation for immigration exclusion was one tool, and organizing unions around white supremacy to drive Chinese workers out of industries such as mining, logging, and manufacturing was another. Exclusion from the vote, immigration exclusion, and exclusion from labor unions were all tools for reordering society around those deemed to belong and deserving access to resources such as land and jobs because they were “white,” excluding those deemed non-white, initially in 1872 as “Natives” and “Chinese” but eventually also referring to others similarly considered non-white, including other “Orientals.”

Trade unions and organizations using anti-Chinese slogans portrayed Chinese workers, often already working in mines and logging camps up and down the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, as latecomers who were taking jobs away from “white” workers, often recent migrants from Britain, Ireland, and Europe. By the 1890s, techniques for anti-Chinese organizing were extended to target others in British Columbia, such as those coming from Japan and India, under a broader category of “Oriental,” “Asiatic,” or “Asian” exclusion. Anti-Asian agitators resorted to mob violence in 1907, organizing several days of riots attacking Chinese and Japanese residents and businesses in Vancouver, particularly in Chinatown and the Powell Street area. The 1907 violence was often referred to as the “Chinatown Riot” because, while much of the property damage was inflicted by rioters on Chinese-owned businesses on Pender Street, the Japanese Canadian community had the time to arm themselves and prevent more extensive damage to Japanese businesses and homes near Powell Street.

English language newspaper accounts of the 1907 riots seldom reflected the perspectives of those targeted by the riots. Researcher WoanJen Wang observed how Chinese language newspapers reported differently from English language newspapers about anti-Chinese legislation and violence. For example, Wang cited a notice distributed by the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) to the inhabitants in Chinatown around September 8, 1907, which was printed in The Chinese Daily:

  • The Chinese Head Tax: Although the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act were federal acts of legislation, many provincial and federal anti-Chinese laws would not have been passed without lobbying and strong political support from the City of Vancouver, often including the Mayor and Aldermen (now referred to as Councilors). Lobbying in Vancouver to increase the limiting effect of the Chinese Head Tax by raising the amount from the original $50 set in 1885 to the much more prohibitive $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903 was the direct result of lobbying from anti-Chinese and anti-Asian organizations in Vancouver, including the Klu Klux Klan. The membership of one such association, the Anti-Chinese League, included the Mayor, several Aldermen and ex-Aldermen, and Members of Parliament. The League had lobbied for a head tax of $500 (equivalent to nearly two years of wages as a laborer) as early as 1896. Despite an earlier warning from the City Solicitor that the city should not interfere with Chinese immigration because it was beyond City jurisdiction, Council endorsed the Anti-Mongolian League’s immigration petition in 1897, and in 1900 the city corresponded officially with the provincial government seeking concerted efforts to pressure the federal government “to exclude all Mongols, especially Chinese.” The Chinese Head Tax was designed to discourage Chinese from entering Canada while generating revenue for the federal and provincial governments, which split the revenue. Despite the prohibitive expense of the Head Tax, over 90,000 Chinese immigrants still entered between 1885 and 1923, generating over $23 million in tax revenue, worth over $1.5 billion in present-day value, and contributing a significant amount of revenue to British Columbia at a time before the implementation of the federal income tax. Even as Chinese Canadians helped build Vancouver and British Columbia society, the discriminatory tax they paid also helped fund infrastructure. Anti-Chinese advocates in Vancouver, however, continued to call for an outright ban against the Chinese, and their lobbying finally succeeded in 1923.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act: Between 1923 and 1947, as a result of the Exclusion Act, very few Chinese were able to enter Canada. Families could not reunite, and those already in the country grew older with no prospect of children and wives joining them from China. The Chinese Canadian population overall in Canada declined by half, from 45,000 in 1923 to just over 20,000 in 1947. As spelled out in the Canadian census, the number of Vancouver residents born in China fell from 11,533, or 5 percent of the total population, in 1931 to 5,427, or 2 percent, in 1941. In the darkest period of Chinese Canadian history, the Exclusion Act caused immense suffering and despair. One Chinese Canadian quoted in an English-language newspaper observed that even after exclusion was finally repealed in 1947, the 1923 Act’s devastating effects would continue. Thinking about so many of his fellow immigrants who had entered Canada alone as young men before 1923, he lamented that many like him “…will grow old here…” on their own (News Herald, Jan 28, 1947). His prediction would unfortunately come true. Even as late as the 1970s, Vancouver’s Chinatown still contained elderly Chinese men who had never been able to marry or have children because of the Exclusion Act, living out their lonely days in single resident rooms.



Even as the small number of Chinese Canadian families who were able to form in the period before 1947 provided a small measure of hope for the future, anti-Chinese legislation continued to create obstacles designed to handicap Chinese Canadians in all aspects of their lives, including their economic livelihoods. Many courageous individuals both before and during the Exclusion period continued to struggle for equality and just treatment, but municipal legislation and policy implementation, in particular, had deep and broad effects on the everyday life of Chinese in industry, businesses, and labor. Specifically, the City used by-laws, licenses, formal labor regulations on work hours, and prohibitions of the right of entry into professions to target Chinese. Where formal legislation could not be enacted, the City could support and enforce anti-Chinese clauses in contracts as well as use informal methods to constrict the livelihoods and the everyday lives of Chinese residents in Vancouver.

In the area of commerce, anti-Chinese agitators focused on targeting Chinese businesses and workers almost immediately after the founding of the City of Vancouver. Anti-Chinese petitions urged supporters to pledge never to employ or deal commercially with Chinese. Although Chinese laborers had been crucial in helping the City of Vancouver fight fires in 1887 in the panicked period after the Great Fire had destroyed much of the infant city, the municipal government of Vancouver formally excluded Chinese from being employed by the City in 1890.

All City contracts after 1890 contained a clause that prohibited contractors from using any Chinese labor. The full force of the municipal government’s statutory powers, as well as its ability to negotiate commercial leases and land grants, was used to implement this ban. City By-law 94 (revised and passed on March 17, 1890) relating to the Establishment of a Sugar Refinery in the City of Vancouver set out the City’s objectives for a sugar refinery. The indenture between Rogers and the City laid out the terms of the contract with the last line stating that “…he nor they [the company] will at any time, employ any Chinese labor in and about the said works.” The City made a similar demand of the Hall Elevator Company in 1906.

Anti-Chinese organizers made recurring assertions to justify their agitation against the employment of Chinese workers, contending that the Chinese were the cause of lower wages and that they represented unfair competition to more deserving “white” workers. Using racial scapegoating of the Chinese, and by the 1890s also of other Asian workers, as a way of demanding higher wages, but only for whites, many labor unions used white supremacy to organize some workers at the expense of others. Some labor organizers, in particular socialists who saw the damage that using racism would cause in dividing rather than uniting workers, disagreed with the strategy of using the tools of white supremacy and anti-Chinese politics. One newspaper contributor named Cymra noted that demonizing fellow workers obscured the larger struggle for better pay and observed that it was because Chinese laborers were so hardworking that they were resented: “…the ‘Chinaman’ is objected to not because they are idlers but because they are workers…we must not forget that they are not the cause of poor wages but the victims…Their disappearance will not solve the wage problem…” (Cymra to Editor, Daily World, July 6, 1896).

  • Using Licenses and Levies to Restrict Chinese in Trade and Employment: The City extensively used by-laws and municipal trade licenses to restrict Chinese businesses and to limit or handicap employment opportunities for Chinese in Vancouver. Common commercial activities for this discriminatory targeting included laundries, pawnshops, restaurants, and the selling and peddling of vegetables. Archival records document by-laws from 1893 that limited the boundaries within which laundries could operate. Although the word “Chinese” was never used in the by-laws, the presumption that the effect of these restrictions would fall overwhelmingly upon Chinese businesses became apparent when the restrictions were lifted in 1908 when Non-Chinese Alderman Donald Malcom Stewart applied to open a laundry outside the by-law boundaries. The tactic of passing by-laws and city ordinances that did not explicitly name Chinese as the target, and yet were known to have an inordinate effect on Chinese businesses, was used at other times as well. City records, for instance, document by-laws for early closing hours in 1914. Chinese merchants contested and petitioned Council that the by-law unreasonably targeted Chinese communities whose workers never finished work before the stores closed. Targeting areas of commerce where Chinese were already highly successful was a common discriminatory strategy that belied the claims that Chinese were “unfair competition”. Often, it was the very efficiency and productivity of Chinese Canadians in industries that they had themselves helped create that led anti-Chinese organizers to appeal to the government to restrict or handicap them as competitors. Vegetable peddling, for example, was a successful livelihood for many Chinese that was one part of the vertically integrated local produce economy that Chinese Canadians had created throughout Vancouver and British Columbia. Chinese market gardens, sometimes known also as truck gardening, was an industry that Chinese immigrants created almost everywhere they went around the Pacific region. Almost all cities that developed in Australia and California, for instance, had extensive networks of Chinese farms that grew vegetables, flowers, berries, and other produce for the market, with Chinese “trucking” or distributing what was grown to a widely dispersed network of grocery or corner stores. City Historian Shirley Fitzgerald remarked in her history of Sydney, Australia, that few of its residents realized that the Chinese had “fed” Sydney for much of its history. Vancouver, as well as Victoria, was no different. Throughout Vancouver’s history, Chinese market gardens grew and distributed local produce, with two distribution companies, H.Y. Louie Co. and Jim Koo Co., both longstanding features of the local agricultural industry. Vegetable peddlers who would carry fresh produce door to door were one of the innovations that Chinese migrants created, along with corner grocery stores and fresh produce markets. As with many forms of livelihood created by Chinese entrepreneurs in Vancouver, their very success became the target for discriminatory measures. In September 1908, the Vancouver Daily World noted that the courts had upheld the conviction of a Chinese vegetable peddler who was arrested under the Market By-law for selling vegetables before 10:00 am on a market day. In 1914, for instance, Alderman Edward McMaster introduced measures to license peddlers, to control their location and hours, and to impose a $50 levy on them. These measures had specifically been designed to harass and restrict Chinese and paralleled many similar measures in other industries that targeted Chinese precisely because they were seen to be successful and threatening and therefore considered “unfair” competition. In 1916, in another example, the Board of License commissioners excluded Chinese workers from all liquor-licensed premises such as restaurants. Archival records document how the Chinese Consul, after appeals from the Chinese Benevolent Association, protested multiple times throughout 1915 to 1919 that many of the by-laws, unfair trade licenses, and levies deprived the Chinese of their means of livelihood even when they had already “paid the sum of Five Hundred Dollars to enter this country at the stipulation and acquiescence of your government” to come here to live and work. When the peddling levy was raised to $100 in 1919, he protested that the action was “unlawful, impracticable, unobservable and unreasonable.” Chinese peddlers took strike action and in 1920 sent Council a petition with 5,000 signatures from clients. Council subsequently retracted but local Non-Chinese business owners who organized under the Vancouver Retail Merchants’ Association and Vancouver Chamber of Commerce exerted enough political influence on Council to retain the $50 levy. The levy succeeded in cutting in half the number of Chinese peddlers in 3 years, from over 300 before 1915 to 152 in 1918. The attempts to restrict the vegetable trade continued with Alderman Patrick Gibbons asking the City solicitor for options on how to cancel licenses of Chinese vegetable peddlers. Gibbons said in a January 1923 Daily World interview that “the idea is to eventually get rid of the Orientals altogether.”
  • Vigilantes and the Unwritten Law of No Access: Informal methods designed to restrict and control Chinese businesses and workers reinforced or even extended the City’s formal efforts. English-language newspapers reported in 1919 how “vigilantes,” organized by the Retail Merchants’ Board of Trade, had been hired to watch over the Chinese and report all law-breaking, such as late closing hours, to the police. Newspaper stories also reported Council’s longstanding “unwritten law” against leasing market stalls to Chinese in the City market. An archival report from the City’s Market Clerk in January 1935, suggesting ways to improve the City Market, mentioned the objective to “control oriental development in retail trade and correction of unfair trade practices, hours of operation, (and) …peddling.” City health inspectors focused on Chinese stalls in their rounds, and even when they were not able to find infractions, the racial targeting of Chinese in the carrying out of official inspection duties reflected a longstanding informal practice of using municipal powers to harass and intimidate Chinese in commercial activities that lasted well after the end of formal discriminatory legislation. Health and hygiene inspections, in particular, developed from the beginning of the 1890s as an informal means for the targeted regulation and restriction of Chinese businesses and residents in their activities, ending only a century later when Chinatown barbecue meat merchants finally succeeded in highlighting the informal discriminatory practices that had commonly shaped the enforcement of city regulations.The rhetoric of “unfair” economic competition and “filth” and “vice” was a powerful form of propaganda to justify the implementation of legalized racism. A letter from a contributor to a newspaper emphasized the bad habits of the Chinese and questioned the possibility of assimilating them:“ …[not only about] being a competitor with the white wage-earner…[but] do they [the Chinese] assimilate with the white man as good citizens… on the contrary, they are found herding together in dens of filth and infamy…” (Crosby to Editor, Daily World Vancouver, Aug 4, 1896).Beyond the City of Vancouver’s powers to pass statutes, by-laws, and legislation, the power of the municipality to selectively enforce statutes was one of the primary means by which Chinese were singled out for harassment. “Cleaning up” Chinatown was a common justification for frequent health inspections. City Health Inspectors began visiting the area in the 1890s and designated it as a special problem, and in 1900 Council minutes documented that the City assigned a Special Medical Officer to do medical rounds in Chinatown. Media reported how the Inspectors cited many by-law infractions in the lodgings, often nestled, it was claimed, between gambling houses and opium dens. In a news report, an Inspector described horrid and unsanitary conditions and termed the overcrowding “the worst fire trap.” He explained to Royal Commissioners in 1901 that the Chinese people were simply hard to teach as they were “generally dirtier than whites.”Another problem for the Chinese and Chinatown was the rigorous inspection routines of the medical health officer who regularly condemned buildings and business premises as unsanitary, or in contravention of the law. In doing so, he failed to note the lack of City services such as sewers, despite petitions from the community.
  • Barriers to Professions & Voices of Opposition: Chinese livelihoods faced various restrictions. They were barred from professions like pharmacy, dentistry, and law due to the lack of voting rights, and this professional barrier extended de facto to employment in banking, department stores, medicine, and nursing. English-language news articles after the First World War highlighted how these employment restrictions, implemented throughout the period before 1947, worked in practice. Many areas of employment didn’t see their “first” Chinese until well into the 1960s when provincial equal opportunity and antidiscrimination legislation was passed and enforced in British Columbia.Attempts at City Hall to constrain the livelihoods of Chinese and other “Asiatics” and “Orientals” were not always successful. Sometimes, organized contestation and resistance from Chinese merchants and residents thwarted these efforts. Other times, non-Chinese who believed these measures were unjust and discriminatory refused to support their passage, or the proposed legislation exceeded the jurisdictional powers of the municipal government. Often, the failure of such measures was due to a combination of these factors.In 1919, for instance, Alderman Joseph Hoskins tried to confine all “Asiatic” businesses to a well-defined area of the City, paralleling attempts in other jurisdictions worldwide. City Solicitor, James B. Williams, informed Council in 1923 that the City lacked the power to restrict “Orientals” to any particular part of the City. In 1937, Alderman Halford Wilson motioned that no licenses be issued to “Orientals” without approval by the City’s properties, licenses, and claims committee. The City Solicitor, Donald Edgar McTaggart, considered Council’s motive as a form of discrimination and could not recommend it. In 1938, Wilson’s motion to amend the City Charter to limit issuance of trade licenses to persons of “Asiatic extraction” to a stipulated quota of 5 percent was passed by the entire Council except for Alderman Helena Gutteridge. The bill did not get provincial approval. One year later, Wilson’s same motion passed Council a second time but again could not pass the provincial legislature.Although Alderman Gutteridge’s lone voice was not the reason why the discriminatory motion was never implemented, she, along with other non-Chinese Vancouverites, spoke out against what they saw as unjust and unfair treatment of citizens of Chinese ancestry in Vancouver. The story of anti-Chinese discrimination in Vancouver cannot be dismissed as a mere product of racism at the time. Voices such as Alderman Gutteridge’s and labor leaders who spoke out against the use of white supremacy to organize unions remind us that, even amid widespread racist justifications, many stood with Vancouver’s Chinese community in contesting and sometimes defeating discrimination.



Segregation of the Chinese became a primary goal of anti-Chinese political organizers, justified by charges that the Chinese were “filthy” and “dirty.” Asserting that Chinese communities had low hygiene and moral standards and were “vice centers” of filth, opium dens, and brothels, anti-Chinese organizers used rhetoric common among white supremacist activists globally.

The exact language was used to describe Chinese in Victoria, B.C., San Francisco, and in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, as well as to describe Jews in Europe in the late 19th through the mid-20th century. Anti-Chinese political appeals also used other tactics besides impugning the hygiene of Chinese, such as the threat of their efficiency as workers and their commercial productivity. One powerful tool was an appeal to sexual threats to “white women.”

  • Protecting White Women and Children: Appealing to the duty of “white men” to protect white women and children showed up again and again as the rationale for City by-laws and policies. Anti-Chinese activists opportunistically used spectacular crime cases appearing in the news to pressure political leaders to pass legislation for which they had already been lobbying. The murder in the spring of 1914 of Clara Millard, allegedly by her Chinese house servant Jack Kong, provided such an opportunity to further goals of implementing residential and schooling segregation. Earlier attempts in California and in Victoria, B.C., to segregate Chinese children in public schools had been challenged and often defeated through the resistance of both Chinese Canadian organizations and Non-Chinese allies. The utility of rhetorical appeals that justified such segregation to “protect” white women and children from the threat of Chinese remained powerful. A resolution was brought forward to Council to remove Chinese and Japanese children from schools in 1914, the same year as the Millard murder because: “…In the opinion of this Council, such association of the two races must result in a condition detrimental to the future welfare of our children who have nothing to gain, either mentally or morally, by daily association with Orientals.” (Council minutes, Vol.
    20, 8 April 1914, 122). Despite the City Solicitor’s report stating that the Vancouver School Board had no authority to implement segregation, it decided to pursue segregation, although eventually without success. Chinese language media, in contrast to English language media, investigated and reported that only 4 out of 34 school principals thought that Chinese students were a hindrance to white students’ achievements. The focus on segregation also generated newspaper stories that examined broader segregation practices, reporting that Chinese children, like their parents, were barred from the Crystal pool on English Bay, which opened in 1928 and was segregated until 1945.The assertion that white women and children needed protection from Chinese, and that it was the duty of white men and the government to protect them, became a common tool for justifying the segregation of Chinese. In 1919, after years of lobbying from moral reformers who considered the mixing of Chinese with white women and children to be immoral and a dangerous threat, the provincial government responded by passing the Municipal Act in 1919 for the protection of white women, particularly targeting Chinese restaurants that employed white waitresses. Initially, the Act was not strictly enforced in Vancouver. The sensational case in 1931 of the murder of a white waitress working in Chinatown, however, created the opportunity for anti-Chinese proponents to demand the protection of white women.City police constables vigilantly enforced the Act in Chinatown restaurants employing white waitresses, and between 1935 and 1939, a newly passed restaurant by-law granted more power to health inspectors to shut down restaurants. Many of the women employed as waitresses, often young Irish migrants, protested the Act, testifying before Council that their Chinese employers treated them well and that the legislation would deprive them of their livelihood. The waitresses held a public march outside City Hall, at the same time that the Chinese Benevolent Association and other Chinese Canadian organizations prepared lawsuits arguing that the Act was discriminatory.Archival records between 1937 and 1939 document the City’s cancellation of licenses and the subsequent legal disputes as restaurant owners fought back. Newspapers reported how the City canceled three out of eight Chinese restaurant licenses without notice and did not renew their liquor licenses, using the justification of their infraction of the 1919 Municipal Act.Racial segregation in Vancouver was accomplished through multiple means, sometimes with the explicit use of municipal powers, and at other times with the indirect support of City officials. One of the most effective tools for the segregation of workplaces was to exclude Chinese from many professions, making them accessible only to whites. Other tools aimed at the segregation of public spaces such as pools and commercial spaces such as restaurants and movie theaters, often used informal mechanisms such as “Whites Only” signs, or occasional acts of vigilante violence that inflicted physical harm on a Chinese citizen as a warning to others to stay clear of particular neighborhoods or communities. Although less explicit than City ordinances and by-laws, these informal measures enjoyed the implicit support of the city, which often reinforced their effects through the discriminatory application of City services and policing. A Chinese restaurant might be the target of continual harassment through frequent health inspections, for instance, while a non-Chinese owned restaurant was free to pursue their commercial interests without interference, which included displaying a “Whites Only” sign.
  • Segregating Public Spaces: In the words of a speaker at the Vancouver Board of Trade’s Special Oriental Immigration Committee in 1921, segregation was deemed necessary because of the “natural repugnance inherent in the soul of our people to fraternize with the Oriental.” Justifications for segregation were consistently offered by anti-Chinese activists who blamed the Chinese for being “clannish,” keeping to themselves, and being unwilling or unable to “assimilate” with Canadian society. At the same time, rhetorical fears about the “threat” of Chinese to whites, and the desire of whites not to mix with non-whites were used to build support for new policies. Claims of the “Non assimilative nature” of the Chinese people could be made alongside assertions of their inferiority, immorality, and the need to protect whites from their threat.The practice of segregation was enhanced by policies that contained the Chinese within demarcated boundaries that would make it easier for the City to enforce the divide. Kay Anderson, who wrote about Vancouver’s Chinatown, argues that the segregating and restricting of Chinese people into geographic and physical areas began with the City’s founding in the 1880s. The visibility of Chinatown as a distinctive neighborhood meant that it was a primary focus for attempts to create and maintain a divide. A large advertisement in the newspaper in 1902, for instance, drew attention to the seeming expansion of Chinatown, calling on City fathers to take municipal action to stop the spread of the Chinese. Differential application of City policies to Chinatown was a hallmark of not only health inspections but also sanitation and City engineering services and the use of funds for services such as parks, streets, and other public amenities.Segregation was considered a desirable goal, justified as a way to contain and control the presumed threat of the Chinese. The City’s Clerk informed a Clerk in Calgary in 1910 that “segregation of property and residence” was “not a problem in Vancouver” as the Chinese were mostly confined to one district of the City, Chinatown. Only a fraction of Chinese residents lived and worked in Chinatown, despite the common perception and stated desire that the Chinese could be confined there. Many Chinese servants worked and lived in Shaughnessy, for instance, and yet the cooks and house servants who were there 24 hours a day and 7 days a week never belied the idealization of Shaughnessy as a “whites only” neighborhood. In a similar way, the presence through most of Vancouver’s history of Chinese-run grocery stores, farms, laundries, and other businesses dispersed throughout Vancouver and also Point Grey and South Vancouver, which were separate entities up to 1929, did not counteract the goals and desires of anti-Chinese organizers for the racial segregation of the City. For many of those desiring segregation, it was property ownership and the implication that Chinese residents would be equal in status to white residents of an area that defined belonging and exclusion. Servants did not count. Ratepayers’ Associations passed resolutions in 1914 calling for the prevention of property ownership by Chinese in Vancouver and throughout BC during the war. In 1921, the Board of Trade was expressing alarm at Chinese businesses seeming to branch out of their assigned quarters. The encouragement of this sentiment and fear of “Oriental encroachment” by anti-Chinese and anti-Asian activists was particularly powerful in arguments for segregation and racial hierarchy in residential areas. A landmark segregation case caught media attention in 1941 when a young Chinese Canadian couple tried to buy property in West Point Grey. Council minutes recorded representations from various white community leaders and associations in Vancouver who had mobilized and canvassed hard to prohibit the sale in order to enforce what the newspapers called a “ghetto plan”. Aldermen Halford Wilson and Henry DeGreaves headed a proposal that “Council appoint a special committee to draft a by-law that would prevent ‘Orientals’ from being either tenants or owners in areas other than ‘their own localities.’” Alderman Henry Corey subsequently advised delegation members to use “clauses,” “gentlemen’s agreements,” and “unwritten rules” wherever statutes could not be enacted. Not all Vancouverites agreed with the justifications for segregation. One community member was indignant at “every possible method of harassing and embarrassing” the law-abiding Chinese couple wanting to settle in West Point Grey. He wrote: “Yet the City fathers fly into a paroxysm of rage and terror at the very thought that this unoffending couple should have purchased a home in a district where only impeccable British folk should dare to reside. They suggest the passage of legislation to create a sort of Chinese ghetto where all these despised Orientals should be herded regardless of social standing, education, and degree of culture…” (Wright, News Herald, Feb 5, 1941). University of British Columbia authorities confirmed to the media it strictly adhered to an “equal treatment” policy for all students, including Chinese, Japanese, and Indian students, and noted that the benefits of such equal treatment in academics could be promising for other areas of civil life. UBC economics professor Henry Angus was an outspoken critic of anti-Asian legislation, including the removal of Japanese Canadians in 1942. Media reported that the Chinese Consul protested emphatically the drafting of a Chinese zoning bylaw as “prejudicial and discriminatory”. Real estate agents, however, continued to use written “clauses” or “covenants” preventing a homeowner from selling to Chinese and other non-whites, and often the unwritten rules of “gentleman’s agreement” designed to keep out Chinese from whites only residential areas. The Supreme Court, however, found these racially discriminatory clauses totally unenforceable. Eventually, the Real Estate Board abolished the use of the clauses in 1956. The covenants, however, remained in place in the city until the late 1970s.The segregation of space extended even to the sick, destitute, and the deceased. In the 1890s, when a few Chinese individuals were admitted to City Hospital, criticism arose, finding its way into official City correspondence. For a significant portion of Vancouver General Hospital’s early history, Chinese patients were confined to basements, separate from other patients. This led to protests from critics like Nellie Yip, a prominent suffragette and midwife with ties to the Yip family in Vancouver. Despite her efforts, many segregationist practices remained unchanged, prompting her to challenge hospitals and other City services for their unequal treatment of Chinese and other nonwhite individuals. As a community midwife, Yip ended up delivering several generations of Chinese Canadian babies.The consequences of segregation were evident in the establishment of separate medical facilities to serve the Chinese, such as Mt. St. Joseph Hospital, and basement clinics housed in buildings belonging to Chinese clans and associations. In 1921, four Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception from Montreal arrived in Vancouver, setting up makeshift wards, dispensaries, and a small hospital to care for the Chinese, particularly abandoned and destitute elderly men. The burden of financing medical care fell on the Chinese community due to the segregation of spaces.During the Depression (1931-1935), archival records documented a two-tier system where Chinese individuals on relief were fed at soup kitchens contracted to a church-run Chinese mission. A petition to the Mayor and Premier described the conditions at the soup kitchen as “inhuman” and “menacing.” In contrast, white residents on relief in Vancouver were issued coupons to purchase necessities and food at restaurants. However, Chinese restaurants were not allowed to redeem relief coupons. The Civic Relief Officer justified the two-tier system, stating, “We can never expect Orientals…to become self-supporting as long as they are getting more on relief.” The term “more” referred not to the amount received by “white” residents but implied judgment that Chinese should not receive “more” than they deserved.Between 1934 and 1936, the BC Government repatriated several hundred destitute elderly and sick individuals to China, believing repatriation costs would be lower than maintaining them in British Columbia. The emphasis on cost calculations was integral to efforts to racially segregate Vancouver. The two-tiered relief system, much like the broader goal of segregation in British Columbia and beyond, was often justified by fears of threat, filth, and moral disapproval. Ultimately, these efforts created racially separated systems that allocated more resources to white residents than nonwhites. Similarly, as with residential schooling of indigenous children during the same period, political movements for the segregation of Chinese students in public schools aimed, albeit never implemented, to create a parallel system where fewer resources could be spent on Chinese children.Segregation permeated every aspect of Chinese life, from work and housing to commerce, sickness, and even death. Archival records from 1890 reveal that the municipal cemetery in Vancouver, Mountain View, maintained separate areas for those of Chinese, Jewish, Japanese, and indigenous ancestry. However, in death, separation did not mirror the legally sanctioned racial segregation experienced in daily life. Separate areas were common in cemeteries across British Columbia, North America, and the Australian colonies. Many communities requested their members to be buried together, proudly maintaining and improving their respective sections. In Vancouver, the Chinese community built an impressive funerary burner visible from all parts of the grounds, while the Jewish community erected a wrought iron fence and gates around their section. Although the City instituted fees for the disinterment of remains by the Chinese community due to the common practice of transporting bones for reburial in home villages in China, discriminatory legislation appeared to be limited by respect for the deceased.
  • The Dismantling of Legal Segregation in Vancouver: How did this complex system of legalized racism and segregation come to an end? From the initial moments when anti-Chinese organizers began constructing the legal framework for racial discrimination in Vancouver, Chinese Canadians mobilized to legally contest and politically push back, often forming alliances with others.In 1943, Vancouver Parks Board Commissioner Arnold Webster, a member of the CCF party (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation), challenged the City to “reconcile an act of racial discrimination in Vancouver with the principles of Canadian democracy in defense of which we are engaged in the present war” (Vancouver Sun, 1943). Long-standing practices of the Parks Board, such as the racial segregation policy preventing residents of Chinese ancestry from using the Crystal Pool, were seen by Webster and others as contradictory to the ideals of democracy promoted in the war against Nazi Germany and Japan.Newspapers reported that a young Chinese Canadian recently conscripted into the army had protested being denied entry to the Crystal Pool. Canadian-born Chinese, including Quan and Ernie Louie, sons of produce distributor H.Y. Louie, saw volunteering for military service as an opportunity to challenge the second-class treatment of Chinese Canadians. Both were star athletes, among the few Chinese Canadians attending the University of British Columbia. Wearing military uniforms provided them with a sense of entitlement to places that had been informally off-limits to Chinese. The hypocrisy and injustice of fighting for a country that denied them the right to vote or access certain facilities created a powerful symbol. Tragically, Quan Louie paid the ultimate sacrifice, killed in combat over Germany as a Royal Canadian Air Force bombardier in 1945.Returning Chinese Canadian veterans, such as Ernie Louie, Douglas Jung, and Roy Mah, were determined to effect societal change. They, along with non-Chinese political allies, lobbied for the franchise to be restored to Chinese Canadians beyond just veterans. However, even after the restoration of the right to vote federally in 1947 and municipally in Vancouver in 1949, Chinese Canadian veterans continued facing exclusion from the Canadian Legion and various clubs and social associations.By the 1940s, many labor organizations shifted their stance, rejecting the use of white supremacy and racism as organizing strategies. Some unions within the Vancouver District Trades Council, which had played a role in the 1907 anti-Asian riot, formally began organizing Chinese and other non-white workers. In 1943, newspaper accounts reported that organized labor movements helped secure pension rights for wives and children of Chinese workers in certain industries. That same year, the City’s longstanding unwritten law in the City market was overturned when approval for a rental stall was granted to a firm of Chinatown fish dealers.The struggle to dismantle decades of anti-Chinese laws and policies continued for years, even decades, after the right to vote was regained in 1947. The 1890 clause prohibiting Chinese laborers from working at the City cemetery was repealed in 1950, and in 1952, the City hired its first-ever Chinese employee.Social practices often changed one small incident and one brave challenge at a time. Vivian Jung, a young student teacher aiming to obtain her swimming lifesaver certificate, was denied entry to the Crystal Pool with her group of fellow student teachers. In protest, her instructor and classmates refused to enter the pool unless Jung was allowed in. This stand marked the end of the long-standing color bar at the City’s only public swimming pool in 1945. Vivian Jung later became the first Chinese Canadian teacher hired by the Vancouver School Board to teach in the public school system in Vancouver (details of Vivian Jung’s story can be found in the film Operation Oblivion).
  • Chinatown Today: Despite the dark histories of discrimination towards Chinese people in Vancouver, Vancouver’s Chinatown has developed and continues to be the vibrant centre of an evolving and enduring culture. It is a place that speaks to important historical themes in Canada relating to urban immigration and settlement patterns, the formation of cultural identity through community organizations, and the expression of social and cultural history through a specific vernacular architecture that is characteristic of the neighbourhood. Unlike many historic Chinatowns in North America, Vancouver’s has not lost its connection to the local community nor been reduced to a tiny remnant of its former self. There has always been a Chinatown in Vancouver. Chinatown is closely tied to the development of Vancouver’s original commercial core as one of the two formative communities but enjoys a distinct stature in part because of its historic associations with early Chinese settlement in British Columbia and Canada. With growth came influence. Vancouver’s Chinatown merchants and entrepreneurs played an ever more important role in the development of British Columbia in many industries.
    Vancouver’s Chinatown has been and continues to be extensively studied and written about by academics from around the world studying urban geography, community organizing tactics, culture, immigration and racism.



An initial draft of this research was prepared by a research consultant; the draft was subsequently reviewed and revised by a working group comprised of Professors Henry Yu and Jean Barman and by Mr. John Atkin. The final draft was reviewed and approved by the Project’s Advisory Group. We thank the working group for their significant contribution to the research document. We also thank the HDC Advisory Group for their guidance and support to the project.



The report was first published by the Vancouver City Council.



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