Presentation at the Stop Anti-Asian Hate 2023 Annual Fundraising Gala, “Equality and Inclusivity,” Sheraton Hotel, 7551 Westminster Highway, Richmond, sponsored by the Stop Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Advocacy Group (反对仇恨亚裔犯罪关注组), January 12, 2023.
Thank you very much. It is an honour to be with you this evening. Stop Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Advocacy Group has done important work to bring communities together to fight anti-Asian racism. In some ways, I am the last person that should be up here. My grandparents came to British Columbia over one hundred years ago and took Kwantlen land near what is today called Langley. My grandfather was a close colleague of Thomas Reid, a notorious racist and Liberal member of parliament for New Westminster first elected in 1930.
As an ally and historian, however, I join you in highlighting the importance of this year, the 100th anniversary of the imposition of the Chinese Exclusion Act. When state-sponsored racism merges with popular racism, terrible things can and did happen. Unfortunately, similar things are happening today.
The passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 had serious consequences. The project 1923-Chinese-Exclusion describes how the act targeted Chinese newcomers and also local residents. In the twenty-five years after its imposition, only 50 Chinese were able to enter Canada while nearly a million Europeans arrived. Those already in Canada were cut off from their homeland, many passing without ever seeing their relatives again. And all Chinese Canadians had to register and could only leave the country for two years.
However, it would be wrong to portray Chinese Canadians simply as victims. At the time, communities from Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and beyond organized the Chinese Association of Canada, mounting a major campaign to resist the legislation. Though unable to stop it, the campaign reflected the growing strength of Asian Canadian communities, particularly in BC.
Despite racist immigration laws, Asian Canadian newcomers found ways to enter the country. By World War I, Chinese Canadian workers were becoming a major part of the workforce, had begun organizing unions including the Chinese Labour Union (1916) and the Japanese Labour Union of Canada (1920). Chinese workers often went on strike together with Punjabi, Japanese and Indigenous workers, and white workers as well. Even white trade unionists were impressed with the solidarity being displayed: “But at that, it’s a sight for the gods,” stated the The BC Federationist. Chinese market gardeners and hawkers were a mainstay in feeding the province in this era.
The sight of 80,000 Chinese labourers arriving off Victoria to join the Allies in WW I as support workers created great consternation on the part of white BC. Some Asian Canadians also joined the Canadian armed forces despite facing systemic barriers to enlisting. Upon their return, Asian Canadians lobbied hard to regain the right to vote. Nor should we forget the 1922 Chinese student strike that successfully countered the Victoria School Board’s attempt to segregate Chinese students in Victoria.
This Asian Canadian upsurge mirrored an Indigenous resurgence that led to the creation of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia (1916) to oppose the continuing occupation of their lands. Although fighting for different goals, the movements faced a common foe – racial capitalism and settler colonialism.
These local movements were part of a global wave of decolonization. Soldiers of colour returned to their lands to demand racial justice; others demanded independence from colonial powers. Out of this cauldron arose the May 4th movement in China, the March 1st movement in Korea, the March revolution in Egypt, and the Indian movement against British repression that culminated in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
What led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was a white backlash that began in 1919 in reaction to the upsurge of Asian Canadian demands for racial justice. Spearheading the backlash were white institutions including the Retail Merchants Association, the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, the British Columbia Fruit Growers Association, the Great War Veterans Association, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the Women’s Canadian Club among others.
Fanning the flames were local newspapers including the Vancouver Daily World and the short-lived Danger: The Anti-Asiatic Weekly. The Vancouver Sun published the racist novel, The Writing on the Wall. These forces created a new Asiatic Exclusion League with branches in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Courtenay, and Prince Rupert.
In 1922, two BC MPs introduced a federal resolution calling for a ban on Asian immigration. It was supported by the provincial and federal governments. The following year the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Even appeals by Sun Yat-Sen, in Canton at the time, failed to prevent the 1923 legislation.
Much has changed since 1923. Yet a century later, anti-Asian racism is severe. What is going on?
At a recent conference in Ottawa, Senator Yuen Pau Woo put it succinctly. The “single most important factor for the rise in prejudice and antagonism towards Asian Canadians in recent years [is] anti-China sentiment.” In fighting Sinophobia, however, we should not fall into the trap of parroting the Chinese government. Critical anti-racist analysis will be more essential than ever in the coming years if we are to achieve an independent Canadian foreign policy.
It will require extraordinary cross-community efforts to meet the challenges ahead. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act is an important means of building solidarities while challenging racist stereotypes regarding China.
Thanks for all your efforts!
John Price is professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, advisor to Canada-China Focus, and author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific.