Remembering 100th Anniversary of the “Chinese Exclusion Act”, Refusing “Chinese Exclusion 2.0”

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 banned all Chinese immigrants to Canada, effective for 24 years. During this time, immigration into Canada from most countries was controlled or restricted, however people of Chinese descent were singled out for full exclusion. For this reason, the Act is more commonly known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act”, and the day the Act was enacted on July 1st, 1923 was seen “Humiliation Day” by the old generations of Chinese immigrants.

Everyone who has learned Canadian history should know that the sacrificing contributions of Chinese workers were crucial in shaping the landscape of current Canada as a nation — building a railway that connected the eastern and western Canada, bringing the province of British Columbia to become part of Canada. However, the Rocky Mountains presented an obstacle that hindered the construction of the railway. The perforation is impossible without the dedication of hardworking Chinese workers. According to incomplete statistics, at least seventeen thousand Chinese workers joined the construction of the Pacific Railway from 1881 to 1884, which resulted in countless casualties among the workers. Even though the academia does not have the specific number of casualties, it is widely agreed that “under the Pacific Railway lied carcasses of nameless Chinese workers”.

Back then, the Canada’s population is roughly around 4 million, and BC’s population is approximately 35 thousand. An estimate of 10-20 thousand Chinese workers is considered a large proportion in Canada and the province of British Columbia, despite the fact that they sacrificed their lives to build the railway so that the Canadian federal government fulfils the promise to the BC province. However, the railway completion ceremony deliberately excluded Chinese workers, followed by a series of Chinese exclusion policies, such as the imposing and increasing of the head tax and enacting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 — this is a humiliation to the Chinese community, so is to Canada itself.

Today, Chinese Canadians are still the target of discrimination a hundred years after.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, hatred towards Asian and Chinese have broken the “peaceful” environment within the Chinese Canadian community, which forced racialized Canadians to confront discrimination against them again.

Repeating the same mistake is a sign of the reversion of civilization. How should Canada and the Chinese community reflect upon the Chinese Exclusion Act to avoid repeating the same mistakes? On February 14, 2023, Senator Yuen Pau Woo presented an answer to this question during his speech at the Parliament.

The speech opened up with a review of offensives received by Chinese people from BC senators a hundred years ago. Then, Senator Woo pointed out that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in fact not a “victimless crime” because it restricted countless Chinese people from entering Canada and victimized and humiliated Chinese people who had already immigrated to Canada. The Act prohibited Chinese people from entering Canada while requiring Chinese Canadians to carry out identity registration within a year, which is the essence of the “Registry of Unwanted Foreigners”!

History makes people wise. It is thus not difficult to understand “why so many Chinese Canadians today are wary of efforts to again register those who are already in the country but who are deemed to have the wrong connections or backgrounds”.

The Chinese Canadian Museum that is about to open in B.C. will display the influence of the Chinese Exclusion Act on Chinese Canadians. History is a guide for the future. Technology nowadays can go up to outer space and launch AI to write sophisticated essays while the current Canadian political mentality seems still the same as those in WWII when people were registering and labelling racialized groups according to their country of origin.

Why is the Chinese community in Canada still suffering from and worrying about fundamental human rights when its history of immigration to Canada is even longer than the history of this country? It also has something to do with participation and performance in the society by the Chinese community itself.

Senator Yuen Pau Woo pointed out that Chinese Canadian account for 2.2% of leadership positions among the leading organizations in the Greater Toronto Region. However, they account for 11.1% of the population in most regions. In addition, Chinese Canadians are constantly underrepresented in the public service sectors across the country from coast to coast to coast.

Chinese Canadians are largely responsible for this situation. “Many Chinese immigrant families prioritize diligence and keeping their heads down rather than seeking to challenge the establishment and assuming leadership roles.” No matter it originated from Chinese culture or the pursuit of personal prosperity, which constitutes a low enthusiasm for social and political affairs from Chinese Canadians.

Another reason that hinders the emergence of Chinese Canadians in mainstream society is that some immigrants see themselves as the “guests of this country”, which explains why they are reluctant to be deeply involved in it. It is “ a sentiment of humility and respect, but also one that was cultivated by a history of discrimination and exclusion.” However, Chinese Canadians should know that they can overcome those undesirable attitudes.

If the inferiority mentalities are not eliminated, Chinese Canadians will never take the lead in Canada, no matter how many generations have immigrated! “Chinese Canadians are no longer guests in this country — regardless of when they arrived.  They should neither think of themselves as guests nor be treated as such. No one has the right to tell us to go back to the country we came from.”— This is the attitude that Chinese Canadians should hold!

In addition to warning to the community, the most important part of senator Woo’s speech is that he honestly pointed out three kinds of modern exclusion towards Chinese people within Canadian society that are existing and emerging.

“The first is old-fashioned racism not unlike the sort that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act 100 years ago. This is the impulse behind many of the unprovoked attacks on Asian Canadians in recent years. The number of unreconstructed racists is probably small, but they are aided and abetted by seemingly respectable folks who nevertheless feed racial animus by insinuating generalizations about Chinese people in Canada and the ills that they are alleged to have brought to society—for example, money laundering, unaffordable housing, and the epidemic of opioid deaths”.

“The second form of exclusion is a function of long-held stereotypes about Chinese Canadians and what they are good for. Yes, the Chinese are super at math and engineering, they make great doctors and lawyers, are amazing musicians and are generally good citizens. But are they suitable for leadership positions? I have already said that this is a problem that Chinese Canadians must confront in terms of their self-perception and personal aspirations, but it is also an issue for our establishment institutions to reflect on”.

“The third exclusion is the most insidious because it is an exclusion that seeks to divide the Chinese community into those who are acceptable and those who are not. An acceptable Chinese Canadian conforms to a certain view of the world, disavows affiliations with individuals and groups that are blackballed for political reasons, and publicly voices opposition to what has been deemed as the all-encompassing menace that is the People’s Republic of China.  Not conforming to these cannons is seen as suspicious at best, or more ominously, as a litmus test of disloyalty and malfeasance against Canada.  This is the kind of exclusion that celebrates Chinese Canadians if they vote the “right” way in an election but who are deemed to have been swayed by sinister forces if they didn’t. It is the kind of exclusion that questions the motives of Chinese community groups who bought Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in large quantities to send to China during the early days of COVID and then questions them again when they brought large quantities of PPE from China to distribute in Canada when we were experiencing a spike in infections. It is the kind of exclusion that assumes every workplace infraction in the technology sector is an instance of espionage. That frames collaborations between Canadian and Chinese scientists as intrinsically suspect, which calls on Chinese Canadian researchers to turn their backs on longstanding partnerships in the mainland”.

After all, the Chinese community is being stigmatized and alienated again like a hundred years ago. Thus, comes the “Chinese Exclusion 2.0”.

History makes people wise. When the exclusion comeback more insidiously and dangerously, our society and community should be alarmed by recognizing it thoroughly and fighting back promptly to prevent history from repeating itself.

Saying no to the “Chinese Exclusion 2.0” is the responsibility of the three levels of government, the conscience of the media, and the mission of Chinese Canadians.


(Written by Dr. Ally Wang, Co-founder of Stop Anti-Asian Hate Crime Advocacy Group; Translated by Riven Chen, Kenny Zhang)

It also appeared in Chinese by Rise Weekly