The 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Early settlers

According to James Morton, author of In the Sea of Sterile Mountains, the first Chinese person arrived onboard a British explorer’s ship on Vancouver Island’s West coast in 1779. They were artisans brought by Captain John Meares from Macau. In other words, Chinese people have been living in this part of Canada for as long as the European settlers.

The first recorded immigration of Chinese was in 1858. They came to BC for gold from California, where they had been doing the same for almost a decade. They were followed by others who came directly from the same area they came from Guangdong. These were mostly farmers fleeing poverty and instability. But the numbers were small in the first two decades of their arrival. The population of Chinese in BC in the 1860s ranged from 1,700 to 4,000. Between 1876 and 1880, immediately before the construction of the transcontinental CPR began, only 2,326 Chinese arrived by ship in Canada.

The arrival of the Chinese was greeted with hostile language in the press. On June 3, 1858, the Victoria Gazette stated, “a batch of celestials have landed from Oregon and are encamped in the neighbourhood of Yale.” On July 10, 1858, the same newspaper reported that “most of the claims now being abandoned are immediately taken up by Chinamen. . . Chinamen not only “jumped” claims, but also took possession of the cabins and cooking utensils of [white] miners.”

In 1862, Bishop George Hills of the Anglican church visited Yale. He wrote in his journal: “They work over again the claims which Europeans have already searched. They are content with a dollar or two a day. . . . . At present, they are helping us to develop the land. They are conscientious, cultivating gardens out of barren wastes. Mr. Ferrier, a leading miner on Hills Bar, told me he employed them as labourers and preferred them greatly to Europeans of Caucasian descent.  They worked for $2.50 instead of $5.00, worked longer and more obediently . . . their labour was a great saving.”

The Chinese presence was tolerated at that time by the colonist because, as put by Amor De Cosmos, editor of a local newspaper who later became the premier of the province of BC: “They may be inferior, . . . still, their presence at this juncture would benefit trade. . . . “


The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway

Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald had promised the Colony of British Columbia the completion of the transcontinental railway. But one of the most challenging parts of the construction was the 203 kilometres of the Fraser Canyon’s deep valleys and cliffs. An American, Andrew Onderdonk, secured the four railway construction contracts through the Rocky Mountains, apparently directly from Sir John A. MacDonald. Onderdonk had experience in major public works around San Francisco and knew the capabilities of Chinese workers.

Onderdonk exploited Chinese railway workers to reduce the cost of CPR building through the Fraser Canyon. While British railway workers were paid an average of $1.50 to $2.50 a day, Chinese railway workers were paid one-half, $0.75 to $1.75 daily.

Not only did these workers paid less, they also lived in squalid conditions and performed the most dangerous tasks. Accidents were frequent, but the company-issued accident figures excluded the casualties of the Chinese workers. Many died in rock explosions, were buried in collapsed tunnels, or drowned in the river after falling from unfinished bridges.

When the work was completed in the Fraser Canyon during the winter of 1883-84, the contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, fired Chinese workers at the work site, leaving them to fend for themselves in the dying towns along the completed track. In 1891 the Chinese Benevolent Association of Victoria collected more than 300 unidentified corpses from the Fraser and Thompson canyons and returned them to China for a decent burial.


The outcry from BC

In the 1870s, people in BC, mainly from the United Kingdom, did not welcome the arrival of the Chinese. After joining the Confederation, one of the first Acts of the BC Provincial legislature was to amend the Qualification of Voters Act to disenfranchise Chinese and Indians in provincial elections.  In May of 1873, the first Anti-Chinese Society was established in Victoria.  In 1875 the Victoria City Council agreed to ban Chinese labour from working on City works. Two days later, the BC legislature passed an act prohibiting Chinese employment in public works.  Over 100 racially discriminatory laws were enacted, with disenfranchisement between 1872 and 1947.

Under the prejudicial assumption that the Chinese did not pay their fair share of taxes, the BC lawmakers in 1878 proposed a law that stated: “every Chinese person over twelve years of age shall take out a licence every three months, for which he shall pay the sum of ten dollars, in advance.” After a court case that found it unconstitutional, the Governor General of Canada disallowed the law on the advice of the Minister of Justice on October 1879.

The anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong that then-premier Amor de Cosmos, who some years ago believed that Chinese presence could be tolerated for commercial reasons, petitioned Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in 1879 to restrict Chinese immigration, to exclude Chinese labour from railway construction, to impose a tax on all resident Chinese, to disenfranchise British subjects of Chinese extraction and to exclude Chinese from leasing Crown land and from working on Canadian ships or any ships in Canadian waters.

Macdonald appointed a select committee to study the question to placate the agitation from BC.

One of the most telling testimonies heard by the Select Committee was from Mr. Barnard, who ran the mail stage from Yale to Caribou: “The fact is, gentlemen, the Chinese are too smart for us. They will beat us wherever they get a foothold.” When asked whether it was the greatest objection to them on the part of the white population?  He answered: “. . . I think it is.”

The federal government did not take any action after it received the Select Committee’s report in May 1879.

In the meantime, the rate of migration by the Chinese increased greatly due to the construction of CPR.  By 1882, Amor de Cosmos wrongly predicted in the House that there would be 24,000 Chinese in Canada by August and that by the end of the year, they would outnumber the 30,000 whites in British Columbia. Amor de Cosmos’ alarmist speech caused Prime Minister Macdonald to tell British Columbians in a House of Commons’ debate that: “If you wish to have the railway [CPR] finished within any reasonable time, there must be no such step against Chinese labour. At present, it is simply a question of alternative – either you must have this labour, or you cannot have the railway.”

With the completion of the Fraser Canyon portion of the CPR in 1884, there was a growing protest of the Chinese labourers who were viewed as a threat to the livelihoods of Europeans of Caucasian descent. The BC government passed an Act to Prevent the Immigration of Chinese in 1884. After the Dominion government disallowed this 1884 Act, the BC Legislature passed the same legislation Act in 1885. The Federal government also disallowed this Act.

In 1888, BC Legislature passed the Coal Mines Regulation Act. Rule 34 reads: “No Chinaman or person unable to speak English shall be appointed to or shall occupy any position of trust or responsibility in or about a mine subject to this Act. . . “  A court case was mounted by coal baron James Dunsmuir who wanted to continue exploiting Chinese labour to work his coal mines. It went all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, which ruled it unconstitutional.

The Coal Mines Regulation Act was only the tip of the iceberg of similar hostile laws and regulations enacted by the provincial government and various municipal authorities between 1885 and 1923. They ranged from the Municipal Elections Act, Public Schools Act, Liquor License Act, Lands Act, Forest Act, Pool-rooms Act, Oriental Orders in Council Validation Act, Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act, and Male Minimum Wage Act.  Every one of these Acts contained discriminatory provisions denying Chinese employment or election rights.

Responding to their constituents’ continued lobbying, members of Parliament from British Columbia pressured the Dominion government to act. As a result, the Dominion government introduced the head tax of $50 in 1885, which was increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903.  That amount was equivalent to two years of wages at the time.  Every Chinese person entering Canada for the first time had to pay this head tax.

The Head Tax also brought in handsome money. In 1902 alone, the annual income from the tax was $1.2 million for the Dominion and $417,000 for the province. By comparison, the BC provincial legislature cost only 900,00 dollars to build in 1898. A total tax revenue of $23 million (nominal value) was collected through the head tax, and the BC government received approximately 40% of it.  The value of the $23 millions legally collected by morally unjustifiable tax, including compound interest, is estimated to be approximately $1.5 billion in today’s dollars.

And in 1907, a race riot broke out in Vancouver in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japan town. The Asiatic Exclusion League of British Columbia, formed under the auspices of the Trade and Labour Council, started the riot as their members saw the Chinese and Japanese threatening their livelihood.  The AEL’s stated aim was “to keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia.”


The Dominion government politicians’ view toward the Chinese

While it is fair to say BC politicians against the Chinese forced the Federal government’s hand, it is also fair to say the federal leaders of the day held racist views.  Sir John A. McDonald’s election campaign in 1882 was based on the racist slogan “Canada for Canadians.”  He believed the Chinese and Japanese were “an alien race” that could not be assimilated into Canada.

And what about MacKenzie King? In his third Royal Commission Report, King wrote: “That Canada should desire to restrict immigration and remain a white man’s country is regarded as not only natural but necessary for economic, political and social reasons.”


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923

The head tax did not slow down the Chinese population growth. According to data from Professor Peter S. Li in his book Chinese in Canada, the Chinese population in Canada grew from 17,314 in 1901 to 27,831 in 1911 and then to 39,587 in 1921.

Early in 1922, 13 British Columbia MPs, Liberals, Conservatives and Progressives, went before Charles Stewart, the new minister of immigration, to demand the total exclusion of all Orientals from the province. Stewart was impressed with the unanimous opinion of members from all parties in the province.

In May 1922, a bill to exclude all Orientals from the country was introduced by W.G. McQuarice, a Member from New Westminister, BC.  The bill was defeated, and one that included the term “effective registration” was passed.

That triggered an avalanche of criticism from BC. An outcry from local newspapers that BC members were ignored despite their unanimous opinion. The then BC Attorney-general A.M. Manson was quoted to have said: ‘We want B.C. to be a white province.”

In February 1923, Stewart stated that he had consulted with the Chinese ambassador in Washington and the Chinese consul-general in Ottawa. It had been generally agreed that no more Chinese would enter Canada except consuls, merchants and students. He reported that the Republic of China had agreed to these stipulations, and there was no ill will. The government presented a bill to that effect. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in May 1923 and came into effect on July 1, 1923.

It is interesting to note that the passing of the Act did not meet with fanfare or celebration in BC. In summarizing the achievements of that year’s legislative session, the leading newspaper in Victoria, the World, did not even mention the new immigration act.


The impact on the community

For most Chinese people in Canada, the exclusion Act meant they could no longer bring their wives and children to Canada. The Japanese invasion and a later change of government regime forced many to die in Canada alone in poverty and misery.

In 1941, there were 29,033 Chinese men in Canada, of whom 80% were married but with their families left in China.  And because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, their wives and children were not allowed to join them in Canada.

I still remember vividly the sad tears of an old Chinese bachelor living in Villa Cathy when I visited him as a volunteer in 1974. He had paid the $500 head tax to come as a general labourer and didn’t have the money to return to China to get married as many other Chinese men did. In the Chinese community, the ratio of men to women averaged 1 to 15 between 1911 and 1931.  With the rampant racist attitude of the day and the lack of English language ability, the chance of a Chinese man getting married in those days was extremely limited.

The families of these men who returned to China to get married also suffered greatly. A Chinese woman who came to Canada in 1958 described her tragedy:

“During the starvation [in 1954], there was nothing to eat . . . We went to pick the pea leaves and boiled them [to eat] . . . my husband could not send money back . . . He sent me money, but it did not reach me . . . . in 1958, I came on Christmas Day. I came for one year, and then my husband died.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act also required “every person of Chinese origin or descent in Canada” to register with the Government of Canada. This requirement includes children born in Canada.  On the face of the certificate, it was stated that “This certificate does not establish legal status in Canada.”

No wonder the Chinese used to call the date that the law took effect on July 1, 1923, Dominion Day, the “Humiliation Day.”

As a result of the Act, the Chinese population in Canada steadily declined from a height of 46,519 in 1931 to 34,527 in 1941 to a low of 32,528 in 1951.  This, combined with the many restrictive labour laws, Chinese living in BC in 1931 were restricted to engaging in manual labour such as laundry (4%), restaurant (20%), retail (7%), general labour (45%) and agriculture (23%).

Chinese were barred from professional occupations such as law, accounting and engineering because they were not allowed to become citizens of Canada.  Jack Wong, the brother of the late philanthropist Milton Wong, worked as a tailor all his life even though he had an engineering degree from UBC! And there were many in the community who suffered the same fate.


Chinese-Canadians’ effort to repeal the Act

The Chinese community did try to voice their objection to the Chinese Exclusion Act. In January 1923, a group in Vancouver presented a four-point proposal that called for the abolition of restrictive and discriminatory laws and equal rights for Chinese and amnesty for Chinese already residing in Canada.

Many Chinese community organizations nationwide joined in their efforts to object to the Act. The Chinese Association of Canada was established with its offices in Toronto. They raised money for the effort by assessing $2 for each owner of a business and each ordinary community member a contribution of $1.

Chinese community leaders also enlisted the help of the Consul of the Republic of China. The strongest of the Chinese arguments was about a potential trade with China. And that is why merchants were included in the exemptions. In March of 1923, Consul Tsur of the Republic of China presented a twelve-point proposal to Mackenzie King, including an agreement “on an annual quota for appropriate classes of immigrants.”

You may wonder why Chinese people seek the help of the Chinese Consul to protect their rights in Canada. The answer to that question is simple: they were considered aliens by the Canadian government and the public.  They didn’t have a choice.


The second world war and the participation of Chinese-Canadian Youth

When world war two broke out, there was debate amongst the Chinese about whether they should enlist. Many expressed that why fight for a country that did not want them? But those who argue that by fighting alongside other Canadians, they will demonstrate to Canada that they are worthy of being its citizens. But they were told they were not welcome when they tried to join up.

But they preserved. More than 600 Chinese British Columbians would ultimately serve in the Second World War. They saw action on land, at sea and in the air with all three military branches. As the conflict spread after Japan entered the war, some were recruited as Allied secret agents behind enemy lines in Asia, where they could better blend in with the local populations. In the end, many Chinese Canadians would make the ultimate sacrifice during the war.


The repeal of the Act in 1947

Returning, they formed the Chinese Canadian Unit No. 280 of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veteran of Canada. They lobbied successfully to gain citizenship not just for themselves but for all Canadians of Chinese heritage.


The changing social climate in Canada

While Chinese Canadians were allowed to vote in Federal elections beginning on May 12, 1947, the City of Vancouver continued to deny them their voting rights.

As a newspaper article of the day reported, the Corporation Counsel for the City of Vancouver stressed that a Chinese vote would impose “terrific responsibility” on the Returning Officer.  “Identification of a Chinese would be a tremendous problem,” he said.  “Many have the same or similar names.  Many have ‘cousins’ and so many lookalikes that sorting them out would be quite a task.”

I am glad the Returning Officers of today are not finding the task as onerous as was once perceived!  Today, Canadians of Chinese descent are taking full benefit of the franchise given to them.  They have been elected to the Federal parliament, provincial Legislatures and municipal councils.  They have served as heads of Missions to the United Nations, Lt. Governors and Governor General of our Country.  They have excelled in the various professional fields they were once denied entry to because of their lack of franchise.

Today, a Chinese Canadian sits on the City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s chair.  This is the city whose Charter in 1886 stated, “No Chinaman or Indian shall be entitled to vote at any municipal election for the election of a Mayor or Alderman.”

Chinese Canadians have come a long way from facing a sentiment of “it is concluded not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada, producing a Mongrel race, and interfering very much with white labour in Canada” to “I believe that the values held most strongly by our Chinese community are truly Canadian values – the values that have, that are, and that will make us a successful nation if they guide the decisions of government.”  The first quote was from Prime Minister Mackenzie king in 1887, and the second was from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006.


The rising of anti-Asian hate crimes

But what about the recent rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes that we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic? We saw increased racist graffiti in Chinatown and videos of Euro-Canadians splashing coffee on Chinese Canadians while cursing at them, an old Chinese man being pushed to the ground, an Asian cashier being yelled to “Go back to China” by a shopper for speaking Chinese. How worried should we be that history will repeat itself?

On an institutional level, I am not worried.  We now have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a part of our Constitution that guarantees the equal rights of all Canadians without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. We also have a Federal (1971) and a Provincial (1993) Multicultural Act, which encourages respect for the multicultural heritage of Canadians and British Columbians.  Multiculturalism is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 27 states: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”

On an individual level, I am not too worried. When the increase in racist incidents first raised its ugly head, BC’s Lt. Governor Janet Austin stated in her Victoria Day 2020 statement, “These terrible acts have no place in our province.” She asked people to “practice patience, kindness and understanding, and [to] speak up against hate in all forms.”  The BC Business Council also issued a public statement on Wednesday, 21, 2020, with a headline that stated, in part: “Say No to Hate . . . It Must Stop Now.” The statement, published in a full-page advertisement in several major newspapers, was signed by the CEOs of all member companies of the Business Council.

The Labour council of BC, whose members were the primary instigators of the Race Riot in 1907, hosted a dinner in 2007 to apologize to the Chinese-Canadian community for the racist comments and actions made by their predecessors.

But that does not mean we can let our guard down.  We all must speak up when we see acts of racism. It is only when we continue our vigilance that we can continue to right the wrongs committed over the course of our country and our province’s history. Our society will reap the benefits of diversity when we continue to take the path that embodies our best character and show the humanity that has served us so well in recent years.


By Tung Chan (, March 2023

The Cover image: Head tax certificate issued to Lee Don, age 22, arrived Victoria, B.C. on July 23, 1918 (VPL 30625)


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