Chinatown, a Stage and Also a Fortress

Authour: Ding Guo
Date: July 2021
Even today, Canadian Chinatowns remain as tourist attractions full of cultural features. Many Europeans, Americans, or even other Asians enter Chinatowns in search of an Asian oasis in the sea of white people; or an ancient historical atmosphere within a young country.
The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration wrote about the origins of Chinatowns around the world: “A Chinatown is a neighborhood outside mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan that has historically been a place of residence for overseas Chinese and a center of distinctly Chinese business, social, and cultural activities.” The appearance of Chinatowns is a product of mass migration of Chinese people abroad. Especially after the 19th century, Chinatowns appeared in Southeast Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, and even Africa and Latin America following the footsteps of the early Chinese pioneers. At the same time, Chinatowns appeared as a result of anti-Chinese actions. Chinese immigrants faced cultural differences with local society, and due to a surge of nationalism at the time, Chinese culture-centered economies emerged. The masses of Chinese migrants abroad had limited knowledge of the new lands. Having no families and being unable to communicate effectively, they were forced to live amongst themselves due to psychological, social and economic needs. They formed relatively safe, cheap, convenient buffer zones between themselves and other cultural communities.”
Indeed, Canada’s Chinatowns functioned as fortresses in the beginning, giving these explorers far away from home a relatively safe nest; a place of mother tongues, a place with some comfort, a place of messages from home, and a place with friends that would lend a hand when needed. Consequently, regionally-based guilds, gangs, and meeting halls arose quickly in Chinatowns as mutual support groups for their members.
Chinatowns not only provided a place for young people who travelled to Canada in search of prosperity, they also become the spiritual support for the times when North America experienced its anti-Chinese movements. As things changed with time, the Chinatowns have gone through continuous cycles of flourishing and downfall together with history. Their cultural significance has also accumulated day by day. For second and third generation Chinese immigrants, their goals were to flee Chinatowns, “from Chinatown to Vancouver’s west side” became a road of tears, sweat and struggle. Those Chinese who were able to make it outside even thought that those who stayed in Chinatowns were worthless and inauthentic “bananas”, yellow only on the outside, white on the inside. On the opposite end of the attitudinal spectrum, the close-minded and xenophobic “Chinatown consciousness” slowly turned into a new “mental fortress” that inhibited positive interactions between Chinese people and the surrounding society at large. It also served to encourage pitting the Chinese people to scheme against one another within their limited society. Those Chinese who made it in terms of material wealth became wanderers in terms of spirituality, living as strays on the fringes of culture.
As a matter of fact, the earliest Chinatown in Canada was not in Vancouver, but in Victoria, where the earliest Chinese settlers landed on Canadian soil. As stated before, Chinese workers and other Chinese people flooded into Canada along with the Gold Rush and railway construction. These two waves of immigration became the earliest two times when Chinese people participated in the building of Canada, but they also turned into the beginning of Canada’s history of racial discrimination against Chinese people in Canada. The early Chinese workers came to Canada to engage in hard labour; they dreamed of becoming wealthy in the “gold mountains”, and returning home dressed up in fine clothing one day. They were travelers away from home, full of hope to return one day. This “temporary resident” mentality is a true reflection of what many overseas Chinese thought for a long time, and it is unnecessary for anyone to conceal or frame it in some other fashion.
However, this is not the same as what many white workers claimed, that the Chinese people had no intention of staying in Canada. As their homeland in China was in turmoil and experiencing massive poverty, many Chinese workers actually intended to stay in Canada over the long term. However, during the early days of Canada’s development, the so-called mainstream society had a “utilitarian” attitude when dealing with the Chinese. Their minds were filled with prejudiced and discriminatory ideas of the Chinese following the Opium Wars, making it impossible for them to treat Chinese people with the same equal and just principles they used for themselves, to the point that they “burned the bridges” after the railway was completed.
After the completion of the CPR in November 1885, a surge of unemployment struck the Chinese workers in western Canada. The Chinese business brokers were so unconcerned with the plight of their own brethren that they refused to pay Chinese workers money for their return trip back to their homeland. Aside from a few workers who came from and returned to the United States, many were held up in B.C.. Adding insult to injury, many municipal governments had racially discriminatory laws on employment, and at the same time the Chinese workers had limited English. These workers were forced to continue doing hard labour in coal mines and lumberyards, or in the homes of rich white families as servants. A few ended up farming or selling vegetables. However, most had to return to Chinatown in Victoria or New Westminster. Those who had some money saved up opened restaurants, convenience stores or laundries, and those without capital ended up laboring in Chinatowns. They added new lifeblood into the Chinatowns that had developed along with the Gold Rush and the railway construction.
Looking at the history of Chinatowns from a Chinese person’s perspective, they were places where Chinese people gathered, resided, huddled, and survived in the darkest of times. Whether it be the Chinatown in Victoria or the Chinatown in Vancouver, they were areas with a radius of less than 300 metres. But it was in such small neighborhoods that many Chinese followed their thorny paths of life during the period of over a hundred years of Canadian history.
In the late 19th century, Chinese people crossed the Pacific in search of the gold mountains during the Gold Rush period, then starting in 1881, when construction of the CPR began, 17, 000 Chinese workers from China and the United States were hired by Canadian contractors. More than 3, 000 of them lost their lives.
In 1885, the railway was completed, and the federal government passed a new immigration act targeting Chinese people, stating that starting in January 1886, every Chinese immigrant would be charged a head-tax of 50 Canadian dollars. The head-tax rose to 100 dollars in July 1900, reflecting the growth of anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada. Parliament increased the head-tax yet again after amending the immigration laws, and the price became 500 dollars in July 1903. This amount was equal to two years of salary for a Chinese worker at the time. Finally, in 1923, the federal government altogether banned Chinese people from entering Canada with a new Chinese Immigration Act (commonly referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act), which replaced the head-tax. It was not until May 17, 1947 that the Act was abolished. This simple historical record tells of the countless tears shed by the many broken Chinese families, and Chinatowns are the silent witnesses to this period in history. At the beginning of the 20th century, the anti-Chinese movement dealt a strong blow to Chinatowns. Chinese people were ridiculed, their homes destroyed, and in a great blaze, Chinatowns turned into a ruin of bloodshed.
That was a time which no Chinese Canadian wants to think back on. Logically speaking, the Chinese people should have been vindicated right after World War II, yet it took another half a century after the abolishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. On June 22, 2006, 3:15 PM EST, the official status of the Chinese people made a critical turn in history. On Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered “a full apology to Chinese Canadians” for the 1885 head-tax on Chinese immigrants and for the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. Harper said in his speech: “While Canadian courts have ruled that the head tax and immigration prohibition were legally authorized at the time, we fully accept the responsibility to acknowledge the shameful policies of our past,” because “for over six decades these race-based financial measures aimed solely at the Chinese were implemented with deliberation by the Canadian state...this was a grave injustice and one we are morally obligated to acknowledge.”
It was a 100-year-long wait for Canadian Chinese and Chinatowns to finally reach this moment. However, despite the fact that the federal government has officially apologized through parliament and is currently paying 20, 000 dollars to each of the 20 surviving victims and the 200 family members of the victims of the head-tax, together with funding a Community Historical Recognition Program with 24 million dollars for educating and memorializing the history of wartime contributions and immigration restrictions of Canada, how could money possibly make up for the hardships that Canadian Chinese and Chinatowns have endured over the last hundred years?
The Department of Canadian Heritage (responsible for national policies and programs in communal history and multiculturalism) organized a rectifying journey for the victims of the head-tax and their families to get together in western Vancouver as an act to show sincerity and profoundness of the official apology. The tour started from Vancouver’s Chinatown, then headed towards Ottawa, making stopovers in Winnipeg and Toronto on the Canadian National Railway train. This train named “Rectification” by some Chinese and English media took its trip on the CPR, the railway that was constructed using thousands of lives of young Chinese workers. Harper wrote in his apology regarding the Chinese workers on the railway: “From the shores of the St. Lawrence, across the seemingly endless expanses of shield and prairie, climbing the majestic Rockies, and cutting through the rugged terrain of British Columbia, this transcontinental link was the ribbon of steel that bound our fledgling country together. It was an engineering feat—one for which the back-breaking toil of Chinese labourers was largely responsible.” Who would have thought that the Canadian government not only did not bestow rewards based on merit, but rather burned the bridges for the Chinese people, and began its racially discriminatory actions by first collecting head-taxes, then constantly increasing the amount to prevent Chinese people from arriving, and finally passing the Chinese Exclusion Act that left many families broken, parents and children separated, husbands and wives apart. It was a great tragedy of humanity. This ride on the “Rectification” train summarized the hardships and sufferings of the Chinese people in Canada over the past hundred years. Yet, how was this tragedy exclusive to Chinese in Canada? The same was done to the Chinese people in the United States at the time. The historical justification on June 22 did not fall out of the sky, nor was it granted by a superior power. It was earned through the hard work and peaceful protest by generation after generation of Chinese Canadians.
During the Second World War, Chinese Canadians actively volunteered to join the Canadian army to show their love and compassion for Canada. They performed great military feats in the bloody war against fascism. After the war, the Canadian government finally abolished the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, and finally the families who were separated by an ocean for decades were able to reunite, but the painful wounds caused by the head-tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act would not heal easily. By the 80s of the 20th century, Chinese people and social justice groups began taking action towards getting compensation for the head-tax. There were almost ten thousand victims alive at the time. However, the path towards justice was not a smooth ride. The road was filled with bumps and twists that almost turned the movement into a complete failure. In the last couple of decades, victims of the head-tax continued to pass away disappointed. Such was the cold hard end created by a century of injustice. As times continued to change, Chinese communities kept growing stronger, and the historical opportunity finally came for head-tax compensation. Through this example we can see that Chinese communities are no longer just a herd of sheep. They would no longer cower in the government’s shadows, nor act as slaves to the system; they would be gentle and civil citizens, but not to be stepped on. Chinese communities began to display significant political power.
Chinatown was a great fortress, but it has become even more of an open stage. As Canada established policies on multiculturalism in 1971, culturally brilliant Chinatowns slowly turned into archetypes of traditional Asian cultures and were celebrated as such by local communities. In 1971, Vancouver’s Chinatown was designated by the B.C. provincial government as a Provincial Historic Site, and later in 2011, it was designated by the federal government as one of 956 National Historic Sites.
Guo Ding, a.k.a. Ding Guo, is a Vancouver journalist, columnist, historian on the immigration history of Chinese Canadians, and an author of several books, including Canada's Chinese Gene. The EAEF publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues. This article first appeared in The Georgia Straight April 19th, 2020.