‘Chinese Crimes’ in Canada: 1858-1923
‘Chinese Crimes’ in Canada: 1858-1923
It is evident that ‘white’ Canadians and the Chinese had innate cultural differences at the time of the development of the Canadian west in the early twentieth century. Contemporary accounts of the ‘heathen Chinee’ or ‘Oriental’ reflect both the exotic view of a nation and culture that was worlds away from the Franco-British and later Pan-European character of ‘white’ Canadians, and ignorance of the storied and distinctive history of Asian peoples in general. Racially-charged legislation and police practices have largely dissipated in our increasingly multicultural society, though contemporary observers admit that Canada today is not yet free of racial discrimination and cultural stereotypes. When reviewing the available historiography it is clear that a multitude of legislation passed in early twentieth-century Canada was targeted directly at Chinese immigrants. These ‘Chinese crimes’ were introduced to the Canadian legal system due to economic as well as cultural practices that those with influence found abhorrent, and reflected both racial stereotypes and a reaction to the increasing visibility of Asians in the Canadian labour market. Though the most concrete examples of anti-Chinese legislation came to pass in the first two decades of the twentieth century, their creation was rooted in stereotypes that manifested as early as the 1860s.
This essay will identify what were perceived as ‘Chinese crimes’ by addressing three key questions about the new wave of Asian immigration that coincided with the development of the west. First, it is important to address exactly why Chinese chose to emigrate, and where they staked their claim in the labour market. Also, we must identify how and why ‘white’ Canadians reacted to the increasing presence of the Chinese, through discriminatory practices and the introduction of codified legislation directed specifically at their race. Finally, we must consider the perceptions of our southern neighbours. A general theme in the historiography is that, odious as they were, the anti-Chinese laws as introduced and enforced in Canada paled in comparison with American counterparts such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. We will examine these questions chronologically, from the first arrival of Chinese prospectors in 1858 to the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. As Canada is country that prides itself on being less racist than her neighbour to the south, the examination of the historical background of racism has not been widespread. By examining issues such as racism and the law, historians are not dismantling the pride of their nation but merely contributing to the greater understanding of an increasingly diverse and multicultural society.
The Chinese were present on the west coast of Canada as early as 1788, when ex-Royal Navy Captain John Meares contracted a group from Macau of around 70 Chinese carpenters, metalworkers, shipbuilders and sailors to assist in the construction of a settlement at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. Shortly after constructing the North West America, the first ship built on the Pacific Northwest coast, the settlement was overrun by Spanish ships; the fate of the Chinese workers is not clear, but some are believed to have married native women and remained in the new world. However, the general consensus among historians is to begin the narrative of the Chinese in Canada with the discovery of gold in the Fraser River in 1858.
By the 1850s, South China was a volatile region, suffering greatly from the consequences of the Opium War and the decline of the Qing dynasty. The violence and chaos of the Opium War spawned a surge of peasant rebellions that ultimately created a vast human reservoir of unemployed peasants and labourers. Land ownership sharply declined due to deteriorating farming conditions, whereby 1888 70 percent of all farm families were landless tenants. As well, the population of Guangdong province almost doubled from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, and without a concurrent increase in agricultural capacity the vast majority became mired in poverty. Undoubtedly, poor economic conditions and the unstable political climate were the key push factors that caused so many Chinese to leave their homes for a laborious life overseas.
Before the 1960s, most Chinese immigrants to Canada were from a small and distinct region of Guangdong province in South China. Except for a small number of merchants, the majority of emigrants came from the lower ranks of Chinese society. As with many nineteenth settlers of the North American frontier regardless of creed or color, the initial Chinese settlers flocked to Western Canada in search of gold and fortune. North America became known to the Chinese as Gum Shan (Gold Mountain), a term still used today amongst Cantonese speakers. These initial settlers were largely sojourners, hoping to earn sufficient savings to retire in comfort as respected elders in their native villages. Despite their intentions, it is estimated that only 40 percent of early Chinese immigrants ever returned to China. The Guangdong region was of course the only region of China open to Westerners during the Qing dynasty, and Wang suggests that this factor made these Chinese “more ready to adopt Western commercial ideas and a spirit of Adventure.”
It is clear that gold lured the Chinese to British Columbia, just as it had to California a decade earlier. By 1860 the Chinese presence in Vancouver Island and British Columbia stood at about 4,000, making them a large and visible segment of the frontier population. Chinese settlements arose in both Victoria and Vancouver, and consequently the first Chinese-owned laundries and general stores opened to accommodate the new arrivals. Furthermore, many Chinese remained in the region after the depletion of gold deposits in the late 1860s, finding jobs as labourers, domestic servants, coal miners, gardeners and business owners. These settlers can be identified as the first wave of Chinese-Canadians. Since many white prospectors had previously been in contact with the Chinese in California, they carried their prejudices with them. However, though there was some harassment and anti-Chinese agitation, this period did not see the enactment of discriminatory legislation.
In addition, press coverage of the “dirty and deplorable” practice of opium smoking emerged in the 1860s, though its use was generally tolerated as long as the practice was kept to the Chinese. Media coverage and reactions to drug use would be more heated after the passage of strict drug laws in the early twentieth century, with provocative by-lines such as “Chinks Pay Heavily for Hitting Pipe.” From the days of the gold rush, gambling was an important part of Chinese life on the Western frontier, with Victoria’s “Fantan Alley” achieving particular notoriety. However, Chinese gambling did not register as a social problem until the turn of the century. On the whole, few whites in the 1850s or 1860s perceived the Chinese as a threat to their well-being. This contrasted with the American mid-west, where “racial insults dotted editors’ perorations and politicans’ speeches, [and] vigilante actions resulted in shootings and lootings, lynchings and massacres.”
From their arrival the real nature of the “Chinese question” in Canada, as in the United States, was essentially one of how to maintain a cheap source of labour when the supply of white workers reflected the erratic “boom and bust” cycles characteristic of frontier societies. There was a gradual shift from acceptance to hostility that was firmly entrenched by the time of the second wave of Chinese immigration; there emerged a perception of the Chinese in Canada, like those in the United States, as “indispensable enemies of the state.” One observer in Victoria Colonist made the following statement:[The Chinese are]… a class of immigrants that we cannot at present afford to dispense with. They may be inferior to Europeans and Americans in energy and ability, hostile to us in race, language and habits, and may remain among us a pariah race; still they are patient, easily governed, and invariably industrious, and their presence at this juncture would benefit trade everywhere in the two colonies. We are disposed to accept them as a choice between two evils- no white immigration or a Chinese immigration.
These immigrants were perceived as temporary labourers and were undesirable citizens. Legislation was enacted in the early 1870s prohibiting the enfranchisement of Chinese settlers, as well as exempting the Chinese from registering vital statistics with provincial officials.  However, during the early 1880s Sir John A. MacDonald was content to fend off repeated requests for anti-Chinese legislation, as the Prime Minister was well aware that the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) required the recruitment of Chinese labour, and did not wish to handicap the completion of an important symbol of confederation. This policy was a marked contrast with what was occurring south of the border. The U.S. congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which hindered Chinese immigration to the United States but did not serve as the total barriers that exclusionists had hoped for.
During the 1880s the common stereotypes towards the Chinese became entrenched in the minds of white Canadians, regardless of the value attributed to their labour. The fear of the “yellow peril” overrunning the country was a central, self-perpetuating image that was exacerbated by squalid conditions in the makeshift Chinatowns, and instances where white employers used the Chinese as strike-breakers and low-cost alternatives to organized labour unions. As Anthony B. Chan posits, opium use continued to affect few white Canadians and was not considered a social problem; that it ruined the lives of Chinese immigrants was of little consequence.” Furthermore, as early as the 1870s there was evidence of whites and Chinese expressing a general moral outrage over Chinese girls being used as prostitutes and virtual slaves in “houses of ill-repute”, and local authorities were called upon to suppress the brothels. This perception persisted even though women fluctuated from one to three percent of the total Chinese in the nineteenth century. Ward argues that in the 1870s and 1880s there was a common assumption that most Chinese women were prostitutes, of a sort even more depraved than their white counterparts. As well, the idea of gambling being a distinctly “Chinese problem” was a common perception of white observers, and one early twentieth-century sociologist suggested that “buying a lottery ticket is for the Chinese like buying a theater ticket for the American, and gambling is similar to a game of bridge.”
Unfortunately, the Chinese in Canada were largely “bachelor workers” until well into the twentieth century. Restrictive immigration laws, “the hostile treatment accorded the newcomers in Canada, and gendered cultural mores had all combined to retard the arrival of Chinese women.” This prompted early twentieth century sociologists to make ill-advised conclusions such as “the extent of criminality of Orientals in America seems to vary inversely with the extent to which they are incorporated in closely integrated family and community groups.” In addition, the fact that most didn’t bring along their families suggested the Chinese refused to shoulder any community responsibilities. These claims simply reinforced common perceptions of the time, since Chinese families were the exception rather than the norm until after the Second World War. Peter S. Li sums up the attitudes of white British Columbians quite succinctly:Anti-Orientalism was strong among white British Columbians, despite the indispensable contribution made by the Chinese in developing the province’s pioneer industries. Virtually every social evil was blamed on them, including epidemics, overcrowding, prostitution, opium smoking, and corruption.
The second wave of Chinese immigration to Canada occurred during the 1880s, when Chinese labourers arrived to build the Western section of the CPR. The virtual slavery of the coolie labour system in the West Indies and South America never prevailed in North America, so the Chinese that arrived as railroad workers were free emigrants signed to a fixed contract. This contract labour system differed considerably from the “coolie labour” system it replaced, and allowed the Chinese to choose their own destination and term of debt repayment.The CPR’s main contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, arranged for more than 15,000 Chinese to come to Canada. Some came from the United States and some directly joined the CPR, but the majority arrived directly from Guangdong province aboard chartered vessels provided by Onderdonk. They were to be admitted as cheap, temporary workers without the right to citizenship, “living machines” in the words of Judge Gray of the 1884 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. 1883 was the peak year of railway construction, and there were approximately 6,000 to 7,500 Chinese working on various sections of track at any one time. Some also went to construction campsites to open small businesses, such as laundries, restaurants, groceries, and even bars.
However, conditions were not as promised for those that made their living in the rail camps. Work conditions for the Chinese ended up being less than ideal, and there was a clear dichotomy in wages, diet and housing conditions between Chinese and white workers. According to Chan, “the Chinese labourers usually lived on a monotonous diet of rice and stale ground salmon while his white counterpart ate fresh meat and vegetables.” Disregard for standards of safety gave rise to the saying in Canada’s Chinatowns that “for every foot of railroad in the Fraser Canyon, a Chinese worker died.” The lack of contact between whites and Chinese exacerbated racist sentiment and prevented whites and Chinese from unionizing or having any collective bargaining power. Furthermore, when the Chinese workers were dismissed throughout 1884 and 1885, Onderdonk refused to honour his pledge to provide workers a one-way ticket back to China.
Though some had saved enough for passage, most were left destitute and stranded in a foreign land, their hardship complicated by a serious depression in the Pacific Northwest that affected both whites and Chinese. As a result, the majority of Chinese did not return to their homelands; they attempted to find their fortunes in other provinces, often following the Eastward path of the railroad they helped build. Erika Lee suggests that some of the railway workers illegally entered the United States upon their dismissal, and Canada was perceived as a convenient route into the United States from the 1880s until the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. However, most of the CPR workers remained, prompting the establishment of Chinese communities throughout Canadian territory. Those that remained in B.C. made valuable contributions to the expanding salmon-canning and coal mining industries, among other ventures. However, by the turn of the century immigration restrictions and better economic conditions elsewhere saw their presence decline in favour of white and other immigrant groups. Increasingly excluded from the core labour market, the Chinese retreated into limited service oriented businesses where they could offer low-cost services to white customers without arousing hostility from the white working class.
Of course, with the completion of the railway “the indispensable enemy” became both dispensable and undesirable for many whites, and pressure by anti-Asiatic groups and violence perpetrated by unemployed white workers on the Chinese led to the passing of the numerous bills in British Columbia restricting their political and social rights. In 1884 Chinese were prohibited from acquiring Crown lands. The Coal Mines Regulation Amendment Act of 1890 excluded them from work underground, and an amendment in 1903 prevented them from performing skilled jobs in coal mines. The B.C. Liquor Licence Act of 1899 barred the Chinese from holding a liquor license in restaurants. As they were barred from provincial voting lists, Chinese were also excluded from nomination for municipal office, serving as school trustees, jury duty, and election to the provincial legislature. Further legislation barred them from the professions of law and pharmacy.
The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885, in the form of a $50 head tax imposed on incoming immigrants. In 1900 the head tax was increased to $100, and in 1903 to $500. The reason for the increase in the head-tax is self-evident; by the beginning of 1904 there were approximately 30,000 Chinese in Canada and of this total 16,007 arrived from June 1900 to the aforementioned date. Paul H. Clements, an American political scientist writing in 1913, expressed the dominant perception of the time as follows:…it was found necessary to impose such restrictions, hitherto none, as would keep the non-assimilative portion of the population within reasonable bounds. The Canadian of the Pacific coast feared, and rightly so, an Asiatic flood that might easily have submerged the few thousand inhabitants that represented the dominant race.
Clements goes on to assert in his article Canada and the Chinese: A Comparison with the United States that the imposition of the head tax was beneficial to the Chinese already present in Canada, as it provided greater demand for their labour. The author also applauds the Canadian government for enacting legislation that is “conciliatory” rather than the “hostile” exclusion policies of the United States. To ask a Chinese-Canadian himself what he thought of the head taxes did not appear to occur to this contemporary commentator.
The third wave of Chinese immigration, or lack thereof, began after 1905 as incoming arrivals slowed to a trickle. Those who remained in Canada adapted to ever-increasing discrimination, violence, and distorted representations in the media. Li suggests that Chinese-Canadians turned to laundries and restaurants as a form of survival adaptation, in order to “develop alternative economic opportunities within a hostile labour market.” Most Chinese who settled in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan (or eastward to Newfoundland, for that matter) became owners or employees of small, Chinese-owned businesses. Those that continued to labour for white employers benefited from the perception of Chinese as being cheap to employ and hard-working; most workplace-related anti-Chinese legislation targeted the entrepreneurs rather than the lowly employees. In addition to municipal, provincial, and federal laws that targeted Chinese-owned businesses, sporadic outbreaks of violence upon Chinese businesses were a common feature of early twentieth century Canada.
Among other factors, increased interest in religion and the rise of the temperance movement throughout Canada brought a renewed energy in efforts to “protect the sanctity of white women.” Naturally, the employ of white women in Chinese-owned businesses provoked the ire of organized labour, teetotallers and religious groups, where by 1912 Saskatchewan passed the following legislation:No person shall employ in any capacity any white woman or girl or permit any white woman or girl to reside or lodge in or to work in or, save as a bona fide customer in a public apartment thereof only, to frequent any restaurant, laundry or other place of business or amusement owned, kept or managed by any Japanese, Chinaman or other Oriental person.
Two years later, British Columbia enacted a similar statute prohibiting the hiring of white women in businesses “owned by men of certain races, irrespective of nationality,” and this trend was exported across the country. In Lethbridge, Alberta, one former police chief remarked that “as late as 1930 there was disapproval if a white girl was employed by a Chinese.”
By 1919, the Halifax Herald was debating the “Chinese problem” in articles such as “Why Should Chinamen Do Canadian Laundry,” urging whites to regain control of the laundry trade. Municipal by-laws served as effective checks on the expansion of Chinese business throughout the country, and were used to prevent Chinese from concentrating their ranks in areas where it was undesirable to have Chinatowns and the pestilence, corruption, and social depravity associated with them. In 1905 the Calgary city council passed a by-law “stipulating that no more Chinese laundries were to be allowed on Main Street, Stephen Avenue, and in any business streets in Calgary. Moving east, Hamilton’s Chinatown grew steadily until 1910, the year two by-laws were passed to prevent the establishment of new laundries, and prohibiting a laundry from using its premises for lodging or gambling. By-laws such as these were a common feature of early twentieth century Canada, especially in regions along the CPR’s route.
One cannot conclude a discussion about what were perceived as ‘Chinese crimes’ without mentioning Chinese opium use and its contribution to early prohibition laws. Earlier this essay mentioned that in the nineteenth century Chinese opium use caused little concern to the white majority. This perception changed after the introduction of the Opium Act in 1908, with increasing rates of prosecution in urban areas. Rural regions proved to be relatively tolerant to opium use until the early 1920s, when a deliberate attempt was made to “spread moral panic and stringent policing practices.” Use of opium among the bachelor workers was widespread, and groups like the Chinese Benevolent Association prior to 1908 would offer the drug to its members at their meetings. The Chinese, due to over a century of exposure to opium thanks to British intervention, were partly to blame for white perceptions of opium use, as by the time opium was made illegal, a substantial percentage of the population were already addicts. However, research has shown that public perceptions often ignored the widespread use of the drug among other races, as “Opium use was as common to the Canadian or the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as is aspirin today.” Prkachin suggests that concern about Chinese drug use was exported by middle-class moral reformers, the RCMP, and temperance societies from the cities to rural regions, through the use of media scare tactics and the writings of reformers like Emily Murphy, Canada’s first female judge. Murphy’s the Black Candle described Chinese involvement in drug trafficking in polemic terms and expressed shock at “the amazing phenomenon [of] an educated gentlewoman, reared in a refined atmosphere, consorting with the lowest classes of yellow and black men…[and producing] half-caste infants.”
Canada was particularly vigilant and proactive in its anti-Opium laws, preceding similar regulations in the United States by more than a decade. A summary of the 1920 amendments to the Opium and Narcotic drug act found in the December 10, 1920 edition of the Prince George Citizen shows that racism was virulent in 1920s Canada:Chief of Police Sinclair had been busy of late in the prosecution of the heathen Chinee for dallying with the forbidden opium. Under the new Opium Act it is perilous for an Oriental to be found in possession of this drug either for purposes of smoking, chewing, or snuffing up the Chinese nose. This offense was made more heinous by an amendment to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act which came into effect on October 15th. The Act is aimed at the stamping out of the Chinese drug habit in all its phases. For being in possession of a narcotic drug without proper authority the minimum fine is not $200 and the maximum $1000.
The passage of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 effectively halted the arrival of Chinese immigrants to Canadian shores, ushering in an era of exclusion and continued discriminatory practices that would continue until after the Second World War. The Chinese population shrank drastically from the 1930s to the 1950s, and remained a predominantly bachelor society. Due to discriminatory legislation affecting immigration, business, and social life, the Chinese were handicapped in the early twentieth century from becoming a significant, contributing sector of Canadian society. These perceptions of ‘Chinese crimes’ and thinly-disguised racist laws were rooted in stereotypes about the Chinese that were largely distorted and unreflective of reality, reflecting both ignorance of Eastern culture and a failure to understand the hardship the Chinese endured both in their homelands and in the Chinatowns of Canada. Far from being unassimilable, Chinese-Canadians are now an important part of Canada’s multicultural mosaic, and have found particular success in white-collar occupations they would have been barred from in previous generations. It is the historian’s responsibility to bring to life the unfortunate past of race relations in our nation, if only to provide context and guidance for those of influence in law, politics, and social mores at present and towards the future.
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 Peter S. Li, The Chinese in Canada: Second Edition. (Toronto & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 8
 Paul H. Clements. “Canada and the Chinese: A Comparison with the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 45 (Jan., 1913).
 Constance Backhouse “The White Women’s Labor Laws: Anti-Chinese Racism in Early Twentieth-Century Canada,” Law and History Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Autumn, 1996), p. 318
 J. Brian Dawson, Moon Cakes in Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains, (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 2001), p. 18
 Ibid, p. 19
 Li, p. 19
 Dawson, p. 17
 Li, p. 19
 Jiwu Wang, ”His Dominion” and the “Yellow Peril”: Protestant Missions to Chinese Immigrants in Canada, 1859-1967, (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006), p. 9
 Li, p. 23
 Dawson, p. 19
 Paul C.P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation. (New York: New York University Press, 1987), p. 242
 Wang, p. 9
 W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Towards Orientals in British Columbia, Third Edition, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), p.23
 Anthony B. Chan, Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World. (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983), p. 49
 Dawson, p. 20
 Ward, p. 24
 Yvan Prkachin, “’Chinks Pay Heavily for ‘Hitting Pipe’: The Perception and Enforcement of Canada’s New Drug Laws in Rural and Northern British Columbia, 1908-30,” BC Studies, Issue 153 (Spring 2007), p. 76
 Ibid, p. 72
 Chan, p. 78
 Patricia E. Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Policians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1969), p. 4
 John R. Wunder, “Chinese in Trouble: Criminal Law and Race on the Trans-Mississippi West Frontier,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1986), p. 26
 Li, p. 28
 Ibid, p. 6
 Ward, p. 7
 Ibid, p. 32
 Ward, p. 35
 Erika Lee, “Enforcing the Borders: Chinese Exclusion along the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico,1882-1924,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 1 (Jun., 2002), p. 54
 Ward, p. 6
 Chan, p. 76
 Roy, p. 17
 Chan, p. 50
 Ward, p. 8
 Norman S. Hayner “Social Factors in Oriental Crime,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 43, No. 6 (May, 1938), p. 913
 Backhouse, p. 321
 Hayner, p. 908
 Ward, p. 10
 Li, p. 24
 Chan, p. 43
 Dawson, p. 21
 Ibid, p. 21
 Chan, p. 27
 Dawson, p. 21
 Wang, p. 11
 Chan, p. 63
 Ibid, p. 67
 Chan, p. 67
 Dawson, p. 21
 Wang, p. 11
 Erika Lee, “Enforcing the Borders: Chinese Exclusion along the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico,1882-1924,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 1 (Jun., 2002), p. 58
 According to Roy, p. 62, the 1891 census indicated that only 219 of the 9,129 registered Chinese in Canada lived east of the Rocky Mountains. However, the gradual establishment of Chinese communities East of the Rockies is an undisputed fact, regardless of their insubstantial numbers at the outset.
 Ward, p. 87
 Li, p. 53
 Li, p. 32-33. Of all the current secondary sources on the history of the Chinese in Canada, Li’s monograph offers the most succinct and complete chronological summary of discriminatory legislation.
 Ibid, p. 34
 Clements, p. 101
 Clements, p. 101
 Ibid, p. 110
 Li, p. 53
 Dawson, p. 35
 Backhouse, p. 326-327
 Chan, p. 141
 Dawson, p. 59
 Paul Yee, Chinatown: An Illustrated History of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005), p. 113
 Dawson, p. 45
 Chan, p. 71
 Ibid, p. 71
 Prkachin, p. 75
 Chan, p. 76
 Ibid, p. 77
 Dawson, p. 81
 Prkachin, p. 75
 Backhouse, p. 340
 Prince George Citizen, 10 December 1920, p. 1 as cited in Yvan Prkachin, “’Chinks Pay Heavily for ‘Hitting Pipe’: The Perception and Enforcement of Canada’s New Drug Laws in Rural and Northern British Columbia, 1908-30,” BC Studies, Issue 153 (Spring 2007), p. 74
 Li, p. 7
 Li, p. 7