Attitudes and Treatment towards Chinese in Canadian History: Immigration, Segregation, Removal of the Chinese in Working Canada




  • Library and Archives Canada
  • Written as an essay assignment for the course HIST/CAST 2361 - Canada in the 60's at Trent University.

    In his diary as a Chinese railway worker in 1882, Lee Heen-gwong accounts his daily struggles of working on the railway in British Columbia, Canada. The relationship between the Chinese and the “Red Beards”, or the white men, are often a subject of intense issues when working on the railway. The Chinese workers and the white “Red Beards” labourers work as a team more or less, but in his last diary entry, Lee Heen-gwong accounts a story of around thirty white men sneaking into the Chinese camp to set their cabins on fire, and those who tried to escape were severely beaten. A Chinese man named Yee Fook did not survive the beating1. In the year following, Jon M. Hayes, David H. Perry and John Gray were on trial for Yee Fook’s death. They were found not guilty after only five minutes2.

    In looking at this particular but not so uncommon case in the late nineteenth century Canada, many issues arise about the Canadian attitudes and beliefs held towards the Chinese. Issues of racism and government exploitation are central to the Chinese-Canadian heritage. The Chinese were invited to immigrate into Canada to work on the harsh conditions of building the railway, and then faced extreme racial segregation in their daily lives, only to be encouraged to leave, sometimes even forced out of the country. The Chinese in Canada experienced deception from the government, faced racism, and were blamed for the economic stresses of Canada, much of which were due to the ideologies that were prominent in that period. This paper will examine closely what the Chinese faced when they immigrated into Canada, and how Canada segregated the Chinese race, and what the Canadian government did to try to remove them from the country. In doing so, this paper will provide reasons why the Chinese experience in Canada was discriminative and damaging to the people – both the Chinese and the Canadians.

    The Chinese immigration into Canada was an unwelcomed endeavour from the start. Canada by the late nineteenth century was a country of its own, with Canadian traditions. The Canadian identity was developing where the white men saw immigrants as threats to the Canadian economy, as well as the white Canadian culture3. In B.C, even before great numbers of Chinese men were brought in by the Canadian government to help build the railway in the 1870’s, the province have already had a history of unsuccessfully limiting the Chinese immigration4. The first gold rush immigration of the Chinese have left the province aware of the government’s attempts to replace the white workers with the Chinese workers. The white labour workers did not want their jobs replaced by their Chinese counters. This view of the Chinese as a threat to the Canadian home life made the Chinese as immigrants unwanted in the country from the start, and the Chinese clearly suffered for these attitudes.

    The attempts of the Canadian government to bring in foreign workers to build their country were a deliberate exploitation of the Chinese. The desperate economic state of Canada in the late nineteenth century lead to the government allowing racial employment practices, such as the hiring the Chinese specifically for the ability to work in harsh work conditions with minimal pay5. This practice of exploiting the Chinese immigrants based on their ethnicity reflects the prejudice of the government against the Chinese. The Canadian government goal in bringing in Chinese immigrants was profit oriented, and their aim was to hire cheap labour. In some cases, the Chinese railway workers earned $1.00 a day compared to white workers who earned $1.50-$1.75 for the same job6. This kind of exploitation against the Chinese was common. In Lee Heen-gwong’s diary he also stated he and the rest of the Chinese were paid half of what the white men were earning, with many deductions in expenses such as clothes, medicine, rent, meals, fees, and deducted work-time7. The Chinese were exploited by those in charge of the railway system, as well as the government who treated them unfairly and unmorally based on their race.

    The harsh working conditions of building the railway also played a factor in why government allowed entries to the Chinese immigrants. Many Chinese lives were sacrificed in the building of the railway. Western Canada, where there was the highest population of Chinese immigrants was especially dangerous for railway workers8. Apart from the great hostility that was targeted to minorities due to economic factors and racist ideologies, the Chinese also faced daily physical dangers in their labour9. Paul Lee writes: “The estimates of how many Chinese workers died during this job range from 600 to 1500, with one estimate as high as 2200… There is a saying that one Chinese worker died for every mile of the track laid… Even the lowest estimate of Chinese workers’ death backs up this wretched observation.”10 The Chinese were promised rewards that were never granted. The Chinese were deceived by the government, where the government took advantage of their lack of knowledge and confusion in a new land for their economic gain. The lives of the railway workers that were lost reflect how the Canadian government exploited the labour system, where many were unaware of the dangers that faced them11.

    In asking why the Chinese did not leave the country despite the great adversity they faced, the reasons that held them back from returning to their country further illustrates the unfair working conditions of the Chinese. Despite being unwelcomed from the start, where they experienced harsh working conditions and threats from their white counter parts, many did stay. However, many who survived the labour did not make enough money, or could not afford to buy a ticket back to China12. Many were fired, or let go due to their ethnical origin, where if the government could hire them according to their race, they could also fire them as well13. The Chinese respect to their family was also a factor in why they chose to stay in Canada; as one author explains why the majority of them did not give up working despite the adversities: “Their indebtedness to the agent and responsibility to family made it impossible.”14 The majority of the Chinese immigrant population did not return to their home country, for simple reason it was nearly impossible. They Chinese were victims of the Canadian government and their labour system, where they got the worst end of the deal and many have perished while they worked to earn a living.

    The Chinese no doubt contributed to the building of Canada. Early labour immigrants in Cariboo and Fraser gold mines in B.C, Chinese merchants and their economic contribution to Canada’s economy, and the railway project, were all Canadian developments in which the Chinese played role in15. The Chinese immigrants came to Canada to support their lives, not to take over the white men’s jobs. When invited, they came across half the globe on terrifying boat rides lasting 40 days where many have perished to earn a living16. What they had expected as an opportunity became a means of survival in a new country, and the Chinese soon became segregated, discriminated, and sometimes violently attacked. For the Chinese, from the moment they entered Canada they suffered and died in the labour systems, all the while facing racism prominent in those times which only got worse as their numbers grew.

    The Chinese segregation in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Canada were federal practices that manifested into the daily lives of the Chinese population. The Chinese were segregated through the federal government in the labour market, but as well as in their daily social lives through the racial hierarchy ideals of the Canadian government17. In the Study of Canadian Ethnics, it is said: “In Victoria, for example, until the 1940’s, the Chinese children in primary class were compelled by the school board to study in segregated elementary schools.”18 This kind of segregation on the Chinese population is unlike the segregation practices held on the Indigenous people in Canada. This is similar to how the Indian Policy of the government in the 1900’s reflected the failures of the Canadian government in treating the aboriginals as equal citizens19. The segregation also reached local or municipal levels in Canada, where one Chinese woman who grew up in the early 1900’s in B.C recalls, “They had a notice on the door telling us that no Orientals were allowed in to swim, but we were allowed to go in to watch our friends swim. Another thing I remember very clearly – at the theatre we were always made to sit in the back row.”20 These treatments and attitudes towards Chinese-Canadians in the early 1920’s are very similar to the segregation of the African Americans in the 1900’s America. The segregating behaviour of Canadians towards Chinese-Canadians in their neighbourhoods illustrates the racial divisions the Canadian government attempted to put against the Chinese.

    The causes of the Chinese segregation were economical, but were also largely influenced by the ideologies prominent in the pre-war period. The notions of racial indifference to the Chinese are also thought to be influenced by the racial and genealogical beliefs drawn from the Western ideologies in the early 20th century21. The Chinese as a race were seen as impossible people to get along with the white Canadians, and the biological, linguistic, and cultural difference only added to this separatist notion. An example of how these derogatory and racist ideals were prominent in these times can be reflected in the prime minister Mackenzie King. In the question of granting voting rights, MacKenzie King stated the Chinese population as: “an alien race in every sense that would not and could not be expected to assimilate with our Arian population.”22 Viewing the Chinese as a race that is incapable of assimilating with the white race dehumanizes the Chinese population, and divides them as a separate entity from the Canadians. The segregation of the Chinese in Canada were intentional attempts to preserve the white race and their working labour, by any means necessary through federal, provincial, and municipal pressures to exclude the Chinese population from the Canadian life.23 The Chinese in result were excluded from the Canadian life.

    In responses to the segregation that they faced, the Chinese as a population often times protected themselves from the racist community, by means of creating their own community. The intense migration of people into Canada have lead to racial division in communities. As one writer states “Minorities, therefore, frequently find themselves in peripheral industries, characterized by low wages and intense labour.”24 The Chinese immigrants were in this exact situation in the late nineteenth century and on. The way in which the Chinese were viewed as an inferior race is illustrated in how the white saw the Chinatowns that Chinese created in cities. As David Lai writes in his book: “Although Chinatown was a place of comfort, security, and companionship to the Chinese, it was still perceived by the white community as a place of filth and sin…”25 The Chinatowns were communities developed as a response to the segregation in Canada that discriminated the Chinese population, where they were used as a place where they could practice their own culture without the negative influence of the Canadians.

    Visible Minorities are disadvantaged in new countries. In the mindset and ideologies of late ninetieth century and on, the visual differences of a population can turn into stereotypes, which turned into beliefs; and it is here where racism sprouts and grows into active discrimination against the people. The Chinese were definitely victims of these beliefs and attitudes. They were not willing to give up their culture and who they were, and held on to traditional values of China; but were discriminated for not assimilating. The unwillingness of the Chinese to assimilate can be translated into unwillingness to give up who you are; however the Canadians viewed this as a deliberate disobedience to follow the Canadian government. “LaViolette… clearly delineates the main causes of hostility against Asians in British Columbia: their low standard of living; their cultural and social “differences”… their inassimilability.”26 An example how the Chinese protected themselves from the racisms in their cities are the Chinatowns that they established in various provinces. Chinatowns are examples of how the Chinese kept their customs and culture and implemented them in a new country to protect their heritage27. The Chinese suffered for their ethnicity, the culture they practiced, and for being strangers in a new country. Their status as minorities only went up when there was economic growth in Canada in the 1950-60s, where the political grant to give minorities rights to work followed, but not soon enough28.

    The Chinese were unwanted in Canada. From their potential threats on the Canadian labour system, to the racist ideals held against them and the segregation that followed, the Canadian government sought to remove their numbers in the country. The population of the Chinese in B.C in 1901 was 8.16% out of the entire B.C population, and this number goes down to 4.38& in 198129. These drops in numbers are explained by the government’s efforts to remove the population. The head taxes that were placed on entering Chinese immigrants can be interpreted to be deliberate attempts by the Canadian systems to discourage more Chinese immigrants from coming into the country. The cost of the head taxes increased as time went on, where from 1885-1900 to 1903 the cost rose from $50 to $50030. These statistics illustrate the desperate attempts to limit Chinese immigration by the Canadian government, who were viewed with negative and racist notions. In 1923 and on, the Chinese Immigration Act stopped Chinese immigration altogether, further lowering the Chinese population in Canada31. The Chinese were forced to be removed from the country by any means by the government. The way they were treated after the sacrifices they have made coming to the country, and helping to build the country illustrate the extent of which they were unappreciated, and undervalued despite their contributions to the country.

    The removal of the Chinese was not only implemented by head taxes and bills, but also through physical and sometimes violent means. In B.C where the Chinese population was the highest, the Canadian view of the Chinese as a labour threat continued to violent means32. The economic concern for the country legitimized negative feelings towards the Chinese, which often elevated to violent attacks on individuals for being Chinese. “On Janurary 11, 1887, an embittered mob of 1000 unemployed Vancouverites refused to let 100 Chinese aboard a Hong Kong schooner disembark. Forty days later, another large mob invaded two Chinese settlements, burning tents and shacks and forcing the occupants to run for their lives, leaving their belongings to the flames.”33 Such violent attacks on the Chinese were not uncommon, and this particular case resembles the case of Yee Foo’s death. Government forces, anti-Chinese organizations, as well as ordinary citizens were all active players in forcefully driving out the Chinese, and this was common both in the US and Canada34. These cases demonstrate the violent means ordinary people took in order to extinguish the Chinese population from Canada. The ideologies that supported and legitimized their discriminating behaviour and actions towards the Chinese show what the Chinese suffered, where lives were lost by the hatred against the Chinese.

    The white population’s attempts to segregate, and remove the Chinese in Canada were not met with empty endeavours from the Chinese. The Chinese defended their rights and injustice of the government in their own way, through their organized clubs, clans, and associations. The “Chinese Question”, which describes the growing concern of the Chinese workers replacing the white workers in the 1850’s and on, was a cause for the hatred against the Chinese35. Anti-Chinese pressures were fought by various organizations such as Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chinese Canadian Club, Voices of Chinese Canadian Women Organization and CCBA or Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Victoria, and these organizations made appeals against segregated schools for children, and fought for their right as Chinese-Canadians, and the status of minorities in Canada, as well as helping each other in times difficult times36. These organizations show the Chinese effort to survive in Canada, where amidst the disadvantage they suffered for their ethnical identity, they strived to fight and be heard.

    The Chinese strived to survive in Canada in times when there were no rights for minorities. Canada had no human rights legislation until the 1960’s37. They faced public discrimination, organized exploitation and racial prejudices of the government, and at other times violent attacks that left many physically and mentally harmed, sometimes even death. The Chinese communities and organizations built among this segregation demonstrate the Chinese-Canadian efforts to survive in Canada, despite the dangers of being Chinese in Canada.

    In late ninetieth century and late twentieth century, the Chinese were victims of the Canadian government. They were found to be at fault for Canada’s economic stress and uncertainties, treated as unwanted minorities trespassing into Canadian soil, and were forced out of the country despite their contributions to the country. In response to their unjust status in the country they helped to build, the Chinese established their own communities to help one another in racially segregated cities, and formed organizations to fight for their rights as visible minorities. The Chinese population of the nineteenth century desired to come to Canada for a better future much like the rest of the immigrant populations that make up the Canadian population. They came to earn a living not being aware of the dangers that faced them in the new country, and many did perished. The Canadian government’s deliberate attempts to exploit them, as well as the ideologies prominent in those were often the causes for the Chinese suffering. The Chinese are part of Canadian history, no matter how upsetting or painful their experiences were in the new country. As one Chinese immigrant stated concerning the Chinese struggle in segregated Canada: “Canadian means all kinds of things… because we’re all immigrants… So the next new immigrant who sets foot on Canadian soil… is just as Canadian as a RCMP guy sitting on a horse. My attitude is that I am Canadian.”38

    Lee Fook’s death and trial is a testament to the attitudes and beliefs held towards the Chinese in nineteenth century Canada. Lee Fook’s death, and the rest of the Chinese labourers who came to Canada only to be perished in the Canadian soils, serve as memorials of the injustice done to them. Lee Fook’s trial, where no one was found guilty for the man’s death, serves as a reflection of the Canadian government’s failures to treat the Chinese as equal citizens. The white Canadians have played fundamental role in the Chinese experience in early Canada, by implementing their attitudes and beliefs against the Chinese. They are part of the history Chinese-Canadian, just as the Chinese-Canadians are part of the history of Canada. What was done to them should always be remembered for the sake of their surviving generations - Chinese and white alike.


    1. Paul Yee, trans. Blood and Iron: Building the Railway, Lee Heen-gwong British Columbia, 1882. (Toronto: Scholastics Canada Ltd., 2010), 208.

    2. Ibid., p. 211.

    3. Patrica E Roy, “White Canada Forever: Two Generations of Studies”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 11:2 (1979): 98.

    4. Gunter Baureiss, “Chinese Immigration, Chinese Stereotypes, and Chinese Labour”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 18.

    5. Baureiss, 17.

    6. Ibid., 26.

    7. Yee, Blood and Iron, 210.

    8. Baureiss, 21.

    9. Roy, 105.

    10. Yee, Blood and Iron, 220-221.

    11. Ibid., 14.

    12. Ibid., 211.

    13. Baureiss, 17.

    14. Miriam Yu, “Human Rights, Discrimination, and Coping Behaviour of the Chinese in Canada”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 118.

    15. Ibid., 114.

    16. Yee, Blood and Iron, 20.

    17. Baureiss, 30.

    18. David C Lai, “The Issue of Discrimination in Education in Victoria, 1901-1923”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 47.

    19. John L Tobias, “Protection, Civilization, Assimilation: An Outline History of Canada’s Indian Policy”, The Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 48 (1976): 18.

    20. May Yee, “Chinese Canadian Women: Our Common Struggle”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 180.

    21. Jean-Guy Prevost, “Immigration, statistics and eugenics: measuring racial origins in Canada (1921-1941)”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 28:2 (1996): 2-3.

    22. Baureiss, 23.

    23. Gillian Creese, “Kay J. Anderson, "Vancouver's Chinatown: racial discourse in Canada, 1875-1980" (Book Review)”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 24:2 (1992): 128.

    24. Baureiss, 17.

    25. David C Lai, Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.), 70.

    26. Roy, 100.

    27. Baureiss, 23.

    28. Ibid., 16.

    29. Ibid., 21.

    30. Bennett McCardle, “The Records of Chinese Immigration at the National Archives of Canada”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 165.

    31. Edgar Wickberg, “Some Problems in Chinese Organizational Development in Canada, 1923-1937”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 11:1 (1979): 91.

    32. Matthew Annis, “The “Chinese Question” and the Canada-Us Border, 1885”, American Review of Canadian Studies, 40:3 (2010): 354.

    33. Yu, 117.

    34. Annis, 356.

    35. Ibid., 353.

    36. Lai, 64.

    37. Baureiss, 16.

    38. May, 183.