Anti-Chinese Legislation

The federal government was worried about what would happen to Canada if it let too many Chinese settle.  It only had to look south to San Francisco to see what happened when Chinese immigration was left unchecked.  John A. MacDonald’s government envisioned Canada as an Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking and Christian nation–none of which applied to the thousands of Chinese who were entering the country through British Columbia.


Maintaining Confederation, though, meant that the West had to be populated.  People were needed to build roads, cut trees, supply food and do all the other jobs necessary to bring civilization to the western provinces.  Canada needed the Chinese as a source of cheap labour.  Whatever insults were hurled at the Chinese, no one ever claimed that they were lazy.  In fact, union organizers would later criticize the Chinese for their willingness to work harder for lower wages, taking jobs away from ‘more deserving’ white men.


The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 recognized this dilemma. It aimed to limit Chinese immigration rather than ban it altogether.  The Act imposed a $50 head tax on each immigrant. The revenue raised through this tax was shared with the provinces.  Chinese already in residence did not have to pay the tax, but they did have to pay 50¢ to obtain a certificate of residence.  Diplomats, tourists, students and merchants were also exempt.  Over the next 38 years, the Act was amended several times. The most important changes involved raising the head tax to $100 and, finally, to $500 in 1903.


In 1901 there were 16,792 Chinese in the country. Most lived in British Columbia.  It is interesting to note that while politicians, newspaper men and labour organizers were issuing dire warnings about the Chinese hordes and the threat they posed to the Canadian way of life, the Chinese made up less than .3% of the country’s population. They accounted for less than 10% of the population of British Columbia, the province most fearful of the Chinese.


The 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration found that Chinatowns were ‘a menace to health’.  A church minister testifying before the Commission stated that, “I think it is very injurious to the country to have any class of people in the community who will not assimilate, who have no aspirations, who are not fit to live in social and political relations with our people.”  The Commission did find some in favour of more Chinese immigration, but only because they saw the Chinese as “a servile class and a servile class was necessary for the higher development of the Anglo-Saxon race.”


However much the 1902 Commission disliked the Chinese, Canada still needed their labour. Despite calls for a total ban on Chinese immigration, the Commission decided instead to raise the head tax from $100 to $500.  In the first year that the $500 head tax was in place, only 8 Chinese immigrants came to Canada; 4719 had come the previous year. But the numbers soon rebounded. Even the $500 head tax failed to deter immigrants from China.

By 1923, the need for cheap labour had lessened.

That year, the Canadian government gave in to pressure from British Columbians and passed the Chinese Immigration Act. Enacted on July 1st, Dominion Day, the Act limited the ‘entry or landing of persons of Chinese origin or descent irrespective of allegiance or citizenship’ to four classes–diplomats and government representatives, merchants, university students and Chinese children who could prove that they had been born in Canada.  Estimates vary on the exact number of Chinese who were able to enter the country while the Act was in place–the lowest estimate is 14, and the highest 44.  But there is no question that the Act virtually stopped Chinese immigration.


For years afterwards, the Chinese commemorated Dominion Day as ‘Humiliation Day’.

But anti-Chinese legislation was not confined to the national level. Provinces also passed discriminatory laws. Many provinces prohibited the Chinese from buying land or holding liquor licences. Both British Columbia and Saskatchewan disenfranchised the Chinese, preventing them from voting in local elections.  By refusing to add the Chinese to electoral rolls, they prevented them from participating in professions such as law, teaching and medicine that required members to be registered voters.

In the 1920s, both provinces toyed with the idea of introducing laws to prevent Chinese businesses from hiring white women on the grounds that the women would be corrupted.  Most anti-drug and gambling laws of the 1910s and 1920s also were aimed at the Chinese. It was alleged that they masterminded these activities in order to corrupt the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race.


The Chinese were discriminated against in the courts as well.  They were often targeted by the police as an easy arrest, as the accused seldom spoke English and were unable to defend themselves in court.  The Chinese were regularly given tougher sentences, bigger fines and charged for arbitrary activities.  In one Calgary case from 1901, a Chinese laundryman was found guilty of “throwing soapsuds around in a promiscuous manner.”

He was given the choice of a $5 fine or 14 days in jail.  He chose the fine,

which would have been the equivalent of at least one week’s earnings.

Anti-Chinese Feelings

There are many different kinds of racism.  At its most benign, Chinese men were given generic monikers such as ‘Cookie’ or ‘Boy’.  Some were taken advantage of by customers who refused to pay for their laundry or meals, and businesses were routinely damaged by customers who were drunk or simply felt insulted or annoyed.  Violence was routine.  George Moon, then head chef at the Strathcona Hotel in Edmonton, recalls, “Returning across the frozen North Saskatchewan River, some Canadian men saw us and knew we were Chinese.  They shot off revolvers, firing over our heads.  Just to frighten us.  Well, I was frightened!”

The most serious example of anti-Chinese sentiment in Alberta is the Calgary Smallpox Riot of 1892.  That July, a ‘Chinaman’ was found in a laundry, recovering from a case of smallpox. The laundry and its contents were burned immediately and all the men living there placed in quarantine outside the city.  In the following weeks 17 others, including three white women, were found to be sick.  Neither the boarding house nor hotel where the others were living was destroyed.   In all, three people died of smallpox, two white women and one baby.  The fact that a Chinese man was the first victim was taken as proof that the Chinese were the ‘bearers of disease and vice’.  This increased the community’s anger towards the Chinese.

At the request of the mayor, the Northwest Mounted Police detachment agreed to maintain the quarantine.  After a week, the men under the original quarantine were declared disease-free and scheduled for release.  An editorial in the Calgary Herald, though, warned, “local feeling is strong against the race, and it is as well for the authorities to recognize the fact.  If the Chinese now at the quarantine be sent back into town there will be trouble.”  Seeing that officials were not going to heed this warning, a mob of over 200 men met the Chinese as they were returning to their homes.  Buildings in Chinatown were damaged, Chinese men were assaulted and there were reports of theft from Chinese businesses.  Local constables did not intervene. Conveniently, both the mayor and chief of police were out of town.  Acting on their own, the NWMP detachment eventually dispersed the crowd.  All the Chinese men living in the city fled.

Many of the Chinese received protection at the NWMP barracks.  Others found shelter with sympathetic clergy. At least one man fled into the countryside.  For the next three weeks the NWMP patrolled the city, stopping outbursts of violence against the Chinese.  Rocks were thrown through the doors and windows of laundries. Chinese men were beaten up and had their queues forcibly cut.  Rumours abounded of Chinese men being ‘encouraged’ to leave the city.  Calgary’s civic authorities, meanwhile, did nothing to stop the violence.  The town council had authorized Mayor Lucas to take any measure necessary to restore the peace.  But, while he condemned the violence, he also contended that the Chinese were exaggerating the gravity of the situation in an attempt to gain sympathy.  Shortly after these events, Lucas became the first president of Calgary’s Anti-Asiatic League.

Calgary’s Smallpox Riot is significant because of its duration and the racist sentiments that were expressed at all levels of society.  While the Smallpox Riot did not remove all the Chinese from the city as many had hoped, it did curtail the community’s growth.  It has been considered a factor in the growth of Chinatowns elsewhere in Alberta.  The dispersal of the Chinese from Calgary contributed to the growth of Chinatowns in Lethbridge and Edmonton but inhibited the growth of the Chinese community in Calgary as it gave the city a reputation as a bad place to live.  This reputation for racism was also extended to the province and caused many Chinese to by-pass Alberta in favour of settling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The Bachelor Society

Outside of work, these men had little to do. Prejudice and language limited them to living in Chinatown.  A few were drawn to the missions that had been established in Chinatowns all over the country.  They went there to learn English and sometimes to convert to Christianity.  But without the influence of wives and families, most of these young men spent their off-time gambling and drinking.  Newspaper editorials condemned them for this ‘sinful’ behaviour and argued that it was the result of cultural defects—further evidence, in their eyes, as to why the Chinese did not belong in Canada.

The Canadian government introduced the Chinese Immigration Act and the head tax to deter Chinese immigration to Canada.  By making it economically difficult for Chinese men to bring their families to Canada, it hoped to discourage them from coming altogether.   Instead of deterring immigration the Chinese Immigration Act created a socially unbalanced community—something that the government had not anticipated.

The cost of the head tax meant that most men had to borrow money from families and money lenders in order to come to Canada. Sometimes entire villages pooled their savings to send men to Canada. The men came because Canada offered them opportunities to work and to send money home to support their extended families and villages.

The financial pressures that these ‘bachelor’ immigrants faced cannot be underestimated. Most men lived in appalling conditions in order to send as much money home as possible.  In one Vancouver boarding house, it was reported that 16 men shared a single room with 4 bunks.  They slept in shifts and rotated of the bunks as they came on and off their jobs in the city’s mills and factories.

Chinese Women in Canada

The first record of a Chinese woman in Alberta was in 1905 in Calgary.  By the time the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was introduced, there were still fewer than 200 Chinese women in the entire province.

Alberta was not a prosperous place for most Chinese.  The extremely small number of Chinese women in the province demonstrates that few men made enough money to cover the cost of their wives’ passage and head tax. They may also have wanted to spare their families the isolation and prejudice that they often faced living on the prairies.  Of course there were exceptions to this rule. Kwong Lung of Cayley was one of the few who immigrated to Alberta as a merchant. He did not have to pay the head tax, but as a merchant he brought at least $2000 to invest in a business.  His wife and children joined him shortly afterwards and together they operated a store, café and bakery.  Photographs of the family posing beside new cars, with the women dressed in the latest styles and furs, testify to their success.

Hop Chung of Lacombe brought his wife and two children to Alberta with the assistance of local businessman William Puffer, who lent him the $1500 for the head tax.

The two men later became partners, building the Puffer Chung Block. It still stands in Lacombe.  The Chungs operated Hop Chung’s Café. The restaurant was in continuous operation under a succession of different Chinese owners until 1982.

The Black Candle

Anti-Chinese sentiment acquired a new direction in the 1920s.  One of the constant arguments against allowing the Chinese to settle in Canada had been that their morals were incompatible with Canadian values, as expressed in their lack of religion, their willingness to live in unsanitary conditions and their gambling habits.   A new accusation was added in the 1920s: the Chinese were unsuitable settlers because they brought opium into cities and used it to corrupt Canadians.   The manufacture and sale of opium had been legal.  As long as opium use was confined to the Chinese, the authorities largely ignored it.  But as opium addiction spread among the Canadian population, the war on drugs began.

The Black Candle was published in 1923.

Written by Emily Murphy under the name ‘Janey Canuck’, the book articulated many popular anti-Chinese sentiments of the time. Earlier in her career as a rights activist, Murphy had written against the mistreatment of the Chinese. But she changed her stance after a tour of opium dens in Chinatown conducted by the admittedly biased Vancouver police.


In The Black Candle Murphy advocated the need to deport the Chinese before they could do any further harm.  She stated that while as a Christian she did not condone acts of vigilante violence, it was imperative that the authorities take all steps necessary to eradicate the creeping moral menace that was the Chinese.

Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum