Historic Walking Tour
Resilience in the Face of Adversity
Since Vancouver’s first days the Chinese have been here, forming an integral part of our society. Today we cherish this part of the city’s vibrant identity and find it difficult to conceive of a Vancouver without its Chinese influence, yet this was not always so. Chinatown exists today because of the struggles of thousands of immigrants who strove to make decent lives for themselves in an unwelcoming land.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection.
1. 'The Chinese-Canadian Experience'
There are three threads running through the early Chinese immigrant experience to Canada. The first was the unrelenting racism they were subjected to by their white neighbours. Racism was even enshrined in the law of the land, barring them from taking certain jobs, living in certain neighbourhoods and voting. The second thread was the remarkable resiliency the Chinese community showed in the face of this adversity. The early pioneers organized into a remarkable array of organizations and political parties that looked after community welfare, lobbied for Chinese-Canadian interests, and perpetuated China's ancient culture. Finally the immigrant experience was defined by the close connection the Chinese maintained with their homeland throughout this spectacularly turbulent period of Chinese history. The divisive political debates of early 20th Century China played out in miniature in Vancouver's Chinatown. A subtle sign of this enduring connection can be seen in the photo above, in the hairstyle of the Chinese man on the left. He has grown his hair in a long braid down his back, known as a queue. At that time the Qing Dynasty ruled China. The Qing were not actually Chinese, but invaders from the north who had conquered China centuries before. To cement their hold on Chinese society and ensure total submission the Qing decreed that every Chinese male must wear the queue. Cutting your queue was considered an act of rebellion and the penalty was death. Through his hairstyle we can see the man here is continuing to show his loyalty to the Emperor an ocean away.
2. 'Chinese Pioneers'
You're looking now at the heart of old Chinatown, which was centered on the intersection of Pender and Carrall. In the mid-1880s this was a swampy area and False Creek extended almost all the way up to Pender. Chinese homes and businesses such as laundries, restaurants and grocers popped up along Pender towards the east. The alley to your left was also once a hub of activity, and though few of those early buildings survive, a network of tunnels still exists underground. In this period almost all Chinese immigrants were men seeking work. They first came to seek fortunes in the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1858, and many who followed found work in coal mines, sawmills and canneries. Most significant were the 17,000 Chinese who came to work on the Canada-Pacific Railway. They toiled on the stretch through the Fraser Canyon, the toughest stretch in all Canada. They worked in appalling conditions and received only half the pay of white workers. They were invariably given the most dangerous tasks, like handling unstable explosives to blast a way through the mountain. It is thought over 600 were killed, four for every mile.xx1 The number is probably higher since in this epic nation-building endeavour the authorities did not count the Chinese dead—only the white. After the railway was completed many came to settle here.
3. 'Coming to Canada'
What drove these pioneers to take a leap into the dark, seeking fortunes in a foreign country with an alien language and culture? There are almost too many factors to name. China in the late 1800s was teetering on the brink. The Qing Dynasty that had ruled China since the 17th Century was collapsing. A series of civil wars caused misery, dislocation, hunger, and banditry on an almost unimaginable scale, quickening the empire's disintegration. Just one of these wars, the 1850s Taiping Rebellion, may have killed more people than World War II.xx2 Foreign powers like Great Britain, Russia, France and Japan smelled blood and descended on the weakened empire. A series of short, sharp wars that invariably resulted in Chinese defeat further discredited the Qing and shrank their territory. What's more, the population was growing rapidly, stretching already scarce agricultural land to the limit. In Canton, where most of the immigrants to Canada came from, an estimated 600 people lived in every square kilometre.xx3 The rural peasants who comprised the vast majority of the population faced a crushing tax burden, sometimes as much as half their meagre harvest. It only took one bad harvest to leave a farmer under a mountain of debt. It's hardly surprising then that many Chinese took the shamelessly advertised promises of vast riches in a faraway land at face value and booked passage for Canada. The lives that awaited them rarely lived up to the hype.
4. 'Shanghai Alley'
Of the 770 streets in Vancouver, Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley are the only names with Chinese origins. Most of the 2,100 Chinese counted in the 1900 census lived here.xx4 Packed full of people, these alleys formed a self-contained community within Vancouver, hosting all sorts of businesses from barber shops to tailors, meeting halls to a 500-seat theatre. This community was not, however, segregated from the rest of the city: many white patrons frequented businesses here while hundreds of Chinese worked all across Vancouver. The people who lived here came overwhelmingly from a small part of the Canton Delta just north-west of Hong Kong. They were ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese, speaking a dialect of Cantonese. They brought with them a rich culture that had developed over 5,000 years, though some of aspects of it unnerved Vancouver's white population. One practice in particular, that of burying their dead for seven years before exhuming them and shipping their bones back to China, was the subject of horrified accounts in the white press. The massive recession that followed the boom times of 1913 hit the Chinese community particularly hard. Many people fell behind on their property taxes and were foreclosed on. Soon the two alleys had decayed and were classed as slums. In the 1940s they were almost entirely demolished. All that remains of this neighbourhood is this short stretch of Shanghai Alley and the street signs.
5. 'Finding Work'
Many of the young Chinese men that came to Canada worked in the sawmills and canneries around Vancouver, as well as in the construction trades. Often they worked seasonal jobs far from home. Their employers were massively grateful for their work. In 1885 a commission was formed to answer the "Chinese question," about how many should be allowed to immigrate to Canada. Justice Dr. John Gray, one of the commissioners, wrote "It may safely be said there are several industries that would not have succeeded—perhaps it might be said undertaken—if it had not been for the opportunity of obtaining their labour… [There's] preponderating testimony as to the sobriety, industry and frugality of the Chinese as manual labourers… and up to this time their presence in the province has been most useful if not indispensable."xx5 Chinese labourers were usually paid half the wages of their white counterparts. So during many periods of high unemployment, jobless whites were infuriated by the Chinese who they perceived to be stealing their jobs. More than once this led to outbreaks of anti-Chinese unrest. During the Great Depression, Vancouver City Council published lists of Chinese currently with jobs beside lists of whites who were unemployed, cynically deflecting blame for the joblessness of whites onto the Chinese immigrants and stoking racial hatred.xx6
6. 'Growing the Community'
The first Chinese men who came to Canada in search of work often left families behind in China. Many intended to bring them over once they could afford the passage, but it was not cheap, and made all the more difficult by the $50 head tax imposed on all Chinese immigrants to Canada in 1885. This was raised to $500 in 1903, beyond the means of most rural Chinese peasants. It was only gradually that women and children began to make the journey across the Pacific to join their menfolk. In 1871 the first baby was born in Canada to Chinese parents. W.A. Cumyow grew up to open a store at the corner of Cordova and Homer in 1888 that offered real estate, brokerage and translation services to the Chinese community. As more children were born in or immigrated to Canada, a school was needed for them. The Aiguo Xuetang, or Patriotic School was founded in 1900. Most Chinese children went to provincially run non-segregated schools with white students as well.xx7 In highly conservative Confucian society women were largely confined to traditional gender roles. In these early years Chinese women were rarely seen in Vancouver outside the home. There were exceptions: Canadian-born Susan Yip Sang enrolled at UBC in 1914, making her likely the first Canadian-born Chinese student to attend that institution.xx8
7. 'Sam Kee'
The life of Sam Kee is emblematic of a class of remarkably successful Chinese entrepreneurs in these early years. Arriving in British Columbia a cannery worker in 1874, he used his close ties to his homeland and keen eye for opportunity to build one of the biggest business empires in the province. All the while he worked tirelessly to raise the status of the Chinese community. After stints as a labourer Sam began his business career when he bought a share in the Wah Chong Laundry in Gastown. He quickly expanded the company into a whole range of services, selling groceries and charcoal and contracting out work crews. In the 1890s he founded the company that bears his name and began importing all manner of goods from China, while exporting fish and other goods back the other way. He became a major investor and rented out dozens of buildings across the city so that by 1907 revenue was perhaps as high as $180,000 ($4 million today).xx9 He spoke practically no English, but his business dealings spanned the Asia-Pacific and he worked with many white firms, earning hard-won respect across the province. He was sometimes subject to official harassment, but he was clever and inventive in working around these obstacles, allowing his business and his community to flourish in adverse circumstances. The supreme evidence of this stands in front of you now, the cheeky, world record-holding response to having his land expropriated.
8. 'Chinatown Arch'
Historian Harry Con believes a Vancouver Liberal Member of Parliament spoke for most of white British Columbia when he said "BC is to be a white man's country. The majority of the residents are utterly opposed to the present flinging wide the gates to the Asiatics."xx10 The province's politicians acted on these fears, passing new discriminatory legislation almost every year. A variety of race-based taxes were passed. Chinese-Canadians were barred from working on city projects, excluded from professions like law and architecture and denied the right to vote. Most white British Columbians looked at the Japanese immigrants through this same racist lens, seeing both groups as 'Orientals' and 'Asiatics.' The problem was Japan was a rising power and in 1902 signed an alliance with Great Britain (and therefore Canada). The Canadian government awkwardly vetoed the most racist legislation against Japanese immigrants. The Chinese had no such protections. Unlike Japan, China was descending into chaos and her government's protests could be lightly shrugged off.
9. 'Organizing the Community'
To combat this virulent prejudice the Chinese-Canadian community showed a truly extraordinary ability to organize. Yip Sang was an instrumental figure in making that possible. Like Sam Kee, Yip is another rags-to-riches story, and his multi-faceted business empire was a precursor to today's gigantic Chinese-Canadian trade relationship. But today he is best remembered for his flurry of community organizing in the 1890s, when he helped found the Chinese Benevolent Association, the Chinese Board of Trade and the Chinese Empire Reform Association. These organizations served a huge range of functions, from schooling, health care and welfare, to promoting business cooperation and lobbying government. Funds raised by the Chinese Benevolent Association built a Chinese hospital and the Patriotic School. When Chinese unemployment shot up to 70% in the 1910s, the CBA disbursed money to the poor.xx11 The Chinese Empire Reform Association was China's first ever political party and sought a constitutional monarchy in China. In the 1900s Yip was crucial for spreading the association's membership throughout the world's Overseas Chinese communities. These organizations held the Chinese community together, and allowed them to weather the period of extreme hardship that lasted with few interruptions from the 1900s to the 1940s.
10. 'The Race Riot of 1907'
Vancouver's economy entered recession in 1907, throwing many out of work. As was usual at the time, the 'Orientals' were blamed and the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed to bring a halt to immigration. A crowd of 4,000 gathered in front of the City Hall at Main and Hastings for a league meeting. When a Salvation Army preacher took to the stand he gave a speech so fiery and hate-filled that the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Swelling now to 8,000, the mob rampaged into Chinatown, smashing windows and looting. The Chinese had no warning and fled to the back of their shops and homes as the mob flowed by, leaving no window unbroken. Luckily nobody was killed, though there were apparently two stabbings. Next the mob moved on to Japantown, but the Japanese, had advanced warning. They armed themselves with bottles, clubs, and bricks and fended off the mob.xx12 Respectable Vancouver was embarrassed and the city's preeminent citizens came forward to denounce the riot. Perhaps realizing they'd gone too far, the Asiatic Exclusion League was disbanded five days later. One newspaper blamed the event on a small number of hoodlums and was gravely worried about the about the damage done to the city's coveted reputation, shades of another Vancouver riot 104 years later.xx13
11. 'Racist Myths'
It is difficult to imagine a race riot convulsing the streets of this city today. Even more difficult to understand is the mind-set of the participants, who interpreted so much of their world through the lens of race. A variety of myths about the Chinese were circulated and widely believed, allowing many white people to dehumanize the Chinese in their minds. The Chinese were accused of living in squalor, though Chinatown was located at the edge of the False Creek swamp and not connected to the sewer system for a long time. They were accused of bringing in infectious disease, though a royal commission in 1900 found this to be untrue. They were accused of importing immense quantities of opium, though the drug wasn't illegal in Canada until 1908, and it should be remembered Britain went to war with China several times to force that country to open its doors to opium (The Opium Wars). They were accused of outbreeding European Canadians, even though in 1941 there were only 35,000 Chinese in a provincial population of 817,000.xx14 In 1921 the Vancouver Sun published The Writing on the Wall, a novel by Hilda Howard. In the novel several members of British Columbia's white elite are blinded by their greed and manipulated by nefarious Orientals bent on provincial domination. The elites close their eyes to unlimited immigration, opium smuggling and the spread of disease. Eventually the Chinese begin poisoning white people's food to kill them off, while the Japanese actually invade. The world of the whites is collapsing when at the end of the novel the protagonist, a white politician, awakens in a cold sweat only to discover it had all been a bad dream. The nightmare, he realizes, was a warning: he must never sign a bill giving Orientals the right to vote.xx15
12. 'Latest from the Front'
The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 virtually banned all immigration from China. The years that followed were a very dark time for Chinatown indeed. Lonely working men couldn't afford to bring their wives over from China nor could they afford to go home. They were stranded in Vancouver. The Great Depression added to the misery. One can barely imagine the humiliation these men felt when charitable organizations pleaded with their employers to fire them and replace them with whites—for the public good of course. China's domestic politics was never far from Vancouver and new political parties had set up shop in the city, leading to bitter schisms over the future of China itself. In 1937 however all these differences were cast aside when Imperial Japan invaded China. The Japanese invasion was immediately successful, and incomparably brutal. Chinese Canadians agonized over newspaper stories about the bombing of Shanghai, the rape of Nanking, and the fall of Peking (Beijing).
13. 'Aiding the War Effort'
After the outbreak of war in 1937 Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang Government in China called for aid. Vancouver's Chinese leapt into action, selling quasi-compulsory war bonds to all Chinese-Canadian males, protesting scrap shipments to Japan from Vancouver harbour, and staging fund drives for everything from fighter planes and rifles to refugee relief and winter clothing. Chinese Canadians raised $5 million for China's war effort.xx16
14. 'An Early Political Meeting'
Japan's attacks on the Allies in December 1941 changed everything. Suddenly China was allied with Canada in the fight against tyranny. The press lionized Chiang Kai-Shek while Canada and the other Allies hastily renegotiated the old unequal treaties with China, elevating that once derided country to great power status. 500 Canadian-born Chinese enlisted in the Canadian military and Chinese-Canadians bought more than $10 million in Canadian war bonds ($157 million today). The fight for a common cause softened the racial prejudices of many white Canadians. War brought about radical change in the Chinese community too, as women broke free from their traditional gender roles. As one historian noted, ""The appearance of Chinese women selling tags on the streets of Canada's major cities was one of the most remarkable and interesting phenomena of the war years."xx17
15. 'The Barriers Come Down'
As soon as the war ended the newly empowered Chinese community lobbied hard to have immigration restrictions lifted. Canada had just fought a war to end racism and intolerance and it was obvious to many that maintaining the immigration ban was utter hypocrisy. Public opinion had shifted and the Vancouver Sun, who had published the Writing on The Wall 20 years earlier, argued in favour of lifting the ban. The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, along with a variety of other racist statutes. Chinese were now able to vote and enter the professions. Within months the first Chinese Canadian had passed the bar. It took longer for the government to recognize the heritage and cultural value of Chinatown itself. In the car mania sweeping North America in the 1950s and 1960s, Chinatown was slated for demolition to make way for an expressway. Thankfully, a vigorous grassroots campaign derailed this plan and the only parts of it ever built were the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. In 1971 Chinatown was declared a national historic site, but the focus of the Chinese community had already begun to shift south, to Richmond. That so much of Chinatown survives today is a testament to the grit and determination of pioneers a century and more ago, who crossed the ocean to a strange new land and forever left their mark upon it.
2. Chinese Pioneers
1. Con, Harry. From China to Canada. A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Publishers, 1982.
3. Coming to Canada
2. Encyclopedia Britannica.
4. Shanghai Alley
4. Snyders & O'Rourke.
5. Finding Work
6. Growing the Community
8. Stanley, "Yip Sang."
7. Sam Kee
9. Stanley, "Chang Toy".
8. Chinatown Arch
9. Organizing the Community
10. The Race Riot of 1907
11. Racist Myths
13. Aiding the War Effort
13. Ghosts of Vancouver.
14. An Early Political Meeting