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Chinese immigration to Canada coming to Gum San

February 3, 2000

On March 1, 1860, Mrs. Kwong Lee, the wife of a prosperous merchant from San Francisco was the first Chinese woman to arrive in Victoria, now part of British Columbia. Victoria was known to the Chinese as Gum San or “Gold Mountain.” The name Gum San was first used for California as stories circulated in China that the streets of San Francisco were paved with gold.

Immigration records show that by 1885, there were only 53 Chinese women (compared to 1,485 men) in Canada. That year, after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, there was limited demand for what was then called “coolie labour” – an extremely offensive term.

Therefore the federal government (immigration is largely a federal matter under the Constitution of Canada), with support in the country and on the west coast in particular, imposed a $50 “head tax” on new Chinese immigrants.

Think about how much money that was then! The head tax increased to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903. The tax slowed immigration from China for some years, then it started to increase again.

On July 1, 1923, new federal legislation – the Exclusion Act – virtually suspended Chinese immigration. In a nasty twist, most of the country celebrated Dominion Day (now Canada Day) on July 1, but for the Chinese in Canada it was Humiliation Day.

One of the results was that a generation of women in southern China were separated from their husbands for almost 25 years.

In 1931, out of a total Chinese population of 46,519, only 3,648 were women. May 14, 1947, was the day the ban on Chinese immigration started to lift, although only for children under 18 whose parents were Canadian citizens. All restrictions applying specifically to Chinese immigrants were not lifted until 1967.

Immigration laws (in Canada, the United States and Australia) were a response to and in turn fed prejudice against people from China.

The prejudice was deep and wide “Institutionalized racism” was what The Women’s Book Committee of the Chinese Canadian National Council called it in Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women.

Chinese immigrants could not vote, become citizens or work for the government. They were barred from practising professions such as law and medicine (although they could go to university) and their children often had to attend separate schools.

Dora Nipp – the lawyer and social historian who directed the film Under the Willow Tree: Pioneer Chinese Women in Canada – said that wives and mothers fought loneliness and isolation by devoting themselves to raising children and by passing on Chinese traditions and language.

“It wasn’t an easy life, but they made the most of what they had. They wouldn’t allow themselves the luxury of feeling hopelessness or isolation.”

more to consider

Our immigration laws may not include outright racial distinctions now, but money talks and those with money are more likely to get into Canada than those without it.

Does it have to be that way?

Canada is dependent on immigration for its growth. Since 1992, for the first time in Canadian history, net immigration [more people in than out] was more than half of Canada's population increase.

In 1901–06, more than 700,000 immigrants came into this country of 6 million people. In 1989–91 nearly one million people arrived. Without this immigration, Canada can't maintain its population.

Since 1972 in Canada, fewer babies are born than the number of people that die. So our population shrinks.

Canadians are doing the “right” thing environmentally in having less babies, i.e. using less resources, etc. All the more reason we should offer a home to the people from more crowded and less fortunate economies.

In January of 1988, Immigration Canada and Health Canada will apply stricter medical tests for immigrants, refugees, temporary workers and visitors staying more than 6 months. What! Another hurdle for an already disadvantaged group.

The government will screen for 47 infectious diseases, including HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and influenza. This could take up to a year for people to wait for the medicals, even with a computer model to assess risk.

The government thinks that, otherwise, it might cost the taxpayer money as newcomers would use our health-care system and social services. An HIV patient costs $110,000–$178,000 for medical care. Hey people, these folk are coming from Third World countries! And what’s the government going to do with this information? Right now, immigrants have to pass a blood test for syphilis, a chest x-ray for TB and a medical exam. It’s difficult eh!

Can we not have immigration laws consistent with our position on human rights in Canada and worldwide?

“Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it,” said Rosemary Brown. Don’t forget this important belief!

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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