by MARITES SISON
About 25 people gathered May 31 at the Toronto Reference Library to hear Toronto-based writer Arlene Chan trace the history of Chinese immigration to Canada.
Chan’s lecture was also a pre-launch of sorts for the library’s Chinese-Canadian Archive Project, which aims to document the Chinese immigrants’ history of “hardships and successes” in Canada.
Chan, author of The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle, began by asking the audience to identify a series of photographs. Older members easily identified the Peking duck, a few knew what sticky rice was, someone mistook the longan for lychee and a handful of children under 10 gleefully recognized bubble tea.
As late as the 1940s, most Canadians wouldn’t have recognized these Chinese food. That it has gone mainstream since is one evidence of how far Chinese immigrants in Canada have come, says Chan. Still, many Canadians are largely unaware of their contributions to the life and growth of Canada as a nation, adds Chan.
Large-scale Chinese immigration happened in the 1850s, with immigrants mostly from Guangdong province, southeast China. Life was harsh during the Manchu dynasty, says Chan, citing civil war, starvation and poverty made worse by a string of natural disasters.
British Columbia’s gold rush enticed many to begin arriving in 1858, she says. Their numbers increased when plans to build a railway connecting B.C. to the rest of Canada were announced to convince the province into joining the new confederation in 1871. Chinese labourers had just helped build America’s first transcontinental railroad (1864 to 1869) and so they came in handy.
“The Chinese (labourers) were given the hard task of chiselling away rocks,” in B.C. and were initially not treated well, living on a ration of tea and rice, says Chan.
When the railway was completed in 1885 it was a proud moment for Canada, but noticeably absent from the “ceremonial final spike” into the Canadian Pacific Railway were the Chinese labourers who helped build the tracks.
Instead, on that same year, a head tax of $50 was imposed to discourage more of them from coming to Canada. “Back then five cents could buy you a loaf of bread,” says Chan to illustrate the value of that amount. It was later increased to $100 and in 1903, to $500—enough to buy two houses, she adds.
Chinese Exclusion Act
In 1923, the Parliament of Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning most Chinese (except students and diplomats) from coming to Canada. It was imposed on July 1, Dominion Day, so that Chinese Canadians at that time took to calling the anniversary of Canada’s confederation as “Humiliation Day.”
The vision then was to build a white Canada and so the Chinese were segregated and made to live in ghettos in Victoria. “They were predominantly male — the (male to female) ratio was 28:1,” says Chan.
[“The legislation proved to be extremely effective in restricting Chinese immigration. …The virtual cessation of Chinese immigration significantly impacted the Chinese community in Canada. Wives and children of Chinese men already in Canada were not permitted to immigrate and the lack of Chinese women in Canada limited the opportunity for the community’s natural growth,” according to the website of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Discrimination was rampant, with newspapers often perpetuating racism against Chinese immigrants, says Chan, as she showed an editorial cartoon that showed a door wide open for white immigrants and a closed door showing dishevelled Chinese immigrants.
Chan, a third-generation Chinese Canadian, traces her own family’s roots to B.C., with the arrival in 1899 of her grandfather Fun Gee Wong, a Canton native who paid a head tax to work as a farm labourer in Canada. He would later marry Hone Hung Mah, also from Canton, who arrived in B.C. with her brother in the early 1900s. Together they raised 12 children, among them Chan’s mother, Jean (Wong Toy Jin), who was born in Nanaimo, B.C.
Some Chinese immigrants eventually moved East because of discrimination, including 16-year-old Jean.
When Jean came to Toronto the city had only a dozen or so families, and it was mostly a bachelor society, says Chan. “She felt distressed” at the situation having come from a large family. Still, Jean was determined to make something of herself and at 17, together with a relative, she opened a grocery store. With the help of a matchmaker, she would later marry Doyle Jenning Lumb, who had paid a $500 head tax to come to Canada. When she married Doyle, Jean Lumb lost her status as a Canadian citizen, even though she was born and raised in Canada. She and Doyle would later apply for citizenship in 1957. In a twist of fate, says Chan, Jean would later become a citizenship judge who inducted Canada’s new immigrants.
Chinese immigrants settled in The Ward, Toronto’s first immigrant neighbourhood, which was populated by poor Jewish and Italian immigrants.
Bounded by Queen, Yonge University and College streets, it would later comprise most of Toronto’s first Chinatown as Jewish immigrants eventually moved to Spadina and College [Kensington Market] and the Italians, to Bathurst and College [Little Italy].
Most Chinese immigrants operated laundromats. The hours were long — 16 to 18 hours, seven days a week — but “you could hire friends and relatives and you didn’t have to face discrimination,” says Chan. In 1881, there were four laundromats and by 1905, the number grew to 228.
The Chinese also opened restaurants,which were limited to Chinese clientele and in the 1920s, vaudeville actors who performed in the theatre district just east of Yonge and Queen. Chan notes that Edward Robinson and other Jewish actors often dined at Chinese restaurants after performing at Shea’s Hippodrome Theatre on Terauley Street (now Bay Street). Robinson’s favourite spots were Hung Fah Low and Jung Wah, on 12 1/2 Elizabeth Street, Chan writes in her book.
Jean and Doyle Lumb would later open Kwong Chow, one of the “Big Four” Chinese restaurants that introduced Chinese food to other Canadians.
These restaurants were bigger and more formal, with white table cloths and napkins; they served Chinese-Canadian food that didn’t really originate from China like egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken balls.
Churches played a big part in the life of Chinese immigrants, says Chan. “They recognized that they could get converts to Christianity by offering English classes,” she says. Her own parents married at Knox Presbyterian Church.
Associations — often organized around common surnames, place of origin and shared political beliefs — became the backbone of the community. These associations helped people find a place to live, a job, or borrow money because credit wasn’t available to them in banks, says Chan.
The turning point for Chinese immigration came after the Second World War, says Chan. About 600 Chinese had served in the Canadian Air Force, Chinese Canadians helped raise relief funds, and China and Canada fought as allies in the war along with the U.S. and Britain.
By then Canada had also signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that the Chinese Exclusion Act, which contravened this charter, was repealed in 1947. Chinese-Canadians were also finally allowed to vote in federal and provincial elections.
[“However, it took another twenty years until the points system was adopted for selecting immigrants in 1967 that the Chinese could be admitted under the same criteria as any other applicants,” according to the University of British Columbia’s research on Chinese immigration.
Changes in immigration law would not have been possible without the activism of Chinese-Canadians, including Jean Lumb, who became the only woman member of a delegation which met with John Diefenbaker in 1957 to press for family reunification.
Jean Lumb would later become the spokesperson for Chinatown when it was threatened anew with demolition in the mid-1960s. In 1955, two-thirds of the original Chinatown (which had included George, York, Queen, Elizabeth and Hagerman streets) had been expropriated to make way for the new Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The community had not been consulted, and Chinese immigrants were forced to move to Chinatown’s present-day location on Dundas and Spadina. Lumb and the Save Chinatown committee were determined not to let expropriation happen again.
Lumb was also big on educating Canadians about Chinese culture, says Chan. A Chinese community dance troupe, which she organized, successfully auditioned to perform on the occasion of Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967.
In 1976, Lumb’s activism and civic contributions were recognized with an Order of Canada. She was the first restaurateur and first Chinese-Canadian to receive Canada’s highest civilian honour.
“She broke glass ceilings and paved the way for others,” says Chan, noting how Canada would later appoint Vivienne Poy as the first senator of Asian descent in 1998 and Adrienne Clarkson as its first governor general of Asian descent in 1999.
Last April 23, Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a plaque on Elizabeth Street and Foster Place commemorating Jean Lumb’s contributions to Toronto and Canada.
“Jean Lumb served as a voice for her community for over 40 years and left a legacy of social activism and cultural pride for future generations,” the plaque notes.
Today, Chinese immigrants constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Canada. There are about 300,000 Canadians of Chinese descent in Toronto (500,000 in total across the Greater Toronto Area) and after English and French, Chinese languages are the most spoken in Canada.
Chan notes, however, that the Chinese community is diverse in terms of language and tradition—they come from China’s north and south, from Hong Kong, and from Taiwan.
They are also all over Toronto. Although Chinatown West on Dundas and Spadina remains the main Chinatown, other members of the community have moved to Broadview and Gerrard (also known as Chinatown East), others are in Agincourt and Scarborough, in Markham, and Richmond Hill, Ont. They constitute 45 per cent of the population in Richmond Hill and 38 per cent of the population in Markham.
What Jean Lumb and her generation fought for “has become a reality,” says Chan. Growing up in B.C. Jean Lumb had felt like an outsider. “There was terrible shame and guilt in being Chinese,” she adds. “But she didn’t want to be outside looking in, she wanted to be a part of [Canada].”
For more information about the Chinese-Canadian Archives Project, including how to donate photographs, documents and artifacts, please contact Suk Yin Ng, services specialist, Special Collections, at [email protected]