Immigrants to Canada

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(NAC RG 76 Vol 712)

Chinese Immigration to Canada

Britain signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 by which "their (British and Chinese) respective subjects...should enjoy full security and protection for their persons and their property within the Dominions of the other."(1) Although emigration was not openly allowed, in 1860 China passed a law which stated, "Chinese choosing to take service in the British Colonies or other parts beyond the sea, are at perfect liberty to enter into engagements with British subjects for that purpose, and to ship themselves and their families on board any British vessel at any of the open ports of China."(2) This was followed in 1868 by the Burlinghame Treaty between China and the United States which recognized, "The inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and alliegance[sic] and also the mutual advantage of free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one country to the other for the purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents."(3) Thus the gates were opened for emigration from China.

Chinese immigration into British Columbia began in the 1850s with the discovery of gold in the Fraser valley. These Chinese came from the United States, drawn to California a few years earlier also because of gold. These early settlers worked the gold fields and when the gold was depleted they moved into other occupations such as gardening, farming, domestic service, road construction and then as railway builders.

Many of these early immigrants came from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. They sailed to San Francisco but in May of 1858 reports of the discovery of gold sent some of them to Victoria. It is reported that the first Chinese arrived in Victoria on June 28, 1858.(4) The trip was arranged by Hop Kee and Co. of San Francisco and some 300 Chinese were sent with Allan Lowe & Co. onboard the Caribbean. The authors of From China to Canada, state that in 1859 the first Chinese arrived directly from Hong Kong and the following year some 4,000 Chinese immigrants landed at Victoria. It is further estimated that 2,875 arrived in the first part of 1861. As well as by sea, some Chinese entered British Columbia by moving overland from the present state of Oregon.

In 1871, as British Columbia entered confederation, it had about 3,000 Chinese within its boundaries.(5) The immigrants were mostly men and in 1871, when the first census was taken, there were only 53 Chinese women in the province.(6) By 1879, the number of Chinese in the province was estimated by the BC Legislature to be 6,000.(7)

Several companies actively recruited Chinese workers. In May,1882 the Escambia and the Suez brought 2,000 workers to Victoria.(8) There were 8,000 Chinese immigrants in 1882 of which 6,500 arrived in the months of April, May and June. The numbers declined to 1,456 between Jan 1-June 30, 1884.

For several years there was a movement to stop the immigration of Chinese into Canada. In 1885 the Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was presented. That same year an act was passed in the Canadian Parliament restricting the proportion of Chinese immigrants to one for every 50 tons of vessel tonnage. A head tax was also imposed.(9) On completion of the railway, in 1885, about 1,000 Chinese returned to China.

Due to the restrictions placed upon Chinese immigration, records were kept of those who paid the head tax. These papers are available in the National Archives of Canada.

In the Canadian News

Manitoba Daily Free Press, April 10, 1891.

Canadian Chinese
After Paying the Dominion Poll Tax They Are Free to Go Where They Please.
Ottawa, April 9.--It is understood that a request recently reached the customs department from Washington, that steps be taken to prevent the migration of Chinese from Canada to the United States. The department answered that it had no power to take action of the kinds suggested. Once the Chinese pay the poll tax, they are at liberty to come and go the same as any other people of Canada.

Manitoba Daily Free Press, June 25, 1891.

Returned To China
Chinamen Who Illegally Enter the States From Canada Will be Sent Home.
Washington, D.C., June 24.--Acting Secretary Spaulding has made a ruling in regard to Chinamen that will be widespread in its application. Three Chinamen yesterday came to Detroit from Canada, and the commissioner intimated that Canada was the country from whence they came and to which they should be returned. Acting Secretary Spaulding directed that they be returned to China, and in duscussing the points raised by the United States commissioner at Detroit sent the following telegram to the collector there: "The act of September 13th, 1888, now in force as treaty named in section 1 not ratified. Act of August 13, 1890, page 387, statutes at large, makes appropriation specifically for returning to China all Chinese persons illegally in the United States. It is useless to return them to Canada to come back to-morrow. The above act was expressly made to meet the difficulty. Under it we return unquestioned to China, as the country from whence they came. Chinese coming from Mexico and British Columbia as they make these contiguous foreign countries the avenue for reaching the United States. The attorney-general expresses the opinion that this action is directly in line of carrying out the exclusion act for which the appropriation was made. It is the practice on the Pacific coast when the court finds Chinamen illegally in the country for marshals to turn them over to the collector at San Francisco for deportation to China. The department sees no occasion for a different practice at Detroit."

The Chinese In San Francisco

(This article from the Illustrated London News, January 23, 1875, gives some insight into the emigration process of the Chinese.)

When our Special Artist, Mr. W. Simpson, after attending the Imperial nuptials at Pekin, crossed the Pacific to San Francisco, he took notice of the Chinese emigrants to California who were his fellow-passengers on board the steam-ship Alaska. More than one sketch of this subject he placed in our hands, with copious notes, of which the following may her suffice:--

"Since the late war in America between North and South, the emigration of Chinese to the United States has assumed the proportions of an historical feature in that country. The chinese have come in great numbers to San Francisco, and California has consequently received the greatest number of them; but they have also penetrated to New York, Boston, Oregon, and the plantations of the Southern States.

"The present Illustration will convey an idea of the Chinaman as he is in the United States and the changes which take place in his appearance. He undergoes a few slight modifications, but they are principally external. The Chinese have brought with them nearly all their own institutions, including joss-houses, and their own peculiar theatre. They congregate in one part of San Francisco, which is for that reason called 'China-town.' The streets in this quarter are all built like the other parts of the city; there is no Chinese architecture here. But otherwise the place is as purely Celestial as if it were in the 'Middle Kingdom.' Every article to be found in Chinese shops may be purchased here. Chinese sign-boards hang out, and orange pieces of paper with writing on them are in all the windows. 'Washing and ironing' seem to be done almost wholly by the Chinese, and that is always expressed on their signs in badly-painted English letters.

"It is a mark of degradation for a Chinaman to lose his pigtail, so even in America he sticks religiously to that distinctive ornament. But the great feature here is that he has adopted the wide-awake. This is universal. I have not seen a Chinaman in San Francisco without one, and they are all very much of the same cut. It is not the slouching wide-awake or the billycock hat, but a small hat with a flat brim, which has a sailor-like appearance. Often, as they do in their own country, they wind the pigtail round the head like a turban, and the hat goes over all. Another distinctive change is the adoption of European trousers; and this is as universal as the wide-awake. It gives John Chinaman a breeches pocket, which he seems to be proud of, for he has his hands continually in that portion of his dress, a practice which his own costume did not permit of. I believe that in this he copies a common American habit, but it gives him the appearance of having something in his pocket; it is suggestive of the idea that he is a man of means, and that he has dollars where the hand loves to be. Many have also adopted European boots and shoes, but a great number walk about the streets of San Francisco with their own thick, white-soled shoes. Mrs. John Chinaman retains all the peculiarities of costume belonging to the land she came from. She dresses her hair in the peculiar Canton fashion, and uses the same skewers and ornaments which she has been all her life accustomed to. Compressed feet are not common in the southern parts of China, and I have seen none in San Francisco. The Chinese baby is quite unchanged here. Climatic influences do not seem to affect his features, costume, or language. The fond papa sits at his own door acting the part of nurse with that well-pleased expression which may be seen anywhere in the Flowery Kingdom.

"The 'Chinese question' is one that is at present much debated in this county; and very opposite opinions are expressed on the subject. From one point of view the Chinaman is looked upon as the only means of developing the resources of the State. Cheap labour is scarce, and he is supposed to supply what , from this point of view, is considered to be the greatest want of the country. He is talked of by these advocates as the greatest boon to the State. The opposite side of the shield is given in equally strong belief, and John Chinaman is branded as 'the curse of the country' and the 'ruin of everything.' As in so many other cases, the real truth is probably somewhere between these two very extreme views. Men judge here, as elsewhere, from their own interests, and wherever the Chinaman's labour competes with that of the person who speaks of it, the cry of evil is heard; on the contrary, those who have managed to benefit by this new institution are loud in its praises. The politician felt anxious as to which side John would give his vote to, if he should take it into his head to be naturalized and become a citizen; but all anxiety has been set at rest from the fact that John will not become an American. He considers his own political and religious system to be the best on the face of the earth, and refuses all allegiance to any other. He does not come to America to stay, but to get dollars, and then return to his own land. Should he die in America his body is preserved and sent back, for he believes that he can only get to heaven by being buried on Celestial soil. The Churches here are in favour of the Chinese emigration, from hopes of being better able to convert them; but John has a profound contempt for all systems but his own, and as yet he is a purely heathen here as in his own land. It astonishes the msot of people to find that every oen of these 'Heathen Chinese' can read and write his own language-that, in fact, however poor, he is an educated man. He brings to this foreign land his virtues as well as his vices. He has schools, where his children learn to repeat the classics, as in China; and there are opium-shops, where he intoxicates himself, after his own fashion. But here he is the same good-natured, industrious, hard-working fellow that he is at home.

"These emigrants come from six different districts in and about Canton. For the regulation of the traffic there are six separate guilds or companies. These guilds are named See-Yup, Mung-Yung, Sam-Yip, Hap-Whaw, Kong-Chew, and Sam-Hup. These guilds have corresponding offices and managers in San Francisco, where, upon the arrival of the emigrant, they provide lodging and employment for him. The offices see that he is paid at a fair rate, and that his agreements with employers are correct and just. For this a small fee has to be paid, and continued while his employment lasts. The aggregate of these fees amounts to a large sum, and they are able to give help to those who pay when in sickness or out of employment. They also not only see that the emigrant receives whatever is due to him, but they make him pay all his just debts; and he cannot leave America to return to his own country till he gets a certificate from the agent that he owes nothing. By patient industry and frugality, virtues eminently characteristic of the Chinese, in about four years a man may have saved from 200 to 400 dollars, and in many cases even more. Such sums being a fortune to a Chinaman, he returns to his native place. Many buy houses for their parents, or spend the money and return again to America. Indeed, there are nearly as many of these people making the return voyage as those proceeding to California.

"The system of Chinese emigration is under the control of the English and American Consuls at Hong-Kong, and is to be distinguished from the coolie traffic of other parts. No emigrant can be received on board till he has appeared before the English emigration officer and the United States Consul, and declared that he goes of his own free will and is under no labour contract. Again, shortly before the vessel proceeds to sea both these authorities pay a visit to the ship, when every passenger is mustered before them on board, to see that they have all got their tickets stampted, and that none are being taken from their own country against their will."

Other Web Sites of Interest

Books of Interest:

Andracki, Stanislaw. Immigration of Orientals Into Canada With Special Reference To Chinese, (Arno Press, New York: 1978). - Library of Congress: JV7285.C5A6 1978

Cheng, Tien-fang. Oriental Immigration in Canada. (Shjanghai: Commercial Press, 1931).

Con, Harry, Ronald J. Con, Graham Johnson, Edgar Wickberg and William E. Willmott, From China to Canada, Edited by Edgar Wickberg, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1982).


1. Harry Con, Ronald J. Con, Graham Johnson, Edgar Wickberg and William E. Willmott, From China to Canada, Edited by Edgar Wickberg, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1982), p. 17

2. Ibid., pp. 19-20.

3. Ibid., pp. 20-21.

4. Ibid., p. 13.

5. Stanislaw Andracki. Immigration of Orientals Into Canada With Special Reference To Chinese, (Arno Press, New York: 1978), p. 1. ( JV7285.C5A6 1978)

6. Con, et al, p. 14.

7. Ibid., p. 7.

8. Ibid., p. 21.

9. Ibid., p. 53.

UWInfo | 19th Century Immigration | Genealogy | Local History

© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2004
Last updated: April 20, 2004 and maintained by Marj Kohli