By Larry Wong, Curator
From the time Chinese first arrived in British Columbia in 1858 until 1874, they were like any other migrants: they occupied lower paid jobs. While people of Caucasian descent were paid $2 a day, the Chinese accepted $1.35 a day for the same work.
However, Chinese were also treated different than any other immigrants in two important ways: they were forbidden to vote until after WWII, and they were subjected to a head tax.
The Chinese were always considered “heathens” and by 1875 the government declared, “Chinese of the Province of British Columbia may not make application to have their names inserted in any list of voters and are disqualified from voting at any elections.”
A decade later, in 1885 the Chinese became prey to a head tax. The head tax was designed to discourage Chinese from entering Canada. The tax started at $50, and less than four decades later (1903) had risen to $500 per person, a fortune at that time.
When World War I was declared in 1914, approximately 200 Chinese volunteered for the Canadian Army. Marjorie Wong in her book, The Dragon and the Maple Leaf, listed some of the men from British Columbia, including two brothers from Shuswap area: Wee Hong Louie and Wee Tan Louie. The widow of Wee Tan donated his helmet to the Chinese Canadian Military Museum which is on display.
Following the end of the first war, returning Chinese veterans continued to face racial intolerance as well as unemployment.
The next indignity was the passage of the 1923 Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the only legislation written for a specific ethnic group. It effectively barred Chinese from Canada.
At the start of the World War II, a few Chinese volunteered for the Canadian Army. They were accepted and when the war moved to Hong Kong, more Chinese volunteered.
However, the air force and navy at first did not accept anyone of Chinese descent due to their internal policy. But that policy was eventually overturned as the war moved to the Pacific Theatre and Chinese were considered useful.
By that time, conscription was a big topic in Chinatown. Heated debates took place in church halls between various groups and organizations. “Should Chinese men and women volunteer or wait until the government called their names?”
Those who wanted to volunteer argued that if Chinese wanted to be considered first class citizens, they needed to demonstrate their commitment to Canada.
Those who were opposed volunteering replied, “Look at what the government has done to us. Why should we fight for a country that doesn’t want us?”
In what amounted to a vote, the patriotic Chinese won the day.
They volunteered in all three branches of the armed forces and some were even seconded to the British forces. They fought on land, sea and air and some made the supreme sacrifice.
At the end of the war, in 1947, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed. In the same year, the first Canadian citizenship ceremony for Chinese was held at the Commodore Cabaret in Vancouver with some 400 in attendance. Chinese were finally allowed to vote in the provincial election of 1949, followed by federal election the same year.
The return of the franchise also meant the professionally trained could take their place alongside their Caucasian colleagues. Chinese could now be recognized as doctors, lawyers and engineers. This meant these men and women could now provide a stable future for their children and in turn, change the economic landscape in the Chinese Canadian community forever.
Now in the second decade of the new century, today’s Canadian Forces count among its members various ethnic group — including Chinese in the campaign in Afghanistan – who are making their contribution to Canada.