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Photograph of man walking toward camera in front of stores, on wooden sidewalk covered by balcony

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"Chinatowns" sprung up in cities across Canada

Photograph of four children wearing traditional Chinese clothing, standing in brick storefront doorway

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Children were always a welcome sight in Chinatown. Few Chinese families lived in Canada until the immigration laws were changed after the Second World War.

Photograph of group of men and boys in a park. First row: boy scouts seated in semi-circle on park lawn, some with drums; second row: men in white gym clothes with large flags; third row: men in suits and wearing straw boater hats or cloth caps

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A gathering in Toronto‘s High Park in 1919. As a generation of Chinese Canadians born and raised in Canada developed, many organizations formed that paralleled mainstream society. Although still segregated by racism, Chinese Canadian sports teams, Boy Scouts, and beauty pageants reflected the desire of Canadian-born Chinese to live similar lives to other Canadians.

Photograph of ornate altar with many small objects on top

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A feature of many Chinatowns was the "Joss House", a hall with altars of gods and clan ancestors where immigrants could pay their respects.

Torn front page of newspaper with Chinese and English text

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Chinese-language newspapers produced in Canada were an important source of news.

Photograph of two actors in Chinese theatrical costume on stage, with musicans seated at side of stage

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Traditional Chinese Opera was a popular form of entertainment in Canada’s early Chinese communities.
This 1944 photograph shows a performance in Vancouver, B.C.

...it’s all men

"Sunday afternoon was the busy day in Chinatown. We get half a day holiday. Back then, we work six and a half days a week. You think it’s like now, work five days and get two days off? All the restaurants are full. The theatre is packed for the opera. Upstairs in the clan hall, people play music, play chess, play cards. They’re not supposed to be gambling, but they do that too. And everywhere you look, it’s all men. No women. The wives of the merchants, they have to stay home, they can’t be seen on the street. That’s the Chinese tradition." (Chuen Fong, restaurant cook, Victoria, British Columbia, speaking in 1981 at age 76.)

- Fictional character created by author
Paul Yee

You have to know
Chinese

"My father sent me to China for a Chinese education. He said, "You"re Chinese, you have to know how to read Chinese words, you have to know how to write Chinese words." There’s Chinese schools in Chinatown, but my father didn’t think they were good enough. So I went to live with an uncle in Guangzhou, and went to school there for several years. I liked China. Everyone looked the same as me. But learning Chinese is hard, you have to memorize so much. After a few years, my father said I could come back to Canada." (Gordon Soo, an importer-exporter, Calgary, speaking in 1979 at age 82.)

- Fictional character created by author
Paul Yee

Click on each photo for an enlarged, printable version.

ARCHIVED - The Early Chinese Canadians
1858-1947

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The History

Communities for Canada and China

What's in this section?

Chinatowns Across Canada

All across Canada, starting in the 1890s, cities and larger towns began to develop their own Chinatown districts. These areas were safe places for Chinese people to live, to find Chinese goods, and to meet socially. People who wanted to harass the Chinese would be less likely to do so when many Chinese people lived and worked close by and could fight back. Chinatowns often emerged in older, poorer parts of town which were less desirable.

Some of the few white people who visited Chinatown regularly were Christian missionaries. They taught English, preached the gospel and tried to make the Chinese into Christians. They found the most success with Canadian-born Chinese.

Chinatowns also contained halls with altars featuring various gods and/or clan ancestors. Immigrant men paid their respects there.

Before 1923, most of the Chinese people living in Canada were men without families. They were unmarried, or had wives and children waiting in China. The men sent money home regularly and made plans to return to China to retire. People who had enough money also brought their families to Canada to settle. But after 1923, Canada shut its door to Chinese immigrants.

Looking Toward China

From the 1890s onward, Chinatown provided news about the homeland, which Chinese immigrants keenly followed. China wanted to modernize its industries, education system, and army and navy. Its government changed from a monarchy to a republic. These were exciting issues.

Chinatown provided goods and services needed by the immigrants. Its stores sent money on behalf of immigrants across the Pacific to their families in China's villages. Grocers imported familiar Chinese foods. The immigrants visited barbers, restaurants and herb doctors. In larger cities, Chinese firms published newspapers, prepared time-honoured barbecues and baked traditional cakes. Although many Chinese lived and worked outside of Chinatowns, the districts served as hubs for activity and central gathering places for men who were spread far and wide across Canada.

Mutual-help groups in Chinatown rented out rooms and provided space where men met, discussed politics and gambled. They organized banquets for the Lunar New Year or graveyard visits on Ancestor Day. They raised money for causes in China, such as flood or drought relief. When Japan bombed Shanghai in 1932 and sent its army to invade China in earnest in 1937, the Chinese in Canada raised money to defend their homeland.

Looking Toward Canada

The Chinese Benevolent Association in cities across Canada spoke for the community. After 1923, it held protests called the "Day of Humiliation" every July 1, the day that the law banning Chinese immigration came into effect. During the Depression, the association asked the government for help for Chinese communities.

Before 1923, the small number of Chinese who had families in Canada were mostly merchants. The head tax had made it costly for Chinese Canadians to bring relatives to Canada. The merchant families included Canadian-born Chinese, who grew up speaking both English and Chinese. They formed sports teams in soccer, hockey and basketball, and played teams from outside the Chinese community. Some attended university. However, anti-Chinese racism stopped them from finding good jobs in Canada.

When the Communists took power in China in 1949, many Chinese in Canada decided not to return to China. Instead, they brought their families to Canada. With growing public acceptance of the Chinese here, Chinese Canadians faced a brighter future.

British Columbia was home to over 60 percent of Canada's Chinese before the Second World War. But for many years after the ban on Chinese immigration was revoked in 1947, the province received only one-third of new Chinese immigrants. This meant that Chinese families were settling all across Canada.

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This film of a Chinese funeral procession in Victoria, B.C. was made in 1918.
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Find out more about communities for Canada and China

  • Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children is a remarkable family history. She creates a vivid picture of life in both China and Canada, in the early and mid-20th century.
  • In the poem "Gold Mountain Dream," a new immigrant from China reflects on the "repeating rhythm" that she hears echoing from the past in Toronto's Chinatown (From Maples and the Stream: A Narrative Poem by Lien Chao).
  • In Beyond the Gold Mountain, anthropologist Ban Seng Hoe explores how Chinese cultural traditions were adapted to life in Canada.
  • Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada by David Chuenyan Lai, analyzes the physical and cultural aspects of Canadian Chinatowns from 1858 to 1988.