PAYDAY AT WOODFIBRE (Part 2) — Asian immigrants in British Columbia face apartheid-like discrimination

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The Chinese connection

Today in British Columbia, a large and growing population of Chinese Canadians participates fully in all aspects of community and business life. It hasn’t always been that way. In the first half of the 20th Century,

…belief in the persistence of major racial differences was extremely widespread in the province. ... These beliefs emphasized the perpetual inferiority of Asians...and encouraged the differential, discriminatory treatment they received at the hands of successive generations of whites. — British Columbia Historical Readings, Ward & McDonald

The handwritten notation, “CHINESE PAYROLL,” on the shipping tag shown on the previous web page and below this paragraph, points to the long, dark period of British Columbia’s and Canada’s history when Chinese in Canada weren’t Canadian citizens at all and weren’t allowed to become citizens.

The notation “CHINESE PAYROLL” on this shipping tag, posted to Woodfibre from the Bank of Nova Scotia in Vancouver, suggests that Chinese employees were treated separately from other workers at B.C. Pulp & Paper. (It appears that the first “CHINESE PAYROLL” inscription was thought to have been written in error, but was in fact correct.)


Coming to “Gold Mountain”

Chinese immigrants began settling in B.C.’s coastal communities in 1850, drawn by tales of “Gold Mountain” (Gam Saan in Cantonese), the Chinese name given particularly to California and British Columbia as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1848, and further enshrined in myth by the discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon and later in the Cariboo region of Central British Columbia.

Few Chinese immigrants planned to stay in British Columbia, but lived the fiction that they were “soujourners” who would return to China with bundles of money. Others hoped to bring their families to BC from China. Most white British Columbians, however, wanted all Asians to return to Asia. The 1902 report by the federal Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration concluded that Asians were “unfit for full citizenship [and]... obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state."1

Despite the discrimination they faced, some Chinese did “strike it rich” in the gold fields of central BC by working low-yield deposits that white miners had abandoned, most survived and some thrived by providing the labour and services that white British Columbians weren’t willing to provide, taking unskilled jobs in mining, railway construction, agriculture and domestic service.

Henry Bell-Irving, a Vancouver industrialist, viewed labour as an economic factor of production. In 1891, he encapsulated the majority opinion of white British Columbians in this public statement:

[Chinese labourers] are less trouble and less expense than whites. They are content with rough accommodation at the canneries…. I look upon them as steam engines or any other machine. — “‘He Thought He Was the Boss of Everything’— Masculinity and Power in a Vancouver Family,” by Robert A.J. McDonald.


Early in their diaspora to British Columbia, Chinese immigrants learned that while they weren’t welcome to compete for jobs with white Canadians, their services as low-wage domestics, cooks, and launderers were welcome. At the left in this 1868 photograph, Chinese immigrant Wa Lee’s sign advertises his laundry services in Barkerville in central BC, site of major gold discoveries.

Building the CPR

Between 1880 and 1884, some 15,000 Chinese immigrants surged into Canada, again filled with dreams for riches promised by the construction of the mountainous last sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway to the Pacific. The hopeful Chinese paid dearly for their dreams.

Chinese workers building the 600 km of the Canadian Pacific Railway, between Eagle Pass and Port Moody, BC were paid half of what white workers earned and suffered high death rates from accidents and malnutrition.


Dangerous, back-breaking work

Chinese labourers were required to undertake the most back-breaking and dangerous work, clearing and grading the railway's roadbed, and blasting tunnels through the rock. Accidents and fires, landslides and explosions killed many (they were required to use the unstable and dangerous nitroglycerin rather than dynamite, which was more costly). Injured white workers received medical care; injured Chinese workers did not.

The Chinese railway workers lived in boxcars or primitive camps or log buildings. They did their own cooking over open outdoor fires, their only source of heat. When the workers completed a section of track, they would take down their tents, pack their belongings and move everything to the next camp, often hiking over 40 kilometres.

Even if they survived the physical rigours of building the CPR, the Chinese labourers earned just 75 cents to $1.25 a day, out of which they had to pay for food and camping and cooking gear, with just enough left over to provide rice and dried salmon, but not fresh vegetables and fruit. Many suffered and died from scurvy and even smallpox.

The construction of the 600 km rail section between Eagle Pass and Port Moody was achieved at the loss of 1,500 Chinese men, roughly two deaths per kilometre.

The “Head Tax”

Then, in 1885, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, severely restricting immigration from China. The Act forced Chinese entering Canada to pay a $50 tax, later referred to as a “head tax”. Amendments to the act eventually increased the tax to a maximum of $500 in 1902.

Although 81,000 Chinese came to Canada during the period the head tax was in effect, the immigration act discouraged Chinese wives and children from joining their men, with the result that the Chinese community in Canada became a “bachelor society”. Then the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 (known by its detractors as the “Chinese Exclusion Act) stopped Chinese immigration entirely, except for a handful of Chinese professionals and students who were expected to return to China after a short sojourn in Canada. Immigration to Canada from most countries was controlled in some way, but only the Chinese were so completely prohibited from immigrating.

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Next, in Part 3: Racism in British Columbia's forest sector results in a steady attrition of its Asian workforce in the first four decades of the 20th Century.


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  1. Quoted from the article “Chinese Canadians” in the Canadian Encyclopedia