100 years after Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese racism in Canada remains
Legacy of legislated anti-Chinese racism is still being felt today, say community members
Vivian Luk · CBC Radio · Posted: Jul 01, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: 7 hours ago
UBC historian Henry Yu's grandfather arrived in Canada in 1923 and paid the $500 head tax. (Catherine Clement )
CBC Radio Specials48:58100 Years Later: The Dark Side of Gold Mountain
Henry Yu's grandparents' marriage started out like a scene from a movie.
The year was 1937. Yu's grandfather, Yeung Sing Yew, had just returned to visit family in Zhongshan county in China, after spending a decade working in Canada.
Yu said his grandfather spotted the woman who would later become his wife washing clothes beside a stream and "was smitten."
"Then his mother kind of looked into it, asked and found out who it was. And then arrangements were made and next thing you know, they're married."
Yeung's wife was pregnant when he went back to B.C., where he worked as a labourer and cook. He thought his family would soon join him there.
He did not know then it would take nearly three decades for that reunion to happen.
Yeung's was one of hundreds of Chinese families that — in their pursuit of a better life in a part of the world known to them as "Gold Mountain" — were separated during this chapter in Canadian history.
In 1923, the Canadian government passed what is now referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
It banned almost all Chinese immigration to Canada. It was an escalation of the head tax implemented in 1885 — after more than 17,000 Chinese labourers had helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Along with having to pay $50 — and then $500 by 1905 — to enter Canada, Chinese people were also denied the right to vote, hold public office, own land and work certain jobs.
While those anti-Chinese policies are a thing of the past, Yu said Asian-Canadians continue to experience racism today.
His grandfather Yeung could return to Canada in 1937 because he had first arrived before the Exclusion Act. While the law was repealed in 1947, economic hardship and discriminatory policies at the local and provincial level meant Yeung still would not meet his daughter, Yeung Kon Yee, until she and her mother finally arrived in Vancouver in 1965, when she was 28 years old.
Yu, a historian at the University of British Columbia, has dedicated his academic career to documenting the history of legislated anti-Chinese racism. It had torn his own family apart for years. But the Exclusion Act had also denied many Chinese men the chance to start families of their own, and forced them to form "bachelor societies."
Henry Yu, first row on the left, whose grandparents were forced apart by the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, celebrates Christmas with his family in 1971. (Henry Yu)
When Yu was three or four years old, he'd visit Chinatown with his grandfather. As soon as they'd walk into a cafe, his grandfather's friends would light up and shower the young boy with candies and treats.
Yu said he realized later that his grandfather was "sharing" him with men who would never know what it is like to have a partner, children and grandchildren.
"Those exclusions and those denials of humanity… it's not just about, oh, Chinese couldn't vote. There's also a kind of second-class citizenship and second-class humanity that they were allocated to," Yu said.
An apology and redress
In 2006, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to the Chinese Canadian community in the House of Commons.
Landy Anderson's grandfather, Ralph Kung Kee Lee, witnessed the ceremony. He was 106 years old at the time, and only one of six living head-tax payers left.
Lee arrived in Canada when he was 12 years old, said Anderson. He paid off the $500 head tax by washing dishes at a restaurant in Ontario, and then by maintaining the Canadian Pacific Railway — the same railway that around 1,000 Chinese labourers from a previous generation had died building.
Ralph Kung Kee Lee, left, was one of six living head tax payers who witnessed former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's formal apology to the Chinese Canadian community in 2006. (Landy Anderson)
"To receive this apology, it was this momentous occasion, this historical moment in time," said Anderson, now the chair of the Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada.
"And yet where was everybody else? Where were the 80,000 people that paid the head tax? So many people had died."
The government of Canada also offered family members of head tax payers $20,000 in redress. But for some families, a symbolic apology and payment would never suffice.
Gillian Der, whose paternal great grandfather paid the head tax, said her grandmother refused the redress.
"I don't know that any amount of money really changes what happened," said Der.
"Do I think it would have made [my grandmother's] life and my Yeh Yeh — my grandfather's — life easier? Yeah. And that makes me sad.
"At the same time, I think it was kind of like a slap in the face to a colonial government that was trying to make amends and cover things up by throwing money at the problem when we still have considerable anti-Asian racism in the country."
Surge in anti-Asian racismAnti-Asian racism in Canada has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, a survey by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CNCTO) and a grassroots organization called Project 1907 found that there were 943 reports of racist incidents across Canada in 2021 — a 47 per cent increase over 2020.
For some Asian-Canadians, the racism is also internalized.
Toronto lawyer Kate Shao grew up in Winnipeg. Her father came to Canada in the late '80s and tried almost too hard to assimilate, she said. He drove a pickup truck, listened to country music, and would respond in English if people spoke to him in Chinese.
"He thought — and I did for the longest time as well — that if we never acknowledged the fact that we are Chinese, maybe people wouldn't notice," Shao said.
For years, Shao grappled with the shame she felt about being Chinese. During the pandemic, she said strangers would tell her the COVID-19 virus was her fault, and to go back to her country.
When Shao learned about Canada's history of anti-Chinese racism, something clicked.
"The historical legacies of racism — the Exclusion Act, the head tax — puts what happened in the last three years in context, and quite frankly, they make perfect sense," she said.
Being the 'perpetual foreigner'Canada has a long history of scapegoating the Asian community for societal problems, said Yu, pointing to Japanese internment during the Second World War as just one example.
This history could also explain why, as allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections surface, some Chinese Canadian politicians might have felt the need to defend themselves as loyal Canadian citizens, Yu said.
Alison Gu, a city councillor in Burnaby, B.C., and Der's partner, said Chinese Canadians are often made to feel like the "perpetual foreigner," no matter how long they've been in this country.
Alison Gu, left, sits on Burnaby City Council, which is launching a review of historic discrimination against Chinese Canadians. Gu's partner Gillian Der, right, descended from Canadian Pacific Railway builders and head tax payers. (Vivian Luk)
That precarious sense of belonging can be traced back to the history of exclusion, she said.
"This idea that you were never supposed to be successful, nor were you ever supposed to last this long here, and this resiliency, this model minority, that we have survived here despite all of the barriers put in place to prevent our success — that breeds a sense of hostility," she said.
100 years laterAcross the country, governments are marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The City of Burnaby is launching a review of historic discrimination by the municipal government against the Chinese Canadian community.
There was also a national remembrance event in the Senate of Canada Chamber on June 23.
And on July 1, the Chinese Canadian Museum — the first national museum dedicated to Chinese Canadians' history and contributions — opens in Vancouver. It received $5.1 million from the federal government.
As part of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese people were required to carry immigration certificates. (Chinese Canadian Museum)
In a statement in May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: "As we reflect with regret on the shameful legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we recommit to learning from the mistakes of our past to do better today.
"Together, we will fight anti-Asian racism and all forms of intolerance, hate, and discrimination to build a stronger, more inclusive, and more equitable Canada for future generations."
While Yu said he applauds the government for investing in the museum, he questions the characterization of the Chinese Exclusion Act as a "mistake."
"These were actually conscious, deliberate, planned, effective acts," he said.
"It was an efficient implementation of white supremacy. And that full power of the state didn't end with the 1923 Exclusion Act."
"We are still living those legacies."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vivian Luk is a journalist and producer at CBC Vancouver. She's contributed stories to various CBC Radio One programs and is the producer behind the award-winning podcast, Sanctioned: The Arrest of a Telecom Giant. Follow her on Twitter: @vivluk.
With files from Lu Zhou