The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle

The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle

By Arlene Chan

Dundurn Natural Heritage. Toronto: 2011

Arlene Chan’s book is a historic gem chronicling the remarkable journey of Chinese Canadians, and their success in moving from exclusion and systemic marginalization to taking on powerful positions in the governance and economic growth of Canada’s largest and most diverse, city, Toronto. This does not in any way mean that Chinese Canadians are no longer seen as a threat today. On the contrary, the community’s resilience and determination, born from a collective struggle for inclusion, has prepared it for being constantly vigilant. For example, in 2010, Maclean’s annual university guide included an article entitled “Too Asian?” reflecting on the large proportion of Asian students on campus. This resulted in a national debate on racial stereotyping and a call for an apology. Thanks to the strength of community response, a few months later, on December 16, 2010, “Toronto’s city council passed a motion to request an apology from the magazine for negative stereotyping of the Asian-Canadian community.” (P202)

“Despite the legacy of achievements and contribution of the Chinese in Toronto,” Chan writes, “many, if not most, have had their identities questioned at some point in their lives. As accents have disappeared, the skin tone and shape of one’s eyes have not…..Although racial tolerance is more prevalent, incidents of anti-Chinese are sad reminders that acceptance cannot be taken for granted and that large numbers do not guarantee acceptance.” (P201-202)

The Chinese proverbs and Confucian sayings that set the tone for each of the chapters in the book are subtle reminders of the fact that people from one of the most ancient civilizations were making their way to “one of the youngest countries” in the world. The discovery of gold in 1858 in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia attracted the first group of 300 migrants from China; and by 1864, 4,000 Chinese were panning for gold. However, since they were the “most conspicuous of immigrant gold rushers,” they were “singled out for harsh treatment and discrimination.” (P17)

The second wave of Chinese immigration took place from 1881 to 1884 when Andrew Onderdonk , an American engineer, recruited 15,701 workers from China to build the railway from Port Moody to Craigellachie – a distance of 547 kilometres. In addition to the extreme difficulties experienced by these workers on ships bound for Canada, their hardships on the long voyage paled in comparison for what was to come:

“White labourers from Europe worked lighter types of jobs…..The Chinese were mostly engaged in the heavy work – building bridges, chiseling tunnels, chipping away at rocks, and transporting heavy debris. The use of nitroglycerine, a powerful and unpredictable explosive….was handled by the Chinese. They took on the risks, with the foremen’s promises of passage money for their wives. Many makeshift tunnels that were used to start the blasting of the mountains on the north side of the Fraser River remained half-completed and abandoned after too many workers were killed. Others perished from different causes, such as overwork, landslides, and collapsing bridges. Local lore tells the tales of ghosts who, to this very day, linger around the unmarked graves and tunnels.” (P18-19)

In 1885, the railway was completed, the cost in human life amounting to one person for every mile of railway track laid.

In 1885, the railway was completed, the cost in human life amounting to one person for every mile of railway track laid. A famous photograph taken at Craigellachie shows “the proud but stern faces of Canadian Pacific railway officials and workers:”

“Borne on the backs of the industrious Chinese labourers, who comprised three-quarters of the railway workforce, the crowning achievement that united Canada was celebrated with not one Chinese in attendance….. Onderdonk, who would have been bankrupted by higher labour costs without the Chinese, made a tidy profit of over $3 million.” (P21-22)

Later, in 1989, the Foundation to Commemorate Chinese Railway Workers erected a memorial at the foot of Rogers Centre in Toronto, formerly known as the Skydome. In 2005, on the 120th anniversary of the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Royal Canadian Mint launched a two-coin set called Commemoration of Chinese Railway Workers.

Over and above the ever-increasing head tax, Chinese men within Canada could not purchase Crown lands. “They could not work in underground coal mines or on any public works projects.” They were not allowed to vote, and were therefore “further disqualified from occupations like political office, law, medicine, and pharmacy.” Since they did not have the means to bring their families to Canada, they lived alone. (P26) Within their businesses, they were prevented from hiring women of white descent:

“At its annual convention in 1906, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada demanded an increase of the head tax from $500 to $1,000. The head tax remained as it was; however, the provincial government introduced ‘an Act to Amend the Factory, Shop and Office Building Act” in 1914. No Chinese person could ‘employ in any capacity or have under his direction or control any female white person in factory, restaurant or laundry.’ The Chinese in Toronto pooled their funds to challenge this discriminatory law, but their case reached the Supreme Court of Canada without a successful outcome.”(P43)

Chan continues to describe the community’s struggles and international events that influenced Chinese immigration. Foremost among these was the infamous 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act that banned entry to all Chinese with the exception of “university students, merchants (excluding laundry, restaurant and retail operators), diplomatic personnel, and Canadian-born Chinese returning from education in China.”(P67) Even after the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1947, severe restrictions remained allowing only Chinese with Canadian citizenship to apply for family reunification.

Interracial relationships were considered to be deeply disturbing. Chan’s book includes the story of Harry Yip, a Chinese waiter, as told by his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Velma Demerson, in her autobiography, Incorrigible. Demerson was attracted to Yip even though he was an outcast by virtue of his race:

“Being the daughter from a broken family she also felt excluded from society. While she was eating breakfast with Yip in May 1939, her father and two Toronto policemen burst into their apartment and took her into custody. Pregnant at the time, she was charged by the judge presiding at the City Hall under the Female Refuges Act of 1897 for being ‘incorrigible.’ Her crime was being unmarried and living with a Chinese man. Demerson was sentenced to live at Belmont Home, officially known as the Toronto Industrial Refuge, for incorrigible girls. After six weeks of Demerson’s confinement, Belmont Home – now an upscale retirement residence in mid-town Toronto – closed. She and 46 other young women were transferred to the infamous Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females, where her barred and windowless cell was a mere seven by four feet. ……Demerson gave birth during this time of incarceration. Her infant son, at the age of three months, was taken from her and declared a ward of the state. Upon her release in 1940, she married Yip – her marriage to an ‘alien’ an act that stripped her of Canadian citizenship. Their marriage eventually ended but her will and determination to right an injustice did not. In 2002, more than 60 years after she had been sent to jail, her appeals to various levels of government yielded an apology and financial compensation from the Ontario government.”(P81-82)

The Immigration Act of 1976, creating four new classes of immigrants, brought in a new wave of people from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and other parts of the world. For the first time a quota system was introduced to target immigrants within specific occupations based on labour market trends. Immigration, and prosperity within the community increased exponentially. In the 1996 census, “the proportion of Chinese living in the Toronto region increased to 40 percent of all Chinese in Canada.” (P168)

The role played by the various associations and by individuals in building this strong and vibrant community is well described in the book. Within three years of the opening of the Pacific Mall in 1996,  “there were no less than 58 Asian-themed malls in Scarborough, Markham, and Richmond Hill:”

“A snapshot of Chinese Canadians in the twenty-first century contrasts sharply with the one of the first settlers, who arrived over 100 years ago. More than one million Chinese Canadians make up 3.9 percent of Canada’s population. Compared to the 17,312 Chinese, or .3 percent in 1901. The People’s Republic of China is the leading source country of newcomers to Canada, as well as the top place of birth among foreign-born Chinese.”(P197)g

Chan dedicates the book to her parents, Doyle and Jean Lumb. The phrase ,“outside the circle,”  from the title of the book is a reference to Jean Lumb who asked these questions while reflecting on her childhood years at a segregated school: “Why are we being treated this way? Why can’t I do what other people do?” It was most important for her, writes Chan, to move inside the circle.(P12)

In 1976, Jean Lumb became the first Chinese Canadian woman – and first restaurateur – appointed to the Order of Canada. (P206)

Chan’s book is not only informative and fascinating, but a strong testimonial to the strength and dauntless spirit of a community that knows how to survive and to succeed.