Immigration from Asia to North America began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century as the gold rush in California, and later in British Columbia, offered wealth to many Chinese who were struggling with poverty.
Chinese labourers were instrumental in building the transcontinental railway. The Chinese workers could be paid less to do the most dangerous jobs and often worked harder than local labourers. They were also used to break strikes. Violence and racial hatred grew. When the railway was complete, the Canadian government instituted a head tax of $50 in 1885, payable by every person of Chinese origin on entering Canada, growing as large as $500 in 1903 before Canada barred Chinese immigration in 1923. The Chung Collection contains many documents relating to early Chinese immigration and work experiences such as contracts for Chinese and non-Chinese workers, petitions to the government about Chinese rights and about restricting immigration, anti-Asian ephemera, head tax certificates, and government reports.
Despite the difficulties faced by Chinese people in Canada in the early part of the century, many became vendors and business people, establishing family-run laundries, tailor shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. The communities surrounding these businesses and homes became the Chinatowns of Victoria and Vancouver. At times, these Chinatowns were home to gambling houses, places of entertainment, and legally-available opium. Some artifacts from gambling houses and opium dens in early Chinatowns can be seen in the collection exhibition, as well as numerous photographs, correspondence, pamphlets, and other material.
Featured documents and resources
The Chinese Experience in British Columbia: 1850-1950 is an educational website combining digital collections from the Chung Collection and the City of Vancouver Archives.