Updated 14 Oct 2022. See postscripts below.
Genealogy makes history come alive in a way that totally escaped me in school.
I was reading the 1921 Canada census for Vancouver one night. Yes, this is what genealogists do for fun in their spare time. There are hundreds of pages, and the ward boundaries don’t make any sense, so it was by accident that I found the Chinese Dentention Shed.
What’s a Detention Shed?
Well, I don’t really know. If you google “detention shed”, you won’t find much. It seems that the Chinese Detention Shed has been all but forgotten in immigration history. Canada had Immigration Sheds at her ports of entry: Victoria, Halifax, Quebec and so on. In these sheds, immigrants were processed for papers and checked for health. But immigration sheds were for new immigrants only. After they’d immigrated, they’d never see another shed again.
But for the Chinese, an extra special layer of attention was warranted. It seems there was an immigration shed set up for Chinese immigration regardless of whether or not they were already living in Canada. That blows my mind.
Who was in the shed in June, 1921?
From: District 22, Subdistrict 7, Ward 1, Vancouver Centre – 1921 Census of Canada
- MOY Heng, male, married, 35 years old, born (“b.”) 1886, immigrated (“imm.”) 1910, restaurant worker, $300 earned in past 12 mths (~$3800 in 2018 dollars)
- MA Lung, male, married, 31 years old, b. 1890, imm. 1911, railway employee
- WONG Doo Tong, male, single, 60 years old, b. 1861, imm. 1898, laundryman
- LIM Fook Luen, male, single, 26 yrs. old, b. 1895, imm. 1906, merchant
- SHERIN Yick Fong, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, mill hand
- LAM Tung, male, single, 60 yrs. old, b. 1861, imm. 1909, restaurant worker
- WONG Yet Gus, male, single, 41 yrs. old, b. 1880, imm. 1908, cook
- WONG Alun Chun, male, single, 47 yrs. old, b. 1874, imm. 1913, labourer
- TOM Tong Bak, male, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, labourer
- MOY Amy, [no gender provided], single, 44 yrs. old, b. 1877, imm. 1909, merchant
- CHEE Jam Kan Hung, male, married, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1911, cook, $2,000 earned in past 12 mths (~$25K in 2018 dollars)
- WONG Sze, female, married, 37 yrs. old, b. 1884, imm. 1918
Where was this shed?
After a while I wondered if I’d be able to find this shed, and here it is, courtesy of the City of Vancouver’s VanMap service.
I was talking to my friend K. yesterday about what my life might have been like if I was around 100 years ago. I said I’m not sure I would have survived it. This list of 12 names tells me that it didn’t matter when I immigrated, where I worked, what gender I was, if I was merchant class or peasant labourer – if I was Chinese and coming back to my home in Canada, I’d be cooling my heels in a detention shed.
For extra irony, the Chinese Detention Shed was located at the edge of Chinatown, so these 11 men and 1 woman could see and hear home, even if they weren’t allowed to step foot in it.
Update 5 Oct 2020
Ever since learning about the Chinese Detention Shed, I’ve kept my radar on the lookout for mention of it. I found it yesterday. It appears a shed was built before City Council approved it. My new theory now estimates the existence of the shed from 1888 to after 1921.
A small frame building has been built at the Depot for the accommodation of Chinamen landing by the CPR steamers… The erection of an immigrant shed has been under discussion by the City Council and it is possible one will be built before very long.
Newspapers.com, Vancouver Daily World, Vancouver, British Columbia. 29 Sep 1888, page 4.
Lisa Rose Mar in her work Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era 1885-1945, wrote “…the Canadian government relied on the CPR for Vancouver’s Chinese detention shed until 1914 or 1915…” When was it closed? If I find an answer, I’ll update this post.
As well, if anyone needs some tips on navigating the amazing VanMap application, please leave a comment below.
Update 17 Oct 2020
The Chinese called it “The Pig House,” and described being “locked up like a pig in a cage.” See Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The Chinese Head Tax, by Arlene Chan, page 29. She includes a poem written on the wall.
Also, a huge thank you to reader C. Au whose map work pinpoints the location as being the current location of a vastly different type of accommodation: The Pacific Rim Hotel. I’ve stayed there. Now that is truly ironic.
Update 19 Nov 2020
This week I found my great-grandfather Yip Sang on the General Register of Chinese Immigration. I noted how the Chinese Immigration Branch first noted his arrival in the country (1881) and then kept careful notation of his movements and updated paperwork, from his first head tax certificate issued in 1890 to his replacement certificate in 1915. This register made me fully appreciate the bureaucracy involved in surveiling the Chinese, and how all-encompassing it was. With that new insight, I re-reviewed Yip’s 1914 CI9 (certificate to re-enter the country) and saw he arrived 16 Nov 1914 but the notation said, “Released Victoria Nov 20th/14.” Released. He was released. From where was he released?
It appears that Yip Sang, for all his leadership, connections, and status as a naturalized British subject, not to mention his work as a Chinese Immigration agent, was still subjected to the Chinese Immigration Act and spent 4 days in the Detention Shed. My cousin shared with me that our family called it gee doy lung, Toisan for the pig pens.
Update 14 Oct 2022
In 1904, doctors performing medical inspections on the hundreds of Chinese immigrants requested a better building:
… I notice what you state with regards to lots for erection of a detention house. It is not the intention of the Department [of Chinese Immigration] to take this matter up at present.
Letter to “Doctor” from G.L. Milne, Esq., M.D., Medical Inspector, Victoria, BC dated 10 Oct 1904Canada, Central registry of the Immigration Branch 1873-1968, Department of Immigration and Colonization, microfilm b1033, file no. 10, medical examinations of immigrants at Vancouver and Victoria 1904-39, letter from medical inspector to doctor re request for detention house dated 10 Oct 1904, British Columbia Archives : accessed 18 Aug 2022; citing RG76, RG10, NAC no. c10242, vols. 331-32, file 330483, ports 1-5.