Canadian laws · Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · Genealogical Research

The Chinese Detention Shed, Vancouver

Genealogy makes history come alive in a way that totally escaped me in school.

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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.

Say what?

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

1921 census
Excerpt, Dentention Shed, Ward 1, Vancouver. Credit: Ancestry.com. 1921 Census of Canada[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2013.
  1. 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)
  2. MA Lung, male, married, 31 years old, b. 1890, imm. 1911, railway employee
  3. WONG Doo Tong, male, single, 60 years old, b. 1861, imm. 1898, laundryman
  4. LIM Fook Luen, male, single, 26 yrs. old, b. 1895, imm. 1906, merchant
  5. SHERIN Yick Fong, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, mill hand
  6. LAM Tung, male, single, 60 yrs. old, b. 1861, imm. 1909, restaurant worker
  7. WONG Yet Gus, male, single, 41 yrs. old, b. 1880, imm. 1908, cook
  8. WONG Alun Chun, male, single, 47 yrs. old, b. 1874, imm. 1913, labourer
  9. TOM Tong Bak, male, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, labourer
  10. MOY Amy, [no gender provided], single, 44 yrs. old, b. 1877, imm. 1909, merchant
  11. 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)
  12. 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.

www.past-presence.com
Map 1 – Chinese Detention Shed location at the north end of Burrard Street, Vancouver. From the 1912 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, City of Vancouver’s VanMap application
www.past-presence.com
Map #2 – Chinese Detention Shed, 1912.  From the 1912 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, City of Vancouver’s VanMap application

My thoughts

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.

www.past-presence.com
City of Vancouver Archives 153-2 – Chinese Detention Shed at Vancouver, 1890. Copyright: Public Domain. Available at https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/chinese-detention-shed-at-vancouver

Source

Ancestry.com. 1921 Census of Canada[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2013.
Original data: Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds.

Postcript

From the data, I know the Chinese Detention Shed existed from at least 1890-1921. That’s years beyond what was thought by Lisa Rose Mar in her work Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era 1885-1945, where she 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.

4 thoughts on “The Chinese Detention Shed, Vancouver

  1. I can’t click Like on this. How appalling. I hope those people did eventually find a good life for themselves and their families. What a horrible start.

    1. I know, right? “LIKE” is such a limited word.

      When I was thinking about those people sitting in that shed and all the things they’d already endured to live in Canada, I knew they’d survive. It amazes me that nobody ever talked about this, like a jail sentence you had to pay for the privilege of re-entry. My grandparents grew up in that era. Once again, I am reminded of my ilfelong gratitude for what they endured so I could grow up a Canadian.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts, Val.

    1. WordPress definitely needs a better comment button!

      Thank you very much for your feedback, Ian. Sometimes I hesitate on hitting the PUBLISH button because the subject matter is as heartbreaking as it is unbelievable. And then I publish, because there is hope that we might learn from history.

      Linda

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