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.
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.
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.