This is the story of a house in Vancouver. It was my grandparents’ house, but it could be any house you grew up in.
Stepping over the construction tape, I called into the open doorway Hello? Is anybody there?
A man emerged from the back, covered in a nameless fog of wood chips, drywall plaster, and general grime. Hi, he said. Can I help you?
This was my grandparents house, I said. I wanted to say hello and convey my appreciation for what you’re doing with it.
His face brightened. We talked for ages. He asked me to drop by anytime, and bring my family if possible. He and his wife wanted very much to connect with the history of the house. They were artists: he was a metalworker and his wife a sculptor. They’d long searched for a site where they could live and make art. They needed a house in a light industrial area, and they had all but given up.
Then they found the perfect spot. It was going to cost a ton, but they had a vision. They moved the house to the furthest front corner of the lot, then extended it and built a huge deck off the back.
They were planning to drink wine and enjoy the million dollar view of Vancouver at their feet.
I knew that view well. I grew up with it.
According to one family story, the house was a wedding gift from my great-grandparents in the 1930s. In a contrary tale, the house was purchased after years of hard labour by my grandparents. However it happened, my grandparents had moved from the rooms above the family store to their own home by the 1940s.
The neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant was where Chinese families could live, adjacent to Chinatown and the CPR railyards (now False Creek). (For more on where Chinese – and other – families could not live, see my story on the BC Land Titles Act here.)
The house was a small 2 storey on a huge, deep, double-wide lot. Over the years, my grandparents dug and expanded two enormous gardens where they grew spinach, garlic, onions, green onions, radishes, turnips, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, peas, and bok choy. In lean times, those gardens kept the family fed. In better times, nobody went home without a bag of produce.
My mother and her brothers attended the elementary school up the block, and celebrated birthday parties on the front lawn. My grandmother grew flowers along the front walk.
My grandfather left for work promptly each morning at 7:45 a.m. – the family warehouse just a 4 minute drive away.
My sister and I visited our grandparents often, spending many weekends with them. We tried to climb the apple tree in the front yard, burnt our fingers on the wood-burning gas stove, and skinned our knees skating on ancient steel roller skates in the back alley.
There were a lot of house parties. My uncles at UBC brought their friends home for dinner; there were mah jong parties, birthdays, Christmases, and Chinese New Years.
The young ones played in the living room while the old ones gossiped in Chinese in the kitchen.
The neighborhood had changed in the intervening years. Vancouver’s city planners, deaf to the protests of the Chinese community, had decided the large lots were too valuable to be residential. The area was rezoned as mixed/light industrial. This meant that as families moved out, selling their homes for the value of bare lots, the houses were demolished. Soon, only two houses remained on our block, sandwiched in-between cement warehouses. The poor, the desperate, and the addicted made their homes in the doorways. My grandparents put extra locks on the front door and a bar across the basement door.
But the view remained. From my second floor window, I could see all of Vancouver.
My grandparents put the house up for sale, but who would want it? It broke my grandmother’s heart to leave her gardens. My grandfather feared the house would be demolished.
When the house finally sold, none of us could bear to visit. We feared it would become another warehouse in the warehouse district, and stayed away.
Until the day E. and I were walking up the street, and saw the construction site. The house frame had been preserved, and although many changes had been made, it was still recognizable as our granparents’ much-loved home.
I stepped over the construction tape.
I took a bit of liberty with the “present” dateline. The house was reconstructed in the late 80s. I am fascinated by it, and would love a peek inside.
It’s still there, and if you know where it is, you can Google it to see the gorgeous deck.
Maybe the next time I visit Vancouver, I’ll ring the bell on the gate.
Whenever I’m visiting Vancouver, the topic of real estate comes up. Vancouverites can’t help talking about it. You might talk about it too if the phrase million dollar teardown was a part of your life.
I shared my trivia about how the so-called British Properties in West Vancouver were styled that way for a reason: only British people could live there. It was developed by the Guinness family, and it seems that while the Guinnesses were happy to make their fortunes selling beer to anyone, they were a lot less egalitarian when it came to their neighbours.
And it wasn’t just the British Properties. According to Ron Usher, general counsel for the Society of Notaries Public in BC, there could be houses all over Vancouver with discriminatory restrictive covenants hiding in their document clauses.
What’s a restrictive covenant, you ask?
1850 – Who’s not allowed in?
Since the mid-19th century, property law has permitted sellers to force buyers to make enduring promises about the races of people not allowed to move into the neighbourhood. According to the Consultation Paper on Restrictive Covenants, a covenant is a legally binding promise by one person (covenantor) to another (covenantee).
No Asiatics, no Indians, no Negros…
Here’s a sample restrictive covenant where the buyer agrees:
…that the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.
I heard a 1980s story from a brilliant and well-respected lawyer who, while considering a house in West Vancouver, requested that the antisemitic restrictive covenants be removed from his real estate documents. The realtor assured him the covenants no longer applied. He assured the realtor he was fully capable of understanding legal niceties… and still wanted the covenants removed. That is, unless the realtor wished to walk away from the deal?
They were removed.
1978 – BC revises the Land Titles Act
Thirty years after the Chinese got the vote, they also got the right to buy a house where they wanted to live. It took a generation, but Section 222(1) of the Land Titles Act now states:
A covenant that directly or indirectly, restricts the sale, ownership, occupation or use of land on account of the sex, race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin of a person, however created, whether before or after the coming into force of this section, is void and of no effect.
2017 – How many houses are affected?
Ron Usher said, “There could be thousands. They were common in Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, and there’s no way of knowing the exact numbers.”
Restrictive covenants are not cheap to remove, either. According to Peter Roberts of Lawson Lundell LLP, the cost can range from $2,000 to $10,000.
It’s a nightmare for realtors and owners wanting to sell. As noted from my story about the lawyer above, just because it’s no longer applicable doesn’t make it right.
Why did you write this piece?
I was reflecting on the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown, and wondering what reasons there might have been for Chinese immigrants to live in such close proximity. There are positive social reasons for wanting to live near people like you, such as language, culture, safety, and community. But it seems there have also been barriers to moving away from Chinatown.
Consultation paper on restrictive covenants. June, 2011. British Columbia Law Institute Real Property Reform (Phase 2) Project Committee. Available at link.
Was there ever a time when dating was simple? I dunno. Somehow, I doubt it. We humans can make anything complicated. This post is my irreverent take on life back then. I was thinking about the head tax, the closed borders, the crazily skewed ratios of men to women, and wondering what it must have been like to get a date.
In this post, the author attempts to make fun of 204 reasons why Vancouver owes the Chinese an apology.
What do Prime Ministers Mulroney, Harper, and Trudeau (and Premier Clark) have in common?
They’ve all apologized on Canada’s behalf for the appalling treatment of her people: the Japanese, Aboriginals, East Indians, and Chinese. The mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, is planning to join them.
We know it was wrong, but it’s ancient history. Can’t we just move forward?
Well, no. It seems it’s not quite ancient history yet. In fact, it’s barely even history.
As recently as March, 2017, discriminatory laws were on BC’s books. They were uncovered after Premier Clark promised to review all BC’s legislation, in conjunction with her apology to Chinese people.
How bad could it possibly have been?
Hot button issue #1: Being Chinese and getting a job.
When we’re unemployed, we’re called lazy; when the whites are unemployed it’s called a depression. Jesse Jackson
I counted 89 laws about jobs, mainly of the No Chinese may be employed here variety.
Hot button issue #2: Being Chinese and having a say in anything, otherwise known as “voting.”
If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. – Emma Goldman
There were about 39 laws preventing the Chinese from voting. There were 7 more just in case any Chinese wanted to run for office. Doesn’t that seem like overkill to you?
Hot button issue #3 – Being Chinese.
In the end, BC found 204 pieces of legislation they judged as discriminatory.
If you were Chinese and living in BC, there were laws telling you where and how to live; laws barring you from hiring white women; a bunch of laws set up to kneecap your attempts at setting up a business; dozens of laws preventing you from voting; laws preventing you from getting a higher education; and a thick, sticky web of laws preventing you from making a decent living.
Hot button issue #4 – Being Chinese and dead.
The government honoured all of its citizens after death with the accord they had been denied in life.
Sorry, kidding. As if.
If you were so unfortunate as to die in BC and not have enough money or influence to have secured a plot, your bones were not welcome in Vancouver’s cemeteries, and you were prevented by law from being shipped back to China. There was a cemetery in New Westminster that accepted all comers: prison inmates, the insane, and the Chinese.
It’s a high school now.
About that apology…
Here’s the report. BC wiped the final vestiges of discrimination off the books on March 7.
As we all know, a good apology contains the reason(s) why you’re apologizing. It’s not good enough to say you’re sorry if you’re fuzzy on what happened. Before writing this piece, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the need for an apology.
No longer. 200 laws? Bring it, Gregor. I can stand to hear I’m sorry once more.
Notes, sources and thanks
The BC government put together a document listing BC’s discriminatory laws. I came across it while putting together my blog on the federal laws. My guess is that it’s an early draft, prepared to support further research and the final report. In it, I count 192 pieces of legislation contemplated by BC in controlling or restricting its Chinese population from roughly 1872-1968. Of those, 25 amendments or suggested laws were either disallowed or failed to receive royal assent. That left me with 167 in total. I tell you this in case you’re wondering how I got the numbers.
After absorbing the implications and spending some time getting over the shock, I wondered if there was a more visual way to look at things.
Finally in one place, the federal laws regarding voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada.
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885
What is it?
This is the law that was enacted to dissuade the Chinese from coming to Canada. There are others, but this was the big one. It was revised three times: in 1900, 1903, and 1923. It’s also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The last revision, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, occurred on July 1st, and is still dubbed “Humiliation Day” by some Chinese Canadians today.
What did it do?
From 1885-1923, it narrowed, then closed the borders to Chinese immigration. There were few exceptions. This is the law that people talk about when they’re asking for redress of the head tax: $50 in 1885; $100 in 1900; $500 in 1903.
Order-in-Council 695, 1931
What is it?
The government passed Order-in-Council 695 during the Depression as a measure to control immigration to Canada.
What did it do?
This law closed Canada’s borders to all immigrants who were not American or British; farmers with money; and the children and wives of current Canadian residents.
Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1947
What is it?
Following WWII, Canada revoked the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, aka the Chinese Exclusion Act.
What did it do?
The specific restrictions applying to all Chinese immigrants as set out in the Chinese Exclusion Act were revoked. However, the restrictions applying to all immigrants not British or American, as set out in Order-in-Council 695, 1931, remained.
Order-in-Council PC 2115, 1950
What is it?
This is an amendment to the series of Orders-in-Council regarding general immigration to Canada, of which Order-in-Council 695, 1931was a part.
What did it do?
Asians in Canada were permitted to sponsor a wife, husband, or an unmarried minor under the age of 21 years. Children who were separated from their families by the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, were excluded by this provision, being too old by 1950. See the example below.
Order-in-Council 1616, 1967
What is it?
This is a law regarding immigration to Canada, which replaced the previous race-based system with one based on points.
What did it do?
This is the long-awaited law which allowed the Chinese in Canada to sponsor their immediate relatives without restrictions.
The Wong family, an example
To help illustrate the impact of how these immigration laws affected people, here’s an example. Let’s take a hypothetical family – the Wongs – and put them through a scenario experienced by too many Chinese Canadian families.
Mr. and Mrs. Wong are young parents of two children, aged 1 and 2 years old. Unable to find work in China to support his family, Mr. Wong borrows $500 for the head tax and travels to Canada in 1923. He promises his wife that he’ll send for her as soon as he gets established, but the borders close in July. Mr. Wong could return to China, but he owes $500 and there is no work for him at home, so he chooses to stay, and sends every spare dollar home. Mrs. Wong raises their 2 children alone. In 1950, 27 years later, Mrs. Wong is able to apply to immigrate to Canada as a wife, but her children are too old. She opts to stay in China until her whole family may emigrate together, which happens in 1967.
Mr. and Mrs. Wong are reunited at the age of 62, having spent 44 years apart. The children, now adults of 45 and 46 years old, are reacquainted with a father who is a stranger in all but name.
The Electoral Franchise Act, 1885
What is it?
Federally, the right to vote was restricted to voters who were male, over the age of 21, and British subjects by birth or naturalization. The provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick also required voters to own property. Ontario and New Brunswick further required voters to earn a minimum level of income.
What did it do?
It removed the right to vote from Indians and Chinese.
Repeal of the Dominion Elections Act, 1948
What is it?
The Dominion Elections Act, which used race as a criteria for voting eligibility, was repealed.
What did it do?
Asians in Canada now had the right to vote.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982
What is it?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a part of the Canadian Constitution.
What did it do?
The Charter set out in law the specific rights and freedoms of Canadians, among them the right to protections and benefits of the law without discrimination based on race, nation, colour, and ethnic origin.
Why did you write this post?
There’s still a lot of confusion around what happened to the Chinese, particularly regarding the laws of the times. Even people who lived through it tend to conflate the two distinct topics of voting and immigration.
I’m not a lawyer, in case you’re wondering.
Now, with that out of the way, I should also say that I think a more comprehensive picture of voting and immigration would include the provincial laws, but I chose simplicity over completeness. I might tackle provincial and federal laws in a future blog post. Fun fact: BC enacted over 100 laws and regulations concerning the Chinese population. Check out my blog post about it here.
A history of the vote in Canada. Retrieved 28 October 2017 from Elections Canada.
This is the third and final part of An uncertain homecoming. Find Part I here and Part II here.
After WWII, the Chinese gained the vote, but waited a generation for the full suite of civil rights. Regardless, there was a feeling of optimism amongst veterans – that having unequivocally proved the loyalty and worth of the Chinese, the recognition and granting of full equal rights was inevitable. They were right. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms held Canada accountable to the veterans (and all Canadians).
It just took 37 years and a baker’s dozen of Canadian parliaments to make it happen.
A flood of firsts
As I look at the decade between 1947 and 1957, it is as though Chinese Canadians burst through the barriers to enjoy a flood of firsts. For most, the BC election on June 15, 1949 would be the first time they were able to cast a ballot. Among the voters was 88 year old Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese man born in Canada. He’d cast his first ballot in 1890, and then waited 59 years to cast the second.
Now freed to live their lives, the Chinese pursued ordinary achievements that were remarkable only because they were being done by Chinese. They attended university, pursued professional designations, ran for election, and were called as jurors:
The first Chinese Canadian juror, Jack Chan, served jury duty in September, 1950.
The first Chinese Canadian architect, Harry Lee, was registered in June, 1951.
The last Chinese pushcart peddler, Wai Chan, retired his cart in 1953.
North America’s first Chinese Lions Club began in Vancouver in December, 1953.
The first Chinese Canadian female lawyer, Margaret Jean Gee, was called to the Bar in May, 1954. (Maggie Gee went on to become a pilot and a nuclear physicist.)
The first successful Chinese Canadian politician was Douglas Jung, formerly Sgt. Jung of Canadian Military Intelligence, who was elected as a Member of Parliament on June 10, 1957.
A.R. Menzies could not have been more wrong about the Chinese when he said, “…it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.” It seems to me that once the legal system of chokeholds was removed, the Chinese pursued assimilation beyond Menzies’ fevered dreams.
However, immigration was another matter. Even today, the subject of immigration is contentious. The questions earlier posed by J.A. Macdonald and W.L.M. King about the general composition of the Canadian population – who it should comprise, and what values it should espouse – exist today. In the years immediately following WWII, the hot button race was Asiatics. (The term Asiatics as used in the 1950s was often used loosely and broadly, and came to be a metaphor for all non-white, would-be immigrants from India and Asia.) There is a word for the fear of people who are different and unknown: xenophobia. I think Canada has always had a touch of it. Perhaps that’s why P.E. Trudeau risked revising the Canadian Constitution to give us the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to look at Canada before the Charter.
1947-1967 – Canada plays a shell game with immigration
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed, only to be replaced by Order in Council (OIC) PC 2115. The name had changed, but the major barriers to immigration remained in place, like a legal shell game where you have to work hard to find what you seek.
Prime Minister King was clear in his address to the House of Commons in 1947:
There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. Any considerable Oriental immigration would, moreover, be certain to give rise to social and economic problems of a character that might lead to serious difficulties in the field of international relations.
In his book The Chinese in Vancouver, Wing Chung Ng wrote:
The restrictive nature of Canadian immigration policy towards the Chinese between 1947 and 1967 is indisputable, and the tendency among scholars to gloss over this period of Chinese immigration history is unfortunate.
OIC PC 2115 sought to navigate the tricky legal and political ground of 1950. As a signatory to the UN’s Charter espousing equal rights for all people, Canada was becoming increasingly embarrassed by the discriminatory treatment of its Asian populations. On the world stage, trade agreements with Asia were hampered by the perceptions that Canada was racist. Even BC-based Members of Parliament argued for less obviously racist policies. However, Canada still wanted to control the makeup of its population in favour of British, Irish, French, and American immigrants, and so continued to restrict immigration from Asian countries.
As noted in a 2003 University of Toronto Law school mock trial, lead counsel Novogrodsky wrote:
Until 1962, Chinese immigration was restricted to sponsored relatives of Chinese Canadians; potential Chinese immigrants were subject to Order in Council P.C. 2115 which restricted Chinese immigration to a citizen’s wife and unmarried children under the age of 18. Thus, between 1947 and 1962, grown children, aged parents, siblings, and nieces of Chinese Canadians continued to be excluded from entering Canada.
To me, it feels as though Canada wanted to grow beyond its old friendships with England and form new alliances, but would have to drop the parochial attitudes it had developed along the way. If Canada was going to be accepted as an actor on the world stage, it would have to adopt some of the social compacts espoused by its more urbane peers.
Habits and belief systems die hard. Often, they take a generation of external pressure to change course. And so it seems that while the Chinese veterans had proved themselves worthy of enfranchisement, and the Chinese had donated their limited resources to the war effort and proved their worth as citizens, Canada continued to look upon their family members living outside the borders with overt hostility.
The question that comes up for me is why? King had said that Canada did not want to change the “fundamental composition” of the Canadian population, but didn’t elaborate on the specific aspects he felt were at risk.
Unpacking the xenophobia
Fear. We all know how it feels – how it short circuits the higher level reasoning functions in the brain and triggers the body’s primeval decision-making capabilities. When we make decisions based on fear, we are allowing our emotions – our guts – to assume the driver’s seat. Fear is a great driver in a bear attack. It’s not so great at running the country. When I think about that period of time, roughly 1890-1967, it seems that fear shaped many of Canada’s political decisions. Loosening fear’s grip on the brain is a slow process of unpacking: what am I afraid of, and why? Applying that principle to Canada, then – what was Canada so afraid of, and why?
Fear is not logical. It’s quite possible to hold two opposing fears at the same time. When I look at the interlocking web of systemic fears, I see the Chinese being placed in an untenable position in every instance. This is a hard revelation for me, because I was raised with the idea that if we work hard and don’t argue, we will prove ourselves worthy of change. I now realize that working hard and staying silent does the opposite: it supports the status quo. (It is not lost on me that working hard and staying silent does not support a woman’s fight for equality, either.) So what were those fears, exactly? I will offer my list of 10:
Fear of a shift in social standing. Any change to a system that does not equally recognize its participants installs a fear in the group being unequally rewarded. An upward shift in social status is an external recognition of power, and those who sit at the top fight bitterly to keep all the power they’ve got. This is still true, and can be see in any social grouping, from mean girls to old boy’s clubs.
Racial fear. For a century or more, Canada had convinced itself that the Chinese were an inferior race. Having forced the Chinese to live in slums and in extreme poverty, Canada felt justified in accusing the Chinese of being foreign, alien, and backwards.
Religious fear. Canada feared that the Chinese did not believe in, never mind uphold, Christian values.
Economic fear. Those who profited from their ability to pay Chinese workers less – in many cases, a lot less – than other workers feared any change to a system which made them rich.
More economic fear. Being forced to work for low wages made the Chinese vulnerable to criticism from the workers unable to compete, and so while employers feared any changes that would force them to award equal wages, workers feared any group who was willing to work for less. They’re stealing our jobs.
Fear of criminal activity. As floridly written by Janey Canuck (real name: Emily Murphy) in The Black Candle, Canada worried that the Chinese supported themselves on the proceeds of drug trafficking.
Legal fear. Having put itself squarely between man and wife, parent and child, Canada worried that the Chinese would try to skirt the laws in order to reunite their families.
Fear of civil disobedience. Canada observed the riots taking place in the US and wondered if it would see similar unrest.
Political fear. Having gone to extremes to bar the Chinese from feeling like citizens, Canada worried that the Chinese would feel closer kinship to other countries: China, Taiwan, or the Philippines.
Sexual fear. Canada’s fears even extended into the bedroom: having prevented Chinese men from reuniting with their families, and marriageable Chinese women from immigrating, thus creating an unintended group of married and single bachelors, Canada feared interracial relationships between Chinese men and white women. (The Women and Girls Protection Act, S.B.C. 1923, c.76 was in effect from 1923-1968, and stipulated that any Chinese business owner was required to apply for a licence for the right to employ a white woman.) There does not appear to have been any laws regarding Chinese women and white men.
1967 – Merit, not race
In 1967, Canada enacted Order in Council (OIC) PC 1967-1616.
OIC PC 1967 represents a major shift in Canada’s goals concerning immigration. Rather than judge future citizens on the basis of whether or not they were born in England, Canada now judged applicants on a set of nine objective criteria:
training and education
existing demand for their job skills
acquired skills for employment
facility with English or French
existing relatives in Canada
potential for work in their preferred Canadian destination
The last remaining barrier to Chinese immigration had fallen.
1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. Since 1982, it has been illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, age, and religion. It is illegal to prevent Canadians from a peaceful protest, or from being judged on the company we keep. All Canadians may vote, or run for office. The Charter made many previous laws illegal or obsolete, such as the law requiring the Chinese to apply for a reentry visa if they wished to leave the country. Canadians are free to live wherever they wish in the country, and pursue gainful employment. There is much more, besides. The Charter lies at the bedrock of Canadian law, is a part of the Canadian Constitution, and fulfilled the promise made by Canada when signing the 1945 UN Charter of equal rights and self-determination of all peoples.
For the Chinese, it has been a long road to achieve a simple goal: to be a Canadian, no hyphens, no explanations. The law has dramatically shifted from a web of restraints and barriers to entry, to a bulwark against inequality.
As Marjorie Wong wrote in her book The Dragon and the Maple Leaf:
Some of the veterans interviewed insist, and rightly so, that they are “plain Canadians” without qualifications.
For some, WWII was an opportunity. Alex Louie returned from the war and opened the Marco Polo, a restaurant-cum-night club, where he wined and dined clients with acts from Las Vegas. Said Louie:
I just can’t think of a better life now; I mean I’m contented and see all my grandchildren grow up
As long as the Charter is in place, future citizens will never have to endure what the Chinese experienced, even if they’re Chinese. We owe a debt to the largely unknown and unsung Chinese men and women who fought two wars in succession: one abroad, and the other at home.
It’s not a birthright, believe me. Somebody paid for it. – Louey King
Douglas Jung said:
…we thought in our guts that unless we did something like that, we could show to the Canadian people, and to the Canadian government that we were willing to work for everything that we wanted, which was no more than the rights of Canadian privileges, the rights that every other Canadian enjoy.
As Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote:
Canada’s legal responses to this multicultural reality throughout its history can be divided into three general phases. The first phase…is marked by blatant exclusion and subordination. The second phase… was dominated by the goal of “equal opportunity”. The third and most recent phase is characterized by the law positively seeking to enhance the equality and dignity of every individual. This has been called “substantive equality”.
Substantive equality. This is the priceless gift passed to us from our forebears.
I have always been curious about the Chinese men and women who volunteered to fight for a country that so clearly didn’t want them. Why did they do it? What did they dream? Was it worth it? What happened after the war? Even as servicemen, they were not Canadians, but “Allied Aliens.” There are relatively few resources available that focus on this particular piece of history. All but a few veterans are gone, and most took the Official Secrets Act to their graves. My family never talked about it, but I know the following members of my family served, and it is to them that I give my thanks:
My second cousin, Gnr Poy Wing Yip, K. 10637, Royal Canadian Artillery, Pacific Force
My uncle, Pte. Dake Wing Yip, K. 7853, Royal Canadian Artillery / Canadian Infantry Corps, India
My father, Pte Wing See Yip, K. 18793, Canadian Infantry Corp, Pacific Force
In writing this series, I wanted to highlight the authentic voices of the day: from WWII veterans to premiers and prime ministers. This turned out to be ambitious – there are few public sources for the Chinese in their own words. I found a poor substitute for the Chinese voice by trolling hundreds of newspapers, hunting for keywords that became progressively more insulting: Chinese, Asiatic, Celestial, Oriental, chink. Along the way, I encountered a kind of wholesale and casual racism for Asians, Aboriginals, and Africans. In other words, at least from a journalistic perspective, there was little interest in news from the Chinese, only new about the Chinese – a systemic silencing of a race. As I have learned from this series, it is only by working hard and arguing loudly that we will achieve equality. This is my contribution to the fight.
If you’ve hung on with me until now – well done! I know it wasn’t easy. What do you think? Did you learn something new? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.
Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.
Chinese Canadians enlist in WWII, hoping to prove themselves worthy of civil rights, but find not much has changed after the war.
This is Part II of An uncertain homecoming. For Part I, see here.
Throughout this series, I have been thinking about my family, my friends, and the Chinese community as it exists today. I wonder how they feel about our shared history. I wonder if they understand why the old ones don’t talk about the past. I know I’ve pestered everyone around me, asking my questions, my need to know bulldozing their need to forget. For all of you, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was asking. I didn’t know how bad it was.
The Chinese who were there now choose to focus on the positives. Said Veteran and Burma Star recipient Dodson Mah:
We don’t talk much about the war because that’s water under the bridge. We talk about the future. We’re interested in what Canada’s doing now. We fought for this country and we’d like to see it advance.
But for those of us who were not there, let me take you back. It’s not so far, as history goes. Just 72 years.
September 3, 1945 – The missing vote
Canada was still not overly motivated to enfranchise its Asian populations, despite their apparent loyalty. The question in my mind is what made Canada change its mind?
It may have been partly due to a shift in the national vision over the previous 70 years. In the 1800s, Prime Minister MacDonald had conceived of a Canada populated mostly by the white sons and daughters of Great Britain. In 1885, at the House of Commons, MacDonald said:
…if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite to our wishes; and, in the even balance of parties, they might enforce those Asiatic principles, those immoralities . . . , the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.
Those words were shocking in 1885, but MacDonald could not have known how the words “Aryan race” would resonate after WWII.
Canada may also have been influenced by getting a seat at the newly founded United Nations (June, 1945). Canada helped draft the United Nations Charter, which reads in part:
Article 1.2 – To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace
Canada may even have had the grace to blush in signing a Charter that expressly espoused equal rights and self-determinations of peoples while denying those same rights to its own people.
Perhaps Canada finally took notice of the petitions. Chinese associations were joined by veterans groups in lobbying for a review of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, and for the right to vote. They would need to continue to lobby for free immigration until 1967.
Canada may eventually have come to recognize and correct its hypocrisy, in time. For example, Aboriginals gained the right to vote federally in 1960 – fifteen years after WWII, a war in which some 3000 Canadian Aboriginals enlisted. Fortunately for Canada’s Asian populations, the push for social change included two veterans-cum-lawyers: Irving Himel and K. Dock Yip. A movement needs its champions. For their remarkable story, see my post here.
Two Years Later: Postwar Canada, 1947
In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed. That’s the good news.
How did it feel? Veteran Frank Wong said:
Many veterans came back to Canada and were writing letters saying we should have the right to vote. Finally, they agreed and bestowed upon us all the rights enjoyed by every other citizen of Canada. They also rescinded the Exclusion Act, which did not allow Chinese men to bring their wives over. We were quite happy to finally receive the rights and privileges that we should have had all along.
Established Chinese Canadians (the astute reader will note this is the first time I’ve been able to use the term) were now able to bring over their wives and unmarried children under 18 years old. (Did you notice the age restriction? By setting the barrier to under 18 years old, the Canadian lawmakers were specifically excluding the families they had split apart with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. The children affected by the Act were now at least 24 years old, and barred from joining their fathers.)
The not-so-good news is that Canadian borders were still not exactly open for Chinese immigration. Canada wasn’t ready to change its mind on that front.
As Prime Minister King said in the House of Commons on May 1, 1947:
I wish to state quite definitely that, apart from the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act … the government has no intention of removing the existing regulations respecting Asiatic immigration unless and until alternative measures of effective control have been worked out.
Although the Act was repealed, the immigration machinery ground on. Canada had fought a war against Germans, Italians, and the Japanese, but only the Asians were considered to still be in need of immigration control. There remained barriers to entry and exit. Until 1953, the Chinese who wished to travel outside of Canada and hoped for reentry had to apply for a C.I.9 Certificate of Leave – like a reverse visa – before leaving the country.
As Prime Minister King said,
…the people of Canada do not wish as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population.
So, Canada had a problem. On the one hand, as a member of the United Nations, Canada had sworn to uphold equal rights, and had pursued increased economic ties with Asian countries immediately after the war. On the other hand, Canada doubted that it was possible for the Chinese to assimilate at all.
As A.R. Menzies, of the Far Eastern Division of the Department of External Affairs, Canada said in 1947:
(a) the lower standard of living accepted by Asian immigrants challenged the position of established labour groups (b) the establishment of distinct Asian communities undermined the established moral and social patterns of Canadian society; (c) such Asian communities might (have) become a menace to national security in times of national emergency (d) it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.
Chinese Canadians begin their takeover… of university degrees
Also in 1947, BC finally granted the provincial franchise to its Chinese citizens. (Japanese and Aboriginals had to wait until 1949.) Besides the vote, Chinese people were now free to leave the laundries, sawmills, and restaurants and practice as lawyers, doctors, accountants, pharmacists, and all other professional designations.
Prior to 1947, the restriction against Chinese had been the voters’ lists, so if you couldn’t vote, ipso facto you also couldn’t be a professional.
WWII veteran Sgt. Louey King said:
Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.
Next chapter: An uncertain homecoming, Part III: The borders creak open
Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.
Like all (Chinese) Canadians, I have been given a gift of priceless value: the gift of civil rights. I have not worked for this gift. I doubt I’ve earned it. Worst of all, I haven’t known who to thank for it, nor how much it cost. I’ve just taken it all for granted – my birthright as a Canadian. This series is my attempt at bridging the gulf of silence between those who paid the price and those who reap the rewards, and work towards a greater understanding of what happened, and why.
As I write this piece, it seems that civil rights are under threat, and so it seems topical to explore this subject through the lens of the Chinese in Canada, from just before WWII to present day. Not too many people know about how WWII affected Chinatown, about the hopes and dreams of those who were called up, or about the sequence of events that eventually led to 1967’s shift in immigration policy from a system based on race to one based on merit. I invite you to come with me as I go back, walking in the shoes of my family, exploring the recent past.
A note of warning before we go: you may find some of the story and the language shockingly painful and racist. I do, too. I suffer few overtly racial insults these days. My thick skin has grown thin from lack of use. What was it like for them, the Chinese in Canada who lived in a world of daily racial intolerance? If your family didn’t want to talk about it, who can blame them?
It’s been a long time since anyone tried to implement school segregation, or corral off the front seats of movie theatres, or set White Only days at the swimming pool, or tell white women they couldn’t work at businesses owned by men who were the wrong colour.
It hasn’t been very long since the law prevented some people from buying a house in the places they wanted to live. If you think this is somewhere far away, think again. This is prewar British Columbia, Canada. Conditions are overtly hostile for all Asians. Reflecting on that time, WWII veteran Private Alex Louie said:
Every one of us wished that we weren’t Chinese. We all asked ourselves, why were we born Chinese? It’s tough.
Veteran Gunner Victor Eric Wong echoed Louie, saying:
I did feel some discrimination because when my friend Darryl can go swimming at the Crystal Pool and I couldn’t go… even in theatres, we were segregated.
US Merchant Navy Veteran Andy Wong worked for the CPR Steamships before the war:
…in those days, if you were Oriental, you were automatically put in the galley. You were either cook, ‘messman’ or something.
The Chinese community actively participated in fundraising for the war, oversubscribing to its Victory Loan quota and distinguishing itself by being the group with the highest per capita contributions. This is even more remarkable given the Chinese laboured under restrictions limiting all potential means of earning an income: laughably subpar wages, laws constricting business locations and types, laws preventing Chinese (men) from hiring white women, capricious Chinese-only fees and taxes, and incomprehensible licensing requirements.
Hundreds of Chinese men (and women) enlisted for the war effort. Few were called up, with the authorities clearly citing race as the reason for disqualification. The Royal Canadian Air Force specified their recruits be of “pure European descent”. The Royal Canadian Navy specified recruits be “a British subject and of the white race”. The Canadian Army stalled on calling up the Chinese generally until September, 1944. The government’s concerns were twofold: they feared the consequences of “racial mixing” in the armed forces, and they feared giving the disenfranchised a good reason to claim the franchise. The argument was clear: if they allowed the Chinese to risk their lives supporting Canada in the war, Canada would have to allow them to vote. With the tacit agreement of Prime Minister King’s federal government, British Columbia did its best to block or stall the Chinese from being called up.
The majority of Chinese lived in BC.
For those that made it through the barriers, the sudden shift in status was life changing. Alex Louie was working at the pulp mill before being tapped to work for Britain’s ultra-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE). He said:
…the first day you don the uniform you went down, a bunch of us went and walked down Granville Street. You know, we were just a bunch of rookies, don’t know what we’re doing.
It was quite the feeling.
It’s the feeling of being free. That’s what. You feel like you’re a free man. You’re a free man walking down the street with your uniform and with the active service insignia on your sleeve… That means a lot. People part the way for you, and you just walk down the street like you own the street.
In all, some 400 Chinese men and women from British Columbia served in WWII. The community had been divided on the issue of volunteering for the war effort. Should the Chinese wait for the vote before enlisting, or enlist first in hopes of gaining the vote later?
Remembering the argument, WWII veteran Sergeant Roy Mah said:
…far better, now is our golden opportunity, far better to enlist now, go and serve – prove to the Canadian public, prove to the Canadian government that we are loyal Canadians, that we were born in this country, that we deserve equal rights, we deserve equal status.
And then, when we come back from the war we would have full credentials to demand for our rights.
Mah was optimistic.
Private Wee Hong Louie could have warned him it wouldn’t be as straightforward as that. Louie, a twice-decorated war hero of the previous world war, returned to N. America in 1918 and immediately planned a life of solid respectability. He studied engineering at the University of Chicago, and planned to open a business in Orillia, Ontario. Gunner, wireless operator, Victory Medal recipient, and veteran Louie was still denied a business licence on the grounds he was Chinese. But Louie had survived WWI – he wasn’t going to let something as small as a law get in his way. He packed up his medals and his uniform and sent them to Prime Minister King in protest. To his credit, the Prime Minister responded with an apology and a business licence. He also returned the gifts.
WWI veteran Private Louie was lucky. King wasn’t always in a generous mood.
September 2, 1945: the End of WWII
Fast forward 27 years to the end of WWII. The Chinese veterans returned home, to be greeted by silence, and a country largely indistinguishable from the one they’d hoped to leave behind. There were no parades. Canada hosted no celebrations. The proud veterans, mindful of the Official Secrets Act, kept silent themselves. The silence created a deep divide, separating men from their community, husbands from wives, fathers from children, and veterans from non-veterans. That silence extends to today, as most Chinese families have little to no idea of the part their forebears played in the war.
Canada expressed its gratitude towards its Chinese soldiers by giving them a double edged sword. They, and they alone, now had the right to vote, but not the families they left behind, nor the communities who supported them, nor the leaders to whom they looked for guidance. The statute now said:
Members of prohibited groups, if otherwise qualified, allowed to vote if they served in either World War (SBC 1945 c.26).
The men who’d been given intensive military training as soldiers, gunners, submarine corps, spies, wireless operators, and countless other valued positions – who had learned Japanese, who had learned to swim for covert underwater operations, who had attained their pilot’s licences, who could handle a bowie knife and a rifle, who had rebuilt army truck engines – returned to their menial prewar jobs at the laundries, sawmills, fish canning plants, and restaurants.
For the Chinese, the small door to pride and self respect, prised open for a brief time, swung shut. The enveloping silence swallowed the humiliation.
At least they could go swimming. In November, 1945, Vancouver’s Crystal Pool reconsidered its White Only swimming days policy and declared that from now on, anyone could swim, regardless of race, creed, or colour.
What they certainly still couldn’t do was travel freely. The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 continued to bar all but a tight list of Chinese people from entering the country. Those old men that Canada had forced into bachelorhood and exile continued to pine for their families. Fathers died without ever seeing their children again. Maintaining tight immigration controls was like a cottage industry for the government, overseen by the Chief Controller of Chinese Immigration.
Next chapter: Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home: the missing vote
Voting. It’s complicated. Canada has been reluctant to share her treasures, at least to its non-male, non-white peoples.
Nearly 70 years ago, Canada’s Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian people won the right to vote in Canada. It had been a long time coming. You may know the story of the Famous Five*, who fought for and won women’s voting rights in 1921, but did you know that it took 27 more years for Asians to gain the right vote?
This is the story of Kew (K.) Dock Yip and Irving Himel, and their work to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is more formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. There could be no consideration of voting for Chinese while this piece of legislation was on the books, banning Chinese from entering the country on the sole basis of race.
To understand Yip and Himel’s achievement, it’s important to set the stage and go back to the Dominion of Canada, circa 1800s.
Donald Smith, President of the CPR, drives the spike
Marker, the Last Spike
Prior to 1885, Chinese workers had been actively sought. Andrew Onderdonk hired 6000 Chinese labourers from 1800-1885 to build the most dangerous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in BC. Chinese workers staffed the CPR Steamships and worked in the gold mines. Before 1885, Chinese people were free to travel to and from China, and many men took advantage of the opportunity to work in Canada to support their families in China. For many, this self-imposed exile was the only way to support a family in a country severed by political upheaval, war, crime, and drought. Working in Canada was no dream: wages were poor, and conditions were harsh. In response, British Columbia enacted successive waves of anti-Chinese legislation, all designed to contain and deter its unwanted Chinese population.
On July 20, 1885, the railway having been completed, the rising anti-Chinese sentiment and fears of the “yellow peril” caused Canada to implement the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885. A CAD$50 head tax was levied on all incoming Chinese immigrants. This tax would be doubled to $100 in 1900, and then raised to its height of $500 in 1903. As Arlene Chan wrote in her book The Chinese Head Tax:
James Don’s father paid $500 each for his wife and 5 year old son. It took 17 years for his father to repay the loan.
No other immigrants to Canada were subjected to a head tax.
It was a hard year to be Chinese. The Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, explicitly removed voting rights for the Chinese (and Indians) two weeks earlier. Said Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald:
Persons of Chinese origin ought not to have a vote because they had no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations.
The Prime Minister was not alone in his anti-Chinese fears. In 1922, Judge Emily Murphy wrote in her book The Black Candle:
Anyone who has lived in British Columbia knows that where the Chinese have their own districts, much [opium] smoking is indulged in.
And lastly, the Native Sons of British Columbia, who wrote:
Native Sons of British Columbia are unequivocally opposed to extending the franchise to the Asiatic races.
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, built on, and expanded, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885, effectively closing the borders to all Chinese. Those men that had families in China were thus prevented from seeing them for decades, or ever. The beleaguered Chinese community endeavoured to take care of its large population of rootless men. Depression, drug abuse, and suicide took their grim tolls on the community.
Fast forward to 1942, to the Queen’s Own Rifles Reserves, where two lawyers happened to share a tent: K. Dock Yip and Irving Himel.
The two lawyers are hanging around base camp, recovering, when they hatch a plan to fight injustice.
Himel, I want to do the Immigration Act. I want to do immigration work. They won’t let the Chinese in. – K. Dock Yip
We have to repeal that law. – Irving Himel
To help them achieve this goal, Yip and Himel eventually formed The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in November, 1946.
On that Committee were:
Dr. Armstrong, United Church
Cardinal McQuigan, Catholic Church
Judge Arthur Martins
Colonel David Croll, Liberal MP
Dr. Neyes, Chinese Church
Dr. Ngai, Chinese medical doctor
Irving Himel, lawyer
K. Dock Yip, Canada’s first Chinese lawyer
Eventually, the Committee grew to be 79 members. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Vancouver News-Herald began supporting the movement. Womens’ groups and political groups, labour and trade councils, and religious groups joined the call for change. It took five years from that day in the tent when two reservists decided to tackle Canada’s racist immigration policies, but Canada repealed the Chinese Immigration Act on May 14, 1947.
Asked about the delegation to Ottawa, Yip said:
He ran all the manoeuvres, Himel. Me, Kew Dock Yip, I’m the secretary… Irving Himel asked me to lead this movement, but I thought Dr. Ngai would do it better… so I deferred the position to him and he did a very good job. The [immigration] law was finally repealed in 1947.
In 1948, the Dominion Elections Act was also repealed, allowing Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians the right to vote in federal elections.
The Chinese in Canada finally had the right to call themselves Canadians. The fight for civil rights would be next.
Irving Himel continued his legal work on civil liberties, later becoming a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. His work against restrictive covenants (clauses in real estate contracts preventing property sales “to Jews and other perceived undesirables”) resulted in them being declared unlawful.
K. Dock Yip continued his work as an attorney for 47 years, served as a two-time trustee of the Toronto School Board, was a leader in his community, and found time to be a movie actor on the side. In 1998, Yip was awarded the Law Society Medal for outstanding service to the legal profession.
*Observant readers will note that Emily Murphy is both lauded and criticized in this piece.
I have known bits of this story my whole life, but the online resources to flesh out the facts have only appeared in the past few years, thanks to the work of dedicated Canadian scholars and trusts, teachers, citizens, and politicians. Canada no longer ignores its racist past in our collective bid to work for a better future. In a small way, this is my story, too. K. Dock Yip was my great-uncle.
Chan, A. (2014). The Chinese head tax and anti-Chinese immigration policies in the 20th century. Toronto, ON:James Lorimer & Company Ltd.
How do you read Chinese when you don’t read Chinese? (This is not a riddle.)
It’s not my family’s fault I’m illiterate. They offered to send me to Chinese school. It was me who refused. Heaven knows, I’ve come to regret it, and I’ve even made a few attempts at learning the language as an adult. (This is not recommended if you’re offered the chance to learn it as a child.) I’ve taken Mandarin once, and Cantonese four times. I swear it’s on my list of things to do when I’ve got some more time, but in the meantime, how do you go on when you’re basically illiterate?
Here, then, are my tips on deciphering Chinese characters when you don’t read Chinese.
Different Chinese languages use the same characters, just pronounced differently. For example, 1, 2, 3 in Cantonese is yut, yee, saam, while it’s yee, err, saan in Mandarin. (Fun fact: the Japanese language also uses Chinese characters, but they are called kanji.)
You will need a really good dictionary. I recommend the Oxford Concise English-Chinese Dictionary. Google is not going to help you here, because you’ll be searching the romanized versions of the correct words. A good example of this is the word “ba” where the meaning changes based on the tones used:
Meaning: father 爸
Meaning: to hold 吧
Meaning: eight 八
Meaning: to cling 巴
There are more, but you get the idea
Characters may be organized by counting the number of strokes, so 1, 2, and 3 are literally 1 stroke, 2 strokes, and 3 strokes. Easy, right?
Each character is one word. Some are compound characters, meaning the character is built from more than one simpler character. For example, mother sounds like “mah,” and is built of 2 characters: a pairing of woman (奴) with the Chinese sound for “mah,” a horse (馬), to get mother 媽。
The word China literally translates as the “middle state.” You may remember it as the less accurate but more memorable “middle kingdom.” Now that you know that, you’ll be able to recognize the characters instantly because they are a pictograph: 中國。
There is less diversity in Chinese last names than English names: roughly 4K Chinese versus 150K English names. For a list, see the 100 Most Common Chinese Family Nameshere. (Fun fact: with 4K names in total, 100 names is 2.5% of the total. To get 2.5% of all English names, you’d have to list the top 3,750.)
Searching databases like Ancestry using anglicized Chinese names may or may not yield accurate results. For example, a ship’s manifest with several families named Wong may easily be carrying 3 families that are no relation to one another, because the anglicized names are not a good indicator of relationships. This is why Chinese grave markers in Canada have the family name (and sometimes village name) spelled out in characters – to be sure that descendants are honouring the right graves.
There are common themes in Chinese given names, as well. The top male name in China today is “Great,” while the top female name means “smells nice.” I think. See here for all 25.
I hope this is helpful. If you’re like me, and struggling to piece together your family’s history while being hamstrung by not speaking the language, drop me a line. It’d be good to know I’m not the only one out there!
The photo was taken at the schoolroom in the Wing Sang building in Vancouver, BC, in 2008. The Wing Sang building is owned by Bob Rennie, and the schoolroom functions as the Rennie Group’s boardroom. Here is a link for more details.