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HomeInADistantLandby May Ip

A Comparison: Early and Recent Chinese Settlers in Owen Sound

Chinese people have been living in Owen Sound for over 120 years. As time passed, the size, demographics and life of the Chinese population have changed. There is remarkable distinction between those who came to Owen Sound before and after late 1960s. The differences can be explained by the political, social and economic situations of the countries of origin of the immigrants, the changes in immigration policies, as well as Owen Sound's positive shift in attitude towards newcomers.

When the Head Tax failed to put a stop to Chinese immigration, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act (a.k.a. Exclusion Act) in June 1923 to close the door to Chinese immigrants once and for all. The Act was repealed on May 14 1947 after the Chinese community had shown its loyalty to the country by participating in World War II. Still, it was only after much lobbying that the government agreed to revoke the Act. It was not until 1962 that Canada's immigration policy reopened our doors to Chinese immigrants. There were few Chinese arrivals in Owen Sound between the 1920s and late 1960s, and they were migrants who had come to Canada before 1923 and lived in other parts of the country. They shared the same socio-economic background as the early Chinese settlers in Owen Sound.

Chinese settlers of Owen Sound between the late 1800s and late 1960s came from Guangdong Province, China and spoke Cantonese; they were male immigrants who knew very little or no English. Most of them had not gone to school back home. Because of the Head Tax and the Chinese Immigration Act, the Chinese community remained as a bachelor society for almost three decades. They came to Owen Sound with very little money. Consequently, these Chinese men invented or inherited occupations which required minimum contact with the English speaking customers – hand laundry or restaurant work. They lived in the time when most Owen Sound residents knew very little about Chinese culture. These early settlers experienced significant social segregation.

After the Exclusion Act was repealed, Chinese immigrants were able to bring their families over, or to return to China and get married, then come back with their new brides. Chinese children born in Canada received education and job opportunities their parents and grandparents did not have; they were equipped to break out of the social segregation. On October 1, 1967, Canada liberated her immigration policy to allow admission to the country according to education, occupational skills and other criteria. Chinese professionals and skilled workers from different lands and cultures started to arrive in Canada. The Investment Canada Act which passed in 1986 attracted investors and entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in recent years from China. Meanwhile, there was an influx of Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1985; a lot of them were of Chinese heritage. All through the 1990s, there was a significant number of immigrants from Hong Kong who had left there homeland because of political uncertainty. In the past 50 years, Canada has seen a growing number of half-Chinese families as inter-racial marriages are no longer punished by law.

Canada's societal progress since the late 1960s has resulted in significant changes in the Chinese population in Owen Sound. Today, our Chinese community is made up of individuals and families of a wide age range --- from newborns to seniors; some are immigrants --- from different places like China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan and Vietnam --- and others are first or second generation Canadians. Their mother tongues are Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay and English. In some families, both parents are Chinese; in others, only one parent is. There are also non-Chinese families who have adopted children from China. All, except a very few, of the adults have at least high school education either from their countries of origin or Canada; some have attended college and university. While some are in the stereotypical occupation as owner of or working in Chinese restaurants (Chinese laundry completely faded out in the 1970s), many Chinese in Owen Sound work in a variety of fields operating other kinds of businesses like convenience stores and clothes alteration, or working as professionals or skilled workers for companies that are not Chinese-owned. Through work and school, Chinese and non-Chinese residents come into contact and learn about the culture and heritage of one another. Surprisingly, a lot of non-Chinese residents have association with Chinese culture through work or travel - or marriage when they or their children have married Chinese partners. The understanding and integration leads to the break down of the social segregation which the early settlers experienced. In view of the increasing number of new immigrants from different countries arriving in the past decade, Owen Sound is gradually improving its capacity for supporting newcomers, a capacity that was not available to the Chinese who came 120 years ago.

Life in Owen Sound has advanced considerably for Chinese settlers throughout the century, allowing more and more social mobility and integration. Such progress, however, is not without its own struggles. The Chinese community is challenged in retaining its heritage, language and traditional culture among its younger generations. Fortunately, ever since Canada adopted multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971, institutions such as school boards and government cultural agencies have had a mandate to encourage Canadians to learn about the cultures of different ethnic communities, their own and others'.
In Grey Bruce, Chinese heritage and culture activities in elementary schools are very well received. Events like the local Chinese New Year Celebration, organized by the Grey Bruce Chinese Heritage & Cultural Association, in partnership with Grey Roots Museum & Archives, Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library and Tom Thomson Art Gallery, has been gaining community interest since they started in 2013. Such support and popularity encourages the younger generations in the Chinese community to learn more about their own heritage.

This is the fourth article published in the Owen Sound Hub to complement the travelling exhibit Home in a Distant Land. The other three articles are "Home in a Distant Land", "Coming to Canada" and "Acceptance and Education". The exhibit is currently set up at the Kincardine Tourist Information Centre. It has been travelling throughout Grey and Bruce Counties since April.


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