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HomeInADistantLandConstruction of the British Columbia section of the Trans-Canada Railway, as most people know, is an important milestone of Chinese immigration in Canada. The migration that occurred 2 decades prior to that has been less discussed. In early 1858, gold was discovered along the Fraser River. In the following months, close to 30,000 men arrived; among them were 7,000 Chinese men. Many left at the end of the gold rush and only 1,548 were counted in the 1871 Census. The Chinese population climbed back up in the following years and reached 3,000 in 1878. The Gold Rush influx was so significant that systemic discrimination against the oriental race was already brewing before cheap workers were being shipped by the thousands in the early 1880s from Canton, from China to Victoria B.C. to join the railroad labourers. In 1874, the first Legislative Assembly of British Columbia which consisted of only white people passed an act to disenfranchise native Indians and Chinese; their voting rights were taken away. At the time, white people made up only 20% of the population. The majority of the inhabitants were indigenous people, and Chinese were the largest ethnic group residing there. Discrimination against Chinese had escalated since then.

Chinese miners gradually became unemployed as the gold mines were eventually depleted. Some of them turned to farming, opening general stores to sell to fellow Chinese settlers, and operating hand laundries. These occupations required of them very little interaction with the English-speaking sector of the society. A handful of them became domestic helpers of white families who were exceptionally accepting to the idea of hiring Chinese servants. In 1877, three men decided to venture out of British Columbia and seek opportunities elsewhere. They arrived in Winnipeg by stage coach and opened the city's first Chinese laundry on Lombard Avenue(known as Post Office Street at the time). Chinese settlers also began to show up in Eastern and Central Canada. By the time the Census was conducted in 1881, there were 10 Chinese living in Ontario and 2 in Quebec. Since the railroad connecting British Columbia to the rest of Canada had not been completed yet, these newcomers would have moved from the States, where Chinese immigration had started earlier, in the 1820s. However the Chinese populations in some Eastern and Central Provinces would multiply rapidly once the Trans-Canada Railroad was completed.

Between 1881 and 1885, the railroad construction in British Columbia had brought 17,000 Chinese men across the ocean to become cheap, disposable labourers. There had been significant casualties and deaths. When the railroad was finally completed, all the labourers were let go. The fate of the Chinese railroad company employees turned out to be quite different from that of the out-of-work railroad workers of other ethnicities. Not only did the Government offer no assistance to the now unemployed Chinese workers, it even adhered to a regulation passed in 1878 that prohibited Chinese from being employed on any public work. Many privately run white businesses and families also would not hire Chinese. While most of these Oriental settlers had remained in British Columbia and worked together to help each other, a few had chosen to take their chances and become the Chinese pioneers who set foot in other Provinces. They were able to do so because British Columbia was now connected to the rest of Canada by the section of railroad they had built with their sweat and blood, the construction of which had claimed the lives of some of their fellow villagers who had died performing dangerous work tasks or had succumbed to sicknesses caused by treacherous work and living conditions.

According to the 1891 Census record, there were 9,179 Chinese in Canada. While 8,919 were living in British Columbia, 2.3% of the Chinese population were distributed over 9 Provinces: 31 in Alberta, 10 in Saskatchewan, 31 in Manitoba, 8 in New Brunswick, 41 in the Northwest Territories, 5 in Nova Scotia, 97 in Ontario, 1 in Prince Edward Island and 36 in Quebec. In the following three decades, the Chinese populations in the Provinces continued to climb, except for the Northwest Territories --- 300 were recorded in the 1901 Census but dropped to 0 in the next Census. Being originally from Southern China, the Chinese may have found the climate in the Northwest Territories too harsh and moved to other parts of Canada.

The 1901, 1911, and 1921 Census records show that 910, 2500 and 5400 Chinese were living in Ontario in those respective years. A few of them would have come up from the States. However, the great majority were those who had left British Columbia in the decades following the completion of the railroad and their family members – brothers, sons and distant relatives - whom they had saved up money to pay for the head tax and brought over from China.

Long before the Trans-Canada Railroad was finished, there had been trains connecting cities and communities within provinces. In Grey and Bruce Counties, public and privately owned railroad companies had built many train stations between the 1870s and 80s to transport produce, goods and passengers from rural communities to market towns of a region --- such as Durham in Grey County, and Teeswater in Bruce County --- and to cities like Toronto and Guelph. After arriving in Toronto by way of the Trans-Canada Railroad, some of the Chinese who had left British Columbia for a better future continued on with their journey along the train lines and settled in towns which were prosperous at the time and could do with hand laundry services.

In an audio interview on March 1977, 71-year-old Mr Danny Lee recalled his experience. His father, Sing Lee, left for Canada shortly after Danny was born in 1906. Sing joined his father who was the first Chinese to arrive in Owen Sound and opened a laundry in 1896. He had only returned to China once to visit when Danny was about 9 or 10 years old. In 1920, the 14-year-old Danny got on a British Columbia bound boat in Canton with two other boys, 13 and 11, and the father of the older one. After being held at customs at Victoria for a month, Danny then hopped on a train to Toronto with the younger boy. The last part of his journey, from Toronto to Owen Sound, he was riding alone, with no English and only a note in his hand with the address of the laundry and his father's name. With the help of the conductor and a kind passenger, Mr Smith, Danny arrived in Owen Sound and reunited with his father, grandfather and grand uncles. He attended Dufferin Elementary School briefly to learn English before becoming a full time laundryman until 1976. For over four decades since the late 1800s, many Chinese boys and young men had walked the same life journey as Danny's, until the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed on July 1, 1923.

To the early Chinese immigrants, the Canadian railway was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it had caused despair and hardships as documented by many researchers and authors. On other hand, it had opened doors to other opportunities, when some of them were forced to leave British Columbia due to the political climate.


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