- by Kee-May Ip

The first Chinese presence in Grey County was recorded in the Union Publishing Co.'s Farmers and Business Directory for the Counties of Bruce Grey Muskoka, Ontario and Simcoe for 1896 Vol. IX --- Wing Hing Laundry in Meaford and Lee Wing Laundry in Owen Sound. Two years later, Durham saw its first Chinese resident Wah Lee, who owned and operated the New Chinese Laundry (The Durham Chronicle, August 1898). In 1901, another Chinese laundryman, Lee Toy, arrived in Grey County to reside in Bentinck. In the same year, Chinese also reached some Bruce County towns --- Chesley, Lucknow, Paisley, Teeswater, and Walkerton. More Chinese came in the next decade: by 1911, Chinese immigrants were living in 19 towns throughout Grey Bruce, adding Stokes Bay, Hanover, Kincardine, Port Elgin, Southampton, Thornbury, Wiarton, Carrick, Dundalk and Markdale to the list.

These first Chinese residents in Grey Bruce shared three common characteristics: they all operated hand laundries (the exception was Ah Sing in Stokes Bay who seemingly worked in a stone quarry); they knew very little to no English; and they were all men.

Hand laundry as an occupation was invented by Chinese men living in Victoria, B.C. during the time when the CPR was being built in the 19th century. In view of the often life-threatening work conditions, a few of the Chinese railroad workers started looking into finding an alternative means to generate income. All railroad workers were men, most of whom were reluctant to do the chores which were considered to be woman's work. Unsurprisingly, the offer of washing clothes in exchange for a minimal fee was well received in the "bachelor society". To set up a hand laundry in the railroad camp, all a person needed was to have access to water and the means to boil it.

During the Gold Rush, the Chinese were only allowed to take over mines which had almost been depleted by the white gold panners. Working on the railroad, the Chinese workers were assigned the most dangerous tasks for only half of the wages their Irish counterparts received. Consequently, after paying for necessary expenses and sending money home, the Chinese immigrants remained poor. When systemic racial discrimination forced the Chinese to move east, they left with very little money.

Chinese who came to Canada in the 19th century were peasants and farmers from the southern part of China. They did not know how to read or write in their native language, let alone English. There would be one of two in the railroad camp who were literate. They wrote letters home for the others, helping them maintain the bond with their families. Working on the railroads, the Chinese immigrants had neither need nor opportunity to learn English. Venturing out of British Columbia, they knew they would arrive in towns and cities where everybody spoke English, and no one spoke Chinese. Because of the language barrier, they did not hold their hopes high in finding employment. Instead, with the little money they had, they would start their own hand laundry business. Even though the business had become more sophisticated, requiring indoor workspace and some proper equipment, the start-up cost was still affordable for the Chinese immigrants. The occupation was labour-intensive and time consuming, but it was the only viable one. Coincidentally, there was a growing need for such service, as towns in Grey and Bruce Counties were starting to develop and gain  significance as ports and agricultural produce suppliers to cities and larger towns in Southern Ontario, thanks to railway and steamboats. At its peak, Owen Sound had seven Chinese laundries according to Vernon's Town of Owen Sound Directory 1917. No longer one-man operations, most of them were being run by father-and-son teams, brothers, or cousins. In 1911, there were 22 Chinese living in Owen Sound; two of them worked as cooks in a hotel and for a private family, the rest were laundrymen (Census Canada 1911).

More than two decades after the railroad era, and over 4,000km away from Victoria B.C., something had remained unchanged. Chinese in Grey Bruce lived in a "bachelor society". Census Canada 1911 data reveals that among the 22 Chinese residents in Owen Sound, there was only one woman. Luise Die(38) was the wife of Z Chew Die(39) and mother of Hinsoo Die(2); the family lived on 10th Street West, where Z Chew worked as a cook for a private family. Unlike immigrants from other countries at the time, Chinese men left their wives and children behind to go abroad for work. They would send home money, and put aside some in the hope of saving up enough someday to bring the family to Canada. With the low wages they were making, it would take them years to accumulate the needed amount. The challenge increased greatly when the Canadian Government started to impose Head Tax on all Chinese immigrants, with the exemption of students, teachers, missionaries, merchants and members of the diplomatic corps. In 1885, every Chinese entering Canada had to pay $50 Head Tax. A Chinese labour at the time earned $225 a year; deducting all necessary expenses, there was only $43 left to split between money to send home and to save. The Head Tax increased to $100 in 1900, then $500 in 1903. Family reunion became an impossible dream for most. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was passed, putting a stop to Chinese immigration for 25 years until the Act was repealed in 1948. From the Gold Rush days to the Act being repealed, Chinese men all throughout Canada had lived predominantly in "bachelor societies" for 90 years.

About Home in a Distant Land
Home in a Distant Land is an initiative made possible by the Community Fund for Canada 150th, a collaboration between Community Foundation Grey Bruce, the Government of Canada and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast to coast. The unprecedented project has three components which are intrinsically tied together to realize the project goals. A traveling display on the history of Chinese in Grey Bruce will share knowledge about the 130 years of local Chinese presence. This exhibition will visit 12 communities through out the Counties. Partnering with Owen Sound Hub, the project publishes a complementary column on the online newspaper. In concert with the exhibit, workshops will be offered in 15 elementary schools to provide specific age-appropriate access to the rich cultural heritage presented in the display.

The exhibit will be on display at Port Elgin Public Library from the May 13th to the 25th, and Hanover Public Library from May 27th to June 8th. Northport Elementary School and Dawnview Public School will be visited on May 15 and June 6 respectively.


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