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Faculty of Arts, York University
Vol.3, no. 2, 1999-2000
Evidently, the community felt that the Chinese language was being used excessively, and that ethnic and commercial diversity was being swallowed up by a large influx of Chinese immigrants. The claim that "non-Chinese. . .weren't welcome" in these establishments hearkened back to British Columbia labourers' objections to the "inassimability" of the Chinese.3 Accusations of racism resounded from citizens and politicians alike. Though most Chinese denounced Bell for her apparent bigotry, one Chinese respondent to a Ming Pao Daily survey stated "(d)ifferent ethno-cultural groups should live in harmony, appreciating the traditions of one another. But the Chinese are too self-centred and are not mixing with other groups."4 A municipal committee which later "look(ed) into ways of healing (the) rift with the. . .Chinese community," identified the "(d)ifficulties in assimilating Chinese immigrants into Canadian culture" as a key problem.5 Clearly, historical perceptions of culture and economics were at the root of these opinions, as they were over 100 years earlier. The fact is that cross-cultural disparities still exist in Canada, despite such 'modern' notions as "multiculturalism" and "racial equality."6
A controversy that is more current occurred in July 1999, over one hundred Chinese from Fujian province were found by the Canadian Coastguard in a dilapidated fishing boat off the British Columbia coast. The "illegal immigrants" were apparently part of an illicit scam to enter Canada illegally and had paid up to $38,000 US to take the "voyage . . .of seaborne misery" to escape bad conditions at home.7 Two days after the incident, The Toronto Star reported that the federal government was attemptingto "crackdown on...illegal human smuggling."8
The Chinese who came to British Columbia between 1858 and 1885 were from the same geographical location as those in 1999. The migrants suffered similar "filthy" conditions on the voyage as those in 1999. However, what is most important is that both groups sparked an institutional response for regulation, exclusion or "rapid" deportation. Some may see these similarities as mere coincidences, though the historical record is quite clear on the matter.
The history of the overseas Chinese in Canada is a turbulent, confusing and emotional story. The migrant Chinese workers, who crossed the Pacific in search of economic gain and new opportunities in the West, were initially accepted as amicably as any other new group might be. However, as time passed, the Chinese were subjected to antagonism and resentment by white laborers and eventually, by government. This occurred not only in the United States and Australia, but also in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. It is undeniable that issues of economics, culture and discrimination played large parts in the story of Chinese migration to these countries.
British Columbia settlers complained that the Chinese were unfair competition in labor markets, heathen, unhygienic, culturally inassimilable and a drain on the provincial economy. What is remarkable is that these notions existed concurrently with perceptions of the Chinese as efficient and reliable workers who were not a bother to public charities or society, and "industrious, sober, economical and law-abiding" persons.9
It is neither fair, nor accurate to attribute anti-Chinese activities in the late 1800s simply to racist underpinnings. The discrimination that the Chinese suffered was more complex and entailed more than inherent prejudices against colour and phenotype. It is important to understand that the historical context of the 1800s was very different from the present. The contemporary world is well aware of the existence of supremacist groups, who advocate violence to attain the complete exclusion of other races from their communities. As well, most of us are sensitive to issues such as Apartheid, the ghettoization of minorities, hate crimes, and gender and sexuality rights. However, in the 1800s the Western world was a drastically different place. Women did not enjoy institutional equality with men; slavery had not been fully eradicated; colonialism still forced one nation's rule over others; children were exploited in industrializing nations; and there was no internationally accepted system of law that represented the consensus of world opinion. As well, there was no Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect human rights in Canada. Thus, discrimination against the Chinese was only one in a long list of what we may call injustices today. This paper seeks to provide a more contextually sensitive exploration of the Chinese problem in British Columbia. It does not mean to place blame on either whites or Chinese for the conflicts that occurred in British Columbia.
The study of Chinese emigration to Canada in the 1800s is beneficial for Canadians to understand the realities of their so-called "multicultural" roots. More importantly, it is essential for helping Chinese to understand how perceptions of their culture--from within and without--have influenced their history as a diasporic group. In a broader sense, this study illuminates aspects of China's interaction with the West, both culturally and economically. The faltering Ch'ing government's relationship with the British throughout the 19th century was shaky at best, and this instability was played out in other regions of the world where migrant Chinese ventured.
In the 1800s, there was validity in popular claims against the inassimability of Chinese cultural and economic practices. For instance, the fact that Chinese workers sent sizable remittances back to China represented a cultural and economic preference, which produced an economic conflict with British Columbia laborers. These sorts of conflicts produced gave rise to anti-Chinese activities, and eventually to institutional discrimination. To call the Chinese helpless victims obscures the historical context of their lives in Canada. Indeed, to see the story in terms of victimization does a great disservice to the initiative these migrants took by funding projects in their home villages, and keeping alive a vibrant culture, community and commerce in a foreign land.
Cultural issues constituted a substantial part of white objection to the Chinese presence in British Columbia. Indeed, complaints about Chinese cultural practices are found in several official documents, and provide us with a glimpse of the cultural intolerance of the time. If one accepts Safran's belief that the members of a diaspora "retain a collective memory, vision or myth" of the homeland, then British Columbia dissenters were objecting to the cultural institutions that sustained such a myth.10 In fact, this phenomenon was common to other overseas Chinese communities of the era, and seems to have reflected a sense of impermanence in the host country. This clash was epitomized by the accusation that Chinese were non- assimilable. However, calling the Chinese a "non-assimilating race" did not mean they were incapable of assimilating, it meant that they were unwilling to assimilate.11 In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that Chinese cultural and social practices contributed to this perception. The examples below explain this point more clearly. They highlight certain areas of cross-cultural misunderstanding, including overseas Chinese death rituals, accusations of public health hazards, vices, social organizations and even hairstyles.
Matthew Bailey Begbie's testimony to the Royal Commission of 1884 provides a good introduction to a discussion of cross-cultural issues, which fueled complaints against the Chinese. However, the presence of inconsistencies and contradictions in his testimony should not be mistaken for hypocrisy. Begbie's writing illustrated the ironic aspects of anti-Chinese sentiment. For instance, even though he considered the Chinese "inferior...in weight and size of muscle", he believed that they "work(ed) more steadily and with better success on the average than white men" and that "they come here and beat us on our own ground in supplying our own wants."12
Though Begbie attributed much of white hostility to economic fears, he explained that "(t)his dislike...is certainly mutual".13 In other words, not only did whites resent Chinese but also in Begbie's eyes, there were general tendencies toward exclusion of whites or barbarians in from the Chinese population.14 Fairbank notes that the traditional "cultural egocentricity" of imperial China pervaded its dealings with foreigners.15 Begbie had unwittingly noted the implicit notions of culture and xenophobia underlying Chinese views of the British. He added that the "dislike" of foreigners "(was) manifested in China...more extensively and stringently than (in British Columbia)," where there was not even "direct competition for bread (with foreigners)."16
Conversely, Begbie's positive views of the Chinese in other answers are confusing, yet this was common in other testimonials. Writing on the moral qualities of the Chinese, Begbie identified them with the list of virtuous adjectives, rather than the negative ones posed in the question.17 Moreover, he saw some positive qualities as causes for conflicts with whites. For instance, Begbie wrote, "If Chinamen would only be less industrious and economical, if they would but occasionally get drunk, they would no longer be...formidable competitors with the white man". As for the British, they were notorious for lacking sensitivity to other cultures. In Canton, they demanded that Chinese take off their hats as a sign of greeting "which is a thing they never do and which is not with them even a mark of respect."18 This "instance of the follies which people commit when they know nothing of the manners of those (they deal with)" was a root cause of anti-Chinese complaints.19
One of British Columbia's anti-Chinese laws, "An Act to Regulate the Chinese Population of British Columbia" (1884), explicitly addressed cultural issues.20 A clause in it stipulated that "no Chinese was to be removed from a cemetery without the permission of the Provincial Secretary."21 Though some British Columbia residents understood the technicalities of the practice of repatriating human remains to China, they either did not appreciate its cultural relevance or saw it as an uncivilized and filthy ritual. The British viewed exhumation as socially unacceptable, and unhygienic, and this contributed to the cultural stereotype of the Chinese.
As mentioned above, exhumation of Chinese remains was a common practice in British Columbia. David Lai says that overseas Chinese of the period believed that when they died in foreign countries, their souls would remain troubled until their earthly remains were repatriated.22 Indeed, when Chinese died in British Columbia, they were buried-- only to be dug up seven years later. Following the exhumation and cleaning of bones, the jiefang (street associations) "shipped them to the Tung Wah hospital in Hong Kong, which distributed them to the various villages of destination."23
The practice, which appeared as uncivilized to the British, was in fact seen as an organized and valuable cultural necessity by the Chinese. As Sinn points out, this "concern...was typically Chinese, and Chinese associations of every kind tried to service the dead. Among overseas Chinese, the problem became paramount, making the ability and willingness to arrange for Chinese burials, together with exhumation, re-interment and repatriation of bones to the native village, a keystone of community leadership and influence."24
Anti-Chinese supporters saw the exhumation and repatriation process as clear evidence that the Chinese were "a non-assimilable race". The fact that the Chinese went to great lengths to return human bones to China fuelled accusations that they were not intending to settle in Canada. To the British, it made no sense that the Chinese would have meticulously prepared and repatriated the bones of the dead if they had considered Canada their true home. Ironically, the fact that more permanent Chinese cemeteries began to appear in many areas of British Columbia throughout the 1880s, may have indicated that they were becoming more settled.25
A bill introduced in the British Columbia legislature in May of 1876 levied a tax of $10 on all "male(s) of 18 years who wears long hair in the shape of a tail or queue."26 This desperate attempt to circumvent federal opposition was ruled out of order and disallowed. Chinese labourers were the obvious target group of the bill, since they wore their hair in queues. Roy points out that "(t)o sinophobes, the absence of the queue on a Chinese head was a symbol of white superiority."27 Granted, the Bill was a legal attempt by whites to assert cultural dominance over Chinese. However, the Chinese were being identified by an explicit cultural allusion, not by inherently racial characteristics. At first glance, it seems rather unclear why the queue stood out as a cultural target. However, the sociology of the hairstyle gives us a clue. "To the Chinese male, the queue was a sign of submission to the conquering Manchu empire; he wore it and defended it as he might uphold a religious emblem."28 While the Chinese migrant may have been dissatisfied with Ch'ing rule, there is no evidence to suggest that they were anything but loyal to the empire.29 Clearly, this was a sore point for British settlers in British Columbia who felt they were building a province on behalf of the British Empire. As well, the issue was an indication that Chinese were unwilling to assimilate. Thus, the queue issue represented a clash of national loyalties within the realm of cross-cultural conflict.
Complaints against the Chinese as a threat to public health seem to have been confined to stereotypical lower class perceptions. We find a sensitive acknowledgement of this in the testimony of Doctor Helmcken in the Royal Commission Report. He said "(t)hey (the Chinese) cannot communicate their ideas to us nor we to them, therefore we are in the dark. Many of the things...that we hear about them may not be strictly true; and if they could speak English well I think our relations would be better."30 A less sensitive witness stated "(t)heir vices are most disgusting. They turn their sick out to die in the streets", while another referred to the practice as inhumane.31 These complaints referred to the Chinese practice of designating some buildings as death houses, where the terminally ill were taken to die, and a cultural taboo against allowing people to die in residential dwellings. Sinn points out that "the peculiar Chinese attitude towards sickness and death...considered (it) unclean to have someone die in the house."32 In this instance, cross-cultural incompatibilities precluded a reconcilable view of death and disease. Taking the "sick and dying" out of residential dwellings was considered "filthy" by the whites, but was viewed by the Chinese as the proper way to avoid contamination of their houses.
Another stereotypical problem focused on white's fear of communicable diseases. Witnesses to the Commission complained of "(Chinese) lepers (that) fill our prisons" and the spread of "loathsome diseases" by the Chinese, such as venereal infections.33 These accusations were proven unfounded by medical opinions of the time. Doctor Helmcken told the Royal Commission that he knew of only one case of Chinese leprosy in 34 years of practicing medicine in British Columbia, and that, in any case, leprosy had never been proven to be contagious.34 In the case of venereal disease, Doctor Stevenson testified that he had only treated one case of syphilis, which was "claimed to (have) arise(n) from a Chinese source."35 However, evidence suggests that the Chinese did not regularly visit Western doctors, due to the belief that Chinese medicine was superior to Western medicine. Sinn says that in Hong Kong, British medicine was considered "irrelevant" to the Chinese.36 As well, sources in Royal Commission testimony observed that the Chinese relied on their own countrymen for medical attention, and "seldom appl(ied)" for treatment at white hospitals.37 Thus, public health concerns about Chinese disease carriers were unjustified in British Columbia. More importantly, the fact that Chinese did not use the institutions of public health contributed to enigmatic stereotypes of them. The fact that white doctors rarely examined the Chinese made it difficult to disprove claims that they were carriers of disease.
Another complaint against the Chinese as a public health threat referred to the practice of using human waste as fertilizer in their vegetable gardens. People complained that the Chinese were "filthy" because "their urine (was) kept in barrels and tins on their premises, and...(was) used for fertilizing."38 Not only was this considered a public health issue, but also it was an indication that the Chinese were so frugal that they were unfair competition to whites. Its repugnance in popular perceptions is countered by only one example of cross-cultural sensitivity in the Royal Commission Report. E. Stevenson believed the use of excrement as fertilizer was a "time-honored" practice that efficiently "return(ed) (waste) to the soil."39 He explained that "(in) the great cities of Shanghai and Canton sewers (were) unknown", so the Chinese were accustomed to disposing of waste in a manner that avoided risk of "typhoid fever."40 Clearly, criticism of the practice was the result of a cultural aversion on the part of whites. However, the Chinese may have been simply recycling waste as a way to maintain an economic advantage over others in the gardening industry.
The problem of opium addiction seems to have been common amongst the Chinese. This was a direct inheritance of intrusive British trade at Canton and elsewhere. In fact, since opium was not a restricted substance in British law, the Chinese were able to set up dens and buy and sell the drug as a normal article of commerce. Some British Columbians feared that the habit would spread to the white populatio, yet Doctor Helmcken said, "I know this habit did not come with the Chinese. Opium-eating is a vice of England."41
It is entirely ironic that opium use was perceived as a Chinese vice. China had paid a high price for its attempt to stop the negative social consequences of opium addiction. Indeed, China was forced into its first disastrous war with a Western country, and subsequently lost sovereignty over its own trade in the resulting Treaty Port system. The fact that the British Columbia government collected customs revenues for opium imports, and made money from selling licences to proprietors of opium dens, indicates that their moral outrage fell short of considering legislation against its use.
The Chinese in Canada, as in many other parts of the world, established various types of organizational groups throughout the 19th century. These associations provided many institutional functions, including "management of property assets, coordination of labour, economic controls, credit, welfare, political controls, education, ancestor worship, nonancestral religion, sociability and recreation, and the preservation of ties with China."42 Chinese organizations tended to segregate the Chinese institutionally from whites, and drew the ire of many anti-Chinese supporters. Among the most prominent complaints was the fact that Chinese did not participate in the institution of Canadian law. In fact, they had a reputation of avoiding interrogations, and dealing internally with problems by "both criminal and civil codes of law peculiar amongst themselves."43 However, this problem was probably made worse by linguistic barriers.
The mystery surrounding the Chinese and the law spawned an enigmatic stereotype that was often based on mere hearsay and speculation. The petition from the British Columbia legislature, which finally caused John A. Macdonald to initiate the Royal Commission, stated that the Chinese "class of the population ...has been a continual source of expense--especially in the matters connected with the administration of justice."44 Conversely, the Mayor of Victoria said in 1884 that Chinese were conspicuously absent from the records of criminal and civil court cases.45 Sergeant Flewin of the Victoria police complained of the linguistic difficulties of gathering statements from the Chinese, and their apparent reluctance to give any information due to their loyalty to "secret societies."46 Self- discipline within Chinese communities was a major factor in their social segregation. When they did not submit to the legal authorities of the host country, they sent a message of their unwillingness to assimilate to British Columbians. In turn, this strengthened stereotypical views of the Chinese as mysterious outsiders. Indeed, it was rumoured that only one white man had ever attended one of the secret tribunals that dealt with Chinese crime.47
By the 1860s, Chinese secret societies (hong men hui) had been established in the mining districts of British Columbia. Notwithstanding their original political nature as enemies to Ch'ing rule in China, the hong fulfilled the social role of "maintain(ing)... friendly relationship(s) among (Chinese) and...accumulat(ing) wealth."48 This entailed the building of temples, the provision of a social safety net for its members in times of economic hardship, and settling Chinese legal disputes. Indeed, throughout the 1860s, 70s and 80s, Chinese street, village and locality associations thrived as providers for diverse social and cultural needs. The Chinese supported these groups through fees and donations, which probably angered whites who complained of Chinese tax evasion.49 In 1884, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) was established to unite all overseas Chinese in Canada under one patrilineal umbrella.
The establishment of the CCBA was facilitated through extended institutional ties with the Chinese Consulate at San Francisco.50 Its founding was a symptom of the growing need for Chinese solidarity in the face of rising anti-Chinese sentiment, and coincided with their call for the establishment of a Chinese consulate in British Columbia. This suggests that the British Columbia Chinese did indeed see themselves as huaqiao, and felt that they could rely on political and social institutions directly linked with China. The CCBA's mandate to protect the Chinese in areas of law and welfare and to provide "unity" for the various lineage and district associations established it as a monolith of voluntary segregation. The social, cultural and legal extraterritoriality that the CCBA implied "did not go unnoticed among the small minority of whites who were agitating fiercely for the exclusion of all Chinese."51 Thus, the social and cultural organizations that had existed in the Chinese communities since their arrival in British Columbia- and before open agitation against them had begun- contributed greatly to accusations of Chinese inassimability.
While stereotypical complaints about Chinese vices and community health standards were not usually based on tangible evidence, they indubitably contributed to the snowballing of cross-cultural problems with the Chinese. Other issues, such as the exclusivity of Chinese social organizations, and repatriation of the dead, represented fundamental cleavages between the institutions of Chinese society and culture, and those of the West. Indeed, amendments to the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923 made it unlawful for Chinese to participate in trials by their peers and imposed heavy fines upon offenders.52 Furthermore, Chinese social organizations were perceived as threats to the continuity of provincial society, which was still in its infancy. Eventually, cultural and social incompatibilities produced an overwhelming popular consensus that the Chinese were inassimilable. This reflected a belief that Chinese were sojourners who were not interested in adequately contributing to the building of a British province, because their exclusivity in cultural and social matters was inflexible.
2. Brian Dexter, "Chinese demand apology for Bell's racist remarks", Toronto Star, Aug., 10, 1995. p NY1.
3 "Raising the spectre of the yellow peril", Editorial in Toronto Star, Aug. 24, 1995. p A26
4 Steve Payne, "Survey Dings Bell", Toronto Sun, Aug., 24, 1995.
5 Brian Dexter, "Committee lists concerns about rift in Markham", Toronto Star, Oct., 4, 1995. p A20.
6 For a current criticism of Canadian multiculturalism, see Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1994.)
7 Daniel Girard, "'Nightmare' voyage for smuggled Chinese", Toronto Star, July 22, 1999.
8 William Walker, "Canada planning human-smuggling crackdown", Toronto Star, July 22, 1999.
9 See "Answers to Printed Questions", Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration (reprinted; New York: Arno Press, 1978.) p 69.
10 William Safran, "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return", Diaspora (Vol. 1, 1. Spring, 1991.) p 83.
11 Report of The Royal Commission, p 66.
12 Report of the Royal Commission, p 72.
13 Report of the Royal Commission, p 72.
14 This is generally accepted amongst Sinologists. Michael says that from first contact with the Portuguese at Macao in the 1500s "the Chinese...regard(ed) all Europeans as uncivilized barbarians and...treat(ed) them accordingly." See Franz Michael, China Through the Ages: History of a Civilization (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1986.) p 150.
15 Fairbank, "Tributary Trade and China's Relations with the West", p 129. 16 Report of the Royal Commission, p 72.
17 "industrious, sober, economical, and law-abiding", Report of the Royal Commission, p 69.
18 Huang, "Viceroy Yeh Ming-Ch'en and The Canton Episode", p 98.
19 Huang, "Viceroy Yeh Ming-Ch'en and The Canton Episode", p 98
. 20 Munro, "British Columbia and the "Chinese Evil'", p 44.
21 Munro, "British Columbia and the "Chinese Evil'", p 44.
22 David Chuen-yan Lai, “The Chinese Cemetery in Victoria,” B.C. Studies, 75, Autumn 1987. Pp 24-42.
23 Con, et al., From China to Canada, Pp 34, 66.
24 Sinn, Power and Charity, p 2.
25 Edgar Wickberg, "Between China's Politics and Canada's Restrictions", From China to Canada, Con, et al., p 79.
26 Cheng, Oriental Immigration in Canada, p 39.
27 Roy, A White Man's Province, p 18.
28 Roy, A White Man's Province, p 18.
29 Except in the case of some secret societies (hong), who were revolutionary in nature. For a description of one such hong, see Con, et al., From China to Canada, Pp 30-4.
30 Report of the Royal Commission, p 55.
31 Report of the Royal Commission, Pp 66, 109.
32 Sinn, Power and Charity, p 19.
33 Report of the Royal Commission, Pp 66, 120.
34 Report of the Royal Commission, p 55.
35 Report of The Royal Commission, p 92.
36 Sinn, Power and Charity, p 3.
37 Report of the Royal Commission, p 103.
38 Report of the Royal Commission, Pp 49, 109.
39 Report of the Royal Commission, p 93.
40 Report of the Royal Commission, p 93.
41 Report of the Royal Commission, p 59.
42 Hsu & Serrie, The Overseas Chinese :Ethnicity in National Context, p 201.
43 Report of The Royal Commission, p 47.
44 Gray, "The Honorable Commissioner Gray's Report", p iii.
45 Report of The Royal Commission, p 48.
46 Report of The Royal Commission, p 50.
47 Report of The Royal Commission, p 59.
48 Con, et al., From China to Canada, p 31.
49 See section on "Tax Evasion" below (in "Economic Issues").
50 Con, et al., From China to Canada, p 37.
51 Con, et al., From China to Canada, p 40.
52 Section 35, Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, and Regulations.
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