As a number of you may know, May is the official Canadian Asian Heritage Month. Vancouver has launched a number of events to celebrate, from movie screenings to art exhibitions. Perhaps less well-known is that this was also the month that the city held a number of official forums on its own historical discrimination against the Chinese Canadian community as years of research come to a head.
In 2014, the City Council passed a motion directing its staff to examine how Vancouver had previously discriminated against the Chinese community―and to find ways to make reparations, along with offering an official apology and implementing educational community programs. Three forums for consultation with the public were held, including one on May 27 conducted almost entirely in Chinese – providing an excellent opportunity for those not fluent in English to share their opinions.
The forum I attended was intended for an English-speaking audience. The crowd included a mix of genders, ethnicities and age groups, including two women in hijabs—a respectable cross-section of the Vancouver population. Baldwin Wong, head of Vancouver’s Dialogues Project, which connects Aboriginal and immigrant communities, got straight to business by presenting the preliminary report with a simple slideshow.
The research findings are concisely damning. The first sixty years of Vancouver’s history are filled to the brim with racist motions and bylaws, heaped on top of further injustices implemented on the provincial and national levels. From the very beginning, when Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, the City Council disqualified Chinese civilians from voting in municipal elections, a right that wouldn’t be restored until 1949. City staff unearthed copious evidence that Chinese livelihoods were also repeatedly targeted. Vegetable peddling, a common Chinatown business, was not only met with hefty levies but many also had their licenses pulled over trivialities. This included selling “dusty vegetables.” (The fact that City officials didn’t bother to water Chinatown’s streets to keep their dust levels down, a widespread practice at the time, was evidently considered irrelevant.) Meanwhile, restaurants were especial targets that faced frequent harassment. Constant health inspections looked for any excuse to revoke their permits; some were even punished for not being connected to the sewer system, despite the City not running sewer lines through Chinatown.
Head tax certificate of Chan Hong–Yee, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1919. Courtesy of CHINESE CANADIAN STORIES/ROYAL BC MUSEUM/BC ARCHIVES
Vancouver repeatedly lobbied for anti-Chinese immigration policies alongside other anti-Asian hate groups. The head tax, which only Chinese immigrants were forced to pay, was increased from its original $50 to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903―easily multiple years’ worth of wages, Wong informed the audience. While this was publicly intended to discourage immigration, it also turned the province a hefty profit of $23 million, over $1 billion in modern currency.
The federal Chinese Immigration Act (more accurately called the Chinese Exclusion Act) further worsened the situation in 1923. For the next two decades until the act was repealed in 1947, fewer than one hundred Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter Canada. No exception was made for the wives and children of those already established here. Even after the ban was lifted, some of the damage was irreparable. As one woman at the forum pointed out, many of the men who longed to be reunited with their original spouses eventually started new families in Canada, which left rifts that remained long after the legal barriers to entry had been dissolved.
What surprised me the most was the City’s blatant attempt at segregation, something I’ve never previously heard discussed. Chinese-owned businesses and housing were once confined to the specific geographical limits of Chinatown, as part of a plan to form an Asian ghetto. Segregation was additionally pursued (albeit unsuccessfully) in schools, with the intention of saving money by directing fewer resources to Chinese children, and further pursued (entirely successfully) in the case of the sick, restricting Chinese patients to specific hospitals for their medical care. Hospitals that were all run by non-Chinese residents, of course―conveniently for the City, those without the right to vote also weren’t allowed to join professions such as medicine, law, and pharmacy.
When Victoria opened the Crystal Pool, the city’s first public swimming pool, Chinese children and their parents were barred from entry. It claimed white women needed protection from lascivious “Orientals”—a perception startlingly different from modern stereotypes that peg Chinese men as a sexually impotent minority. Following the same logic, Vancouver deployed a Municipal Act that banned Chinese business owners from employing or managing white women in 1919. Waitresses who had lost their jobs at Chinatown restaurants, often impoverished Irish immigrants themselves, fought back with a public demonstration outside City Hall.
Political cartoon showing Chinese immigrants being denied entry into Canada, 1907. COURTESY OF VANCOUVER PUBLIC LIBRARY, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
Not everyone in the room was hearing about these injustices for the first time. Many had seen the impact Canadian policies had left on their own families. One after another, participants stood to share tales of parents being moved to Chinese-only seating, men dying alone in residential housing separated from all they loved, “whites only” signs or grandfathers who waited twenty years to be reunited with wives who had grown into strangers. There was a sense that stories which had never had a proper outlet were bursting to be told in a way that the dry facts of the city report couldn’t quite capture.
There were stirrings of discontent, too. One young man standing at the back asked why we hadn’t heard the words “white supremacism” once, punctuating his speech with sharp raps against the booklet in his hand. He was met with cheers and applause. Why was only the word “discrimination” used, asked a later discussion group, when the stories we had heard that day were all about oppression and racism? The fact that Chinese-language materials hadn’t been reviewed for the research also caused some consternation, although John Atkins, part of the Historical Discrimination Against People of Chinese Descent (HDC) advisory group, reassured me after the event that the research was ongoing and Chinese materials would be used in the second half.
Further requests from participants abounded: bring emotion into it. Be empathetic. Don’t just talk about the men separated from their families, think about the emotional suffering of the women left behind, neglected in both Stephen Harper and Christy Clark’s attempts at previous formal apologies. There was a healthy dose of skepticism, too, at the emphasis that was being put on the difference between the new City Council and the old.
For my part, it was unnerving to remember that there are people still alive from a time when I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in this month’s provincial election. To that extent, the report was informative if not emotionally resonant or fully able to capture the suffering imposed for generations. It’s true that the historicity of the language it used disguises the fact that the roots of anti-Chinese sentiment haven’t so much disappeared as worked their way further underground. It’s not news that anti-Asian discrimination is still running strong today, and Vancouver in particular still harbours pockets of hostility toward immigrants who are perceived to be contributing to the housing crisis. Nevertheless, it’s good to see Vancouver make the attempt at reconciliation for past wrongs. Chinese Canadians certainly deserve a proper apology.
The final HDC report will be made public this fall.