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Early Chinese Immigration and Racialization

The history of Chinese immigrants in Canada dates back to 1858 when gold mining shifted north from the USA’s west coast to British Columbia. During the completion of the trans-Canadian railroad between 1881 and

1885, large numbers of Chinese workers were shipped from China to Canada. Economic development in British Columbia required a large labor supply. Fresh workers, mainly from south China, provided low-cost labor to satisfy the industrial needs of Canada’s west. However, the Chinese in British Columbia quickly became racial targets of white workers and politicians, who sought to exclude them. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885, the federal government began to impose a Head Tax of $50 on every Chinese entering Canada. The Head Tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. British Columbia imposed other restrictions on Chinese, barring them from various livelihoods and restricting their civic and political rights. Between 1886 and 1924, a total of $22.5 million in Head Tax was collected from 82,379 Chinese entering Canada (Li 1998: 42). From 1924 onwards, Chinese were essentially barred from entering Canada, until 1947. The Chinese population in Canada shrank from 46,519 in 1931 to 32,528 in 1951 (Li 1998: 67). The gender imbalance remained high during the exclusion period: the ratio of Chinese men to Chinese women was 12 to 1 in 1931 and 9 to 1 in 1941 (Li 1998: 67). As a result of the gender imbalance and the absence of fresh immigration, there was a serious delay in the growth of a second generation among the Chinese. As a result, the proportion of foreign-born Chinese remained high throughout the exclusion period: 88 % of the Chinese were foreign- born in 1931, 80 % in 1941 and 69 % in 1951 (Li 1998: 67).

Before the twentieth century, more than 90 % of the Chinese in Canada lived in British Columbia (Li 1998: 55). After 1901, the Chinese in British Columbia began to move east and settled in other provinces. The early Chinese were mainly manual workers. Records of the Chinese entering Canada between 1885 and 1903 indicate that most were workers and laborers, with merchants and shopkeepers making up fewer than 6 % (Li 1998: 24). In the face of racial discrimination and exclusion from many jobs in the mainstream economy, the Chinese community used improvised means to survive, retreating to the Chinese enclave, moving to ethnic businesses in the service sector, relying on voluntary organizations for self-help and revitalizing the image of Chinatown to meet white expectations (Li and Li 2011).

Restrictions on Chinese immigration were removed after World War II, and the Chinese in Canada began to gain civic and political rights. However, the migration of the Chinese to Canada, mainly through Hong Kong, was limited during the Cold War era. It was not until 1967 that Canada adopted a universal “points system” of immigrant selection, allowing Chinese immigrants to be assessed on the basis of equal criteria.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a surge of immigration from Hong Kong, which eventually peaked shortly before the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 (Li 2005). Thereafter, immigration from mainland China began to rise, first slowly and then rapidly, after the 1990s (Li and Li 2008). Since the 1970s there has been a conspicuous growth in Canada’s Chinese population. It was 124,600 in 1971, 633,933 in 1991, 1.03 million in 2001 and 1.22 million in 2006 (Li and Li 2011; Statistics Canada 2008). By 2011 the number of Chinese in Canada had reached 1.48 million (Statistics Canada 2011a).

 
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