Chinese Exclusion Act Canada

Remembering when the Chinese weren’t the ‘right kind’ of immigrants in Canada

Chinese Canadians including Montreal artist Karen Tam are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminatory legislation that inflicted intergenerational trauma on an already marginalized community.

This year will mark a sad milestone for Canada’s Chinese community. On July 1, Chinese Canadians will commemorate 100 years since the passing of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act in Canada, more commonly referred to today as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The legislation, introduced by the Mackenzie King government, not only marked one of the most shameful anti-immigrant periods in Canada but is also the only time in our country’s history that an entire group was prevented from entering Canada based solely on their country of origin.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was preceded by the Chinese head tax, enacted in 1885, requiring that every person of Chinese origin who came to Canada had to pay a $50 fee. The legislation was, not-so-coincidentally, enacted immediately after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built, and the country no longer had as much use for the Chinese labourers it previously depended on. Suddenly, the Chinese were no longer capable of “integrating” successfully, with their culture and habits deemed alien and questionable. When government officials realized that the $50 head tax did little to dissuade Chinese immigrants from continuing to emigrate, the tax was increased to $100 in 1901, and then increased again in 1903, to the punitive amount of $500 — the equivalent at that time of two years wages for a labourer.

Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, all legal residents and citizens of Canada of Chinese origin were required to have documentation proving they complied with the new law. Every person of Chinese descent was required to register, even those who were born in Canada. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1947, but the legislation had devastating consequences for the community, preventing the wives and children of Chinese immigrants already in Canada from joining them. Since many men didn’t have the money to return to China, the ban essentially forced them to live out the rest of their lives in Canada as married “bachelors,” in communities where men outnumbered women by a ratio of almost 28 to 1. The legislation separated Chinese Canadian families for decades, creating intergenerational trauma with lasting effects.

Swallowing Mountains at the McCord Museum  

Exhibitions and commemorations are planned across the country to mark the 100th anniversary of this dark moment in Canada’s history, including Montreal.

Multidisciplinary artist Karen Tam is currently presenting Swallowing Mountains at the McCord Museum as part of its artist-in-residence program. Born and raised in Montreal, Tam says her exhibition is a tribute to the women of this city’s Chinatown from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Visitors have an opportunity to peruse the museum’s archival collection, works created by the artist, as well as objects and photos belonging to members of Montreal’s Chinatown community.

The title of the exhibition refers to the name that the first waves of immigrants from China gave to Canada, Gold Mountain, in reference to the gold rush and the opportunity to make a fortune in Canada. 

“Over time, the gold mountains of Canada’s El Dorado also became synonymous with the separation of families,” reads the exhibition’s program. “Swallowing Mountains becomes a metaphor symbolizing the need to swallow, one kilometre at a time, the immense distance that separates loved ones so they could be reunited.”

Like so many members of Canada’s 1.8-million-strong Chinese community, Tam’s family was also affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

“My great grandfather came to Canada in 1907 and had to pay the tax,” she tells me. “His head tax document is part of the exhibition. Like many folks impacted by the Exclusion Act, my great grandfather was separated from his family for decades. He never reunited with my great grandmother. My grandparents, my dad and his siblings were able to come over in 1967 when the immigration policy changed to a points-based system and allowed for family reunification. Even though the act was repealed in 1947, it remained difficult for most families to be reunited.”

The impact of the Exclusion Act on the Chinese community 

From Arthur Lee’s photo album, 1933–1970. Gift of Gilbert Lee (McCord Stewart Museum)

Tam spent years doing archival research into the history of the Chinese community across Canada. “The museum in Kelowna, B.C. has letters from China and Hong Kong during the Exclusion Act, donated by Chinese-Canadian families, and every time I read them, I become emotional,” she admits. 

She says it’s impossible to discuss the Chinese Exclusion Act without acknowledging the impact it had on generations of families. 

“What was important to me was to somehow find a way to highlight the sad and terrible effect that the Exclusion Act had on my community,” she says. “I wanted to educate, and I think using art as a way of talking about these issues in a more accessible way is important. It’s taking a personal or family experience and sharing that in such a way that people from different communities can also relate.”

Winston Chan, a board member of the National Coalition of Canadians against Anti-Asian Racism, agrees. 

“This is legislation that separated families for decades,” he says, “and created so much trauma, so many scars. The Chinese community was marginalized for decades. Since there’s no Chinese History Museum in Montreal, Tam’s exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to go and learn about this history. The best way to fight racism is to fight stereotypes and understand where a community comes from.”

The rise in anti-Asian rhetoric

Chan says that, as Canadians, it’s imperative that we learn the lessons of the Chinese Exclusion Act and implement better immigration policies today and in the future. 

“At that time a lot of people believed that too many immigrants were coming to Canada,” he says. “They wanted to prevent their arrival, they wanted to keep Canada a white country, just like some believe today.”

Tam says this awareness is especially important as we come out of the pandemic. 

“Think about the last few years and the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric and all the attacks,” she says, “all the racism. It’s important to note that most victims (of racism) were women and the elderly. When we talk about these stories and the history of Chinatowns in Canada, the narrative is usually focused on the men, and I’m guilty of having done that myself, so with this exhibition I thought, ‘You know what? There are amazing women out there, and I want to share their stories.’” 

Despite Chinese women’s under-representation in the early 19th and 20th centuries in Montreal, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, their contribution to Montreal Chinatown’s vitality and economy remains considerable. Swallowing Mountains pays homage to these women who lived and worked in the neighbourhood over the past century and a half. 

“One of my main goals with this exhibition is to bring different communities into the space,” says Tam. “Not just the Chinese diaspora, but other groups who’ll reflect on the hidden narratives of their own community, or the contributions of women in their community.” 

Documenting a painful history

Chinese head tax certificate and Chinese Immigration Act (aka Chinese Exclusion Act) documents upon arrival in Canada

Many of the photos and documents displayed at the exhibition are from the museum’s archival collection but the rest came from a call Tam put out in the community. 

One of the head tax certificates displayed in the same vitrine as Tam’s great grandfathers’ certificate is from a museum member who got in touch with her to tell her that she had documents she could loan for the show. 

“We started talking about her family,” says Tam, “and then she showed me photos of her grandmother’s head tax certificate from 1923! It was already extremely rare to find a woman’s head tax certificate because the tax made it prohibitively expensive to bring your wife, and children over, and then I read the date… The date the exclusion act was passed was July 1, 1923. Her grandmother’s head-tax certificate was dated Aug. 10, 1923, so she was on the ship when the act was passed. She must have been one of the last Chinese immigrants allowed into the country. That was special to me.” 

The women’s granddaughter, whose family still resides in Montreal, shared another photo with Tam. Displayed at the exhibition, the photo features a group of young, smiling university graduates. They are all members of the Montreal Chinese Engineers’ Association in the late 40s, early 50s. The image depicts all men, except for one woman. That woman is the daughter of the woman in the certificate who managed to make it to Canada before legislation shut the door on her. Happenstance and mere luck that can change a family’s entire trajectory. 

Learning from the lessons of the past

“I think it’s important for Canadians to be aware that this is the 100th anniversary of a very dark time in our history,” says Tam. 

“Chinese Canadians continue to often be seen as perpetual foreigners,” says Chan, “and COVID and the recent RCMP allegations also highlighted that. That kind of perception existed then, and still exists today.”

Tam says she was really shocked when so much anti-Asian rhetoric surfaced during the pandemic. 

“If you compare that rhetoric to the rhetoric occurring 100 years ago that led to the head tax, that led to the Exclusion Act, it’s very similar,” she says. 

“Yes, we’ve progressed, but maybe that progress is not as substantial as we thought it was, and that’s scary. I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to fight this type of rhetoric, because it happened 100 years ago, but who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again to another community, to new immigrant communities?” ■

Swallowing Mountains continues at the McCord Museum until Aug. 13, 2023. May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, an opportunity to recognize the many contributions that Canadians of Asian heritage have made and continue to make to Canada.

For those who may find themselves in Vancouver later this year, a national exhibition entitled The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act is slated to open July 1, 2023, in Vancouver’s Chinatown, showcasing all the Chinese Immigration Certificates that were scanned last year. 

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.