Chinese Labour Builds the CPR

A Chinese work gang on the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near Rogers Pass, BC, 1889 (photograph by William Notman, courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-3740-29).

The practice in the West of using cheap Asian labour had its origins in the "coolie" (a word derived from Hindu, meaning a hired labourer, later used for Indian and Chinese labourers) trade in the mid 1800s. When China lost the opium wars for the second time, one concession was the right of foreign powers to recruit Chinese for overseas work. As China did not allow their nationals to settle abroad, workers were hired out under contract. Britain was the first to use coolies. With the prohibition of the slave trade, it needed to replace freed Black slaves on colonial plantations. As it turned out, the depraved conditions aboard coolie ships and of their work were not unlike slavery.

Railway builders in Canada, verging on bankruptcy and facing delay, borrowed from the American success of contracting thousands of labourers from China. The 15,000 who came to British Columbia, some from the United States, proved reliable, industrious, law-abiding and sober. They came cheap, at one-third the pay of Whites, purchased their own gear as well, and did dangerous and deadly work that Whites refused to do. The practice of hiring Asians spread to the mines, sawmills and logging camps, and canneries. Again, employers found the Chinese, Indian and Japanese willing to put in longer hours for less pay and to take seasonal work. Of course, these workers were exploited in turn by middlemen, usually kinfolk, who did the contracting and who were foremen for White owners.

Despite their attributes, the Asian workers were considered undesirable. Asian settlement following the completion of the railway gave rise to “yellow peril,” an expression that arose in North America early in the 20th century. It attributed danger to migration from Asia, suggesting that implied loose morals would corrupt White society and cheap labour would deny jobs to Canadians and Americans. The underlying message was that Caucasians would be harmed by the “yellow hordes.” Such prejudice ultimately resulted in the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923.

Despite Canada's efforts to stem the flow, the Chinese were the largest group of immigrants to keep coming in search of work. But like other Asian workers here, they knew that however poor the wages abroad, those left at home were poorer.

Learn more:
Building the Railway in The Canadian Encyclopedia
From C to C: Chinese Canadian Stories of Migration