When work on the railway dried up in the 1890s, many Chinese established hand laundries as a means to earn a living. This is Sam Tui’s laundry in Golden, BC, circa 1910 (courtesy Fort Steele Heritage Town, FS 331.1).

Many early Asian immigrants had not planned to stay on in Canada. Some who had worked on the railways remained because railway owners did not honour repatriation agreements and they were too poor to afford passage home. Left to fend for themselves, these Chinese men settled in towns where they had last worked, typically opening the one lonely Chinese business in town.

Unwelcome Asians

The intention of many Chinese who found work in the mines, canneries and sawmills, was to return when they had saved enough. But the longer ill fortune postponed that day, the more the White society resented the sojourner presence. The more these ethnic groups kept to themselves, the more persistent was the stereotype created by Whites that they were unfit for Canadian society. This ignored the fact that Canadian laws targeted at the Indians and the Chinese made it difficult, if not impossible, for wives and family to join them. As time passed, and the instability of war in China postponed plans for men to return home, many began to raise families and put down roots in Canada.

The receptiveness of the larger society depends also on economic fortunes. When jobs were wanting for returning First World War veterans, Asians were seen as taking jobs from more deserving Whites. Asian immigrants, mostly unskilled and uneducated and isolated by language, had few organized voices to protest their plight. Not only were they disenfranchised from the vote in Canada, but their mother countries had no diplomatic representation here.

Learn more: Chinese Immigration