Welcome, Guest
Print this page

Chinese employment 1875-1945

Overview of the set

Click on the thumbnails below to view enlarged images in a new window.
the complete set of images to your desktop.

Primary sources

1. A sketch of Derby, British Columbia in 1859 |

2. Chinese gold miner |

3. Chinese labour and the development of British Columbia |

4. Chinese work gang on the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1889 |

5. Vegetable men on Dupont Street |

6. Chinese workers canning salmon |

7. Two domestic servants remember |

8. Chinese trucking |

9. Vegetable peddlers |

10. Section of Chinatown in Vancouver, British Columbia |

11. Chinese steamship cook |

12. A hostile job market for Chinese Canadians |

13. Editorial against the Chinese farm industry |

14. Wholesale farmers’ market in Vancouver |

Secondary sources


1. Chinese employment in Canada |

2. The Oriental question |


3. The Chinese in Canada |

Image viewer

Student tasks

Question: Identify the continuities and changes in the types of employment engaged in by Chinese Canadians from 1875 to 1910, and 1910 to 1947.

Teacher notes

The following notes on topics addressed in the History Docs are intended to enhance teachers' understanding of the sources and ability to guide students in interpreting them.

Using History Docs

View our online guide for instructions about how you might use History Docs.

Tools for investigating documents

Use or adapt these resources to suit your needs.

Historical context for teachers

Arrival of Chinese immigrants

  • Chinese immigrants began arriving in British Columbia in 1858 from the depleted gold mines of the California gold rush and directly from China to take part in the Fraser Canyon gold rush. By 1860, the gold rush had spread further north up the various tributaries of the Fraser River into the Cariboo region of British Columbia. 
  • Most of the early Chinese immigrants came from two coastal provinces, Guangdong and Fujian. Famine, periodic floods and droughts, wars and various local uprisings between the 1780s and 1880s caused many Chinese to leave these regions of China in search of jobs and opportunities elsewhere. 
  • Those who came to North America were mostly men; peasants, labourers and tradespeople. They arrived hoping to send back to their families whatever savings they could afford, usually with the intention of returning to China after amassing wealth.
  • Between 1881 and 1885, 17 000 Chinese arrived in Canada, most of them recruited to complete the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. 
  • Chinese immigrants coming to Canada faced many hardships, including the difficulty of learning a new language, isolation from family, low pay, dangerous work and racial discrimination from the government and individual citizens. 

Discrimination in Canada

  • The Canadian and British Columbian governments passed numerous anti-Chinese laws between 1875 and 1923. In British Columbia, they were disallowed from acquiring certain types of land, prevented from working in underground mines, excluded from admission to provincially run homes for the aged and unwell, prohibited from being hired to work in the public service, and disqualified from voting. They were also restricted from entering many professions, including law, accounting and pharmacy.
  • In 1885, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 that required every Chinese worker and family member entering Canada to pay a $50 head tax. 
  • Despite the $50 head tax, large numbers of Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900; however, this did not limit Chinese immigration as over 8000 Chinese entered Canada in 1903. The $100 head tax was raised to $500 in 1903—this was more than two years’ wages for the average worker. Throughout the head tax period, from 1886 to 1923, 82 379 Chinese entered Canada and paid the Canadian government over $23 million in head tax payments. 
  • In February 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 was repealed (cancelled) and replaced by the far more restrictive Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, also known as the Exclusion Act. This Act replaced prohibitive fees with an outright ban on Chinese immigration to Canada, with the exceptions of students, representatives of the Chinese government and their staffs, and merchants.
  • The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 also stipulated that every person of Chinese origin in Canada was required to register with the government and receive a certificate of registration within 12 months of the act coming into force. 
  • The Exclusion Act also specified that those Chinese who wanted to leave the country had to register before doing so. Those who failed to register would be treated as new immigrants upon their return to Canada.
  • The effects of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 were strongly felt by the Chinese community. While Chinese men living in Canada visited China whenever they could, they were, for the most part, isolated from their families. The 1931 census found that there were 1240 Chinese men to every 100 Chinese women in Canada. 

End of the Exclusion Act

  • Throughout World War II, between 1939 and 1945, Chinese Canadians contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, in many cases believing that their efforts might win them the right to vote after the war and improve their status in Canada.
  • In November 1946, the Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was formed by a variety of Canadians, including an 80 percent non-Chinese membership. After much deliberation and hesitation by the federal and British Columbia governments, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed in May 1947. 
  • Chinese Canadians were enfranchised, educational benefits were extended to Chinese Canadian veterans, and Chinese in Canada were free to enter professions from which they were previously barred. 
  • From the outset of Chinese immigration to Canada in 1858 until the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 in 1947, the Chinese in Canada held a variety of employments. Their employments often answered the labour needs of British Columbia, and were often restricted by policies and attitudes of discrimination within British Columbian and Canadian society in general.