Constructing Canada: The Contribution of the Hoisan Diaspora

In modern Canadian culture, the construction of Canada can be attributed to a plethora of peoples, cultures, and processes. Somewhat recently, the Chinese Canadian contribution to Canadian history has been recognized in the form of apologies, plaques, and more, but the policies that persisted in anti-Chinese and anti-minority rhetoric have been embedded within our society, even now. In emphasizing some of the ways in which these policies persist, two major happenings of the migration of Chinese people to Vancouver will be highlighted.

In 1858, Chinese men from Hoisan Province left their villages to escape the poverty that ensued during and after the Taiping Rebellion (Shih, 1967, p. 12). They came to join the Fraser River Gold Rush, in hopes that they would be able to live prosperous and rich lives in Canada and back home with their found riches (Ng, 1999, p. 10), but their realities were much different than their imaginaries. Being from the Hoisan region of China, they were used to extremely different customs, climates, and welcomes. Many of the men lived in even worse conditions in Canada than in their home villages, in addition to facing blatant racial discrimination in varied forms. For example, when groups of Caucasian men went on work trips to find gold, Hoisanese men were not allowed to work in the same quarters, and instead, were only allowed to follow suit, after the mines had been picked over by others (p. 13). These unprepared and inexperienced Chinese men suffered greatly during cold winters, as Canadian climates in towns like Barkerville can sometimes reach temperatures as cold as -13°C (Weather Canada, 2017).

Starting in 1875, Chinese immigrants, almost exclusively men from Hoisan Province, immigrated to Vancouver to help construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. Among them, were my Great Great Grandfathers, Fong Wong, and Tom Marr (Marr, 2017). Men like my Great Great Grandfathers, respectively at the ages of 17 and 21 years old, fulfilled positions that white men deemed as too dangerous to perform. They lit the fires to sticks of dynamite, often risking their lives, in order to keep their agonizingly low waged jobs, to live, and to send any left over money back home to their families. During this time, “few whites perceived the Chinese as a direct threat to their well-being; some regarded them as “useful” or “valuable” members of the communities, especially since whites and Chinese shared the goal of making as much money as they could” (Gyory, 1998, p. 8), but this serves a stark contrast to the legislated anti-Chinese bills that targeted these men and their families shortly after their arrival. Chinese men, Black men, and First Nations men were disallowed from living in the same quarters as Caucasian men, and this racial segregation of particularly Chinese and Black communities in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Hogan’s Alley, layered on top of the absence of acknowledgement of complete and utter cultural suppression of First Nations peoples on their unceded land has set the stage for our current conundrum of issues that plagues this region.

The Canadian Pacific Railway is seen as an integral part of Canadian history, especially with regards to scholars that mention and do work surrounding the Laurentian thesis, the core-periphery or heartland-hinterland structure, and even in recent City of Vancouver infrastructure projects like the Arbutus Walkway Corridor to connect transit lines for a “greener city”. The Hoisanese diaspora in Vancouver has played an instrumental role in this construction, and yet, are seen as perpetual newcomers on this land. The formation of Chinese Canadian identities is embedded within delegitimizing their Canadianness, seeing them as foreigners, as a homogenous group that is now simultaneously working to push housing prices up by bringing in large sums of foreign investment money. This conglomeration of people of colour’s identities as one instead of as a diverse and complex history of peoples is spoken about largely in critical race theory. In critical race theory, the conglomeration of many different identities that may exist within a racial history is referred to as erasure (Murakawa and Beckett, 2010, p. 6).

In addition to this erasure of histories of oppression, the Hoisanese families that could immigrate to Vancouver’s Chinatown found it hard to find work, so they resulted to doing what they knew best from home—food cultivation and farming. At one point, 90% of the province’s food came from Hoisanese food cultivation, but the Vegetable marketing act put that to a halt. The Vegetable Marketing Act made Chinatown farmers have to jump through modern loops of ‘regulation’ in order to sell their produce. This made it so that large buyers of produce would favour Caucasian or non-Chinese vegetable growers instead, dramatically decreasing the work available to Chinese farmers, often whose only marketable skill was farming. Chinese produce was seen as dirty or undesirable, as were the people who farmed the food. Modern remains of this history exist in Produce Row, still a very active and main hub for distributing produce around the lower mainland, located in its original location near Chinatown and Strathcona (Huang, 2017).

In 1912, the Sam Kee Building in Chinatown was drastically cut down to make way for road straightening and expansion. Where Caucasian land owners were paid hefty sums of money by the City of Vancouver to demolish their land in favour of the development project, Chinese land owners such as that of the Sam Kee Building were bargained with and were eventually paid no money for their troubles. In the Sam Kee Building’s instance, they City of Vancouver paid the land owners nothing, and instead, took away the majority of the property, leaving slivers of buildings to signify that the City had not taken away the property, and were therefore not responsible for paying the Chinese property owner any money (Yu, 2017). This building has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘skinniest building in the world’, but many other similar tales that do not touch upon the racist history of this building’s unusual shape have been told—this is a form of erasure.

Yet another example of this is rooted in barbeque meats being sold in Chinatown. When my grandmother was a child, her diet consisted of mostly reconstituted mushrooms, sticky rice, and vegetable broth. Eating meat was a once per year special event for her and her family, as they were extremely poor, and barbequed meat, specifically barbeque chicken, was her favourite. She grew up learning to savour this annual meal, and still serves it today, as often as she can, with pride. She buys her barbequed meat from the same family as her grandparents bought barbequed meat from, and happily walks around the corridors of Chinatown that she used to play in as a child. In 1975, food inspectors in Vancouver wanted to regulate the meat that came from Chinatown, in worries that it violated health codes. They said that barbequed meats should be kept at a temperature of “above 60°C”, which is burnt to a crisp and dry, or “below 4°C”, which is gelatinous fat under-barbequed meat (Yu, 2017). This complete misunderstanding of people in power in relation to the cultural practices of long standing Chinese immigrants almost led to the shutting down of many very well loved and important cultural hubs in Chinatown for its residents (Huang, 2017).

To preface this, a major migration event happened in the 1960s from Hong Kong to Vancouver. These individuals were highly talented, well educated immigrants, capable of making their way smoothly into the job markets of Vancouver. These people were “self-conscious about their sophistication and their ability to redefine the context of Chinese culture among the migrants overseas” (Ng, 1999, p. 36), and helped avert some of the urban renewal tactics that the City of Vancouver was and is so well known for inducing on migrant communities (Huang, 2017). This set the stage for another wave of migration from Hong Kong in the 1990s, leading into our current wave of Mainland Chinese immigration to Vancouver (Yu, 2017).

As diverse, long, and complicated as the Chinese Canadian identity is, and as integral as these people were in constructing Canada’s connector between many distinct cultures of Canada’s provinces, the Canadian Pacific Railway, Chinese people in Canada are seen in modern day as merely one or two of these differently originated migrations. There is an influx of recent blaming and villainizing of China in many of the industries that Canada prides itself over, such as forestry and coal exportation, wherein China is seen as a polluting, rich, and invasion-like country of people. These modern Mainland Chinese immigrants are seen as ultra wealthy individuals, with a dissimilar culture from that of the majority of Canadians, with the ability to host an “Asian invasion” of the Vancouver housing market. There is much distain from locals whose families may have lived in Canada longer than these recent immigrants, and this fuels the erasure of histories of oppression for all Chinese Canadians.

As the philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre states, the social production of space theory explores the idea that people influence the spaces that they live in in a variety of ways, as much as the spaces that we live in influence us (Knox and Pinch, 2006, p. 1). This is the socio-spatial dialectic, and it relates in more ways than one to critical race theory in analyzing Vancouver’s Chinatown. Modern oppression has made its way into the mainstream in the form of revanchist policies, that are overlain by nuanced white settler-colonialist ideologies. Revanchism is a form of “spatialized revenge against the poor and racialized minority communities who supposedly stole the inner city from them” (Smith, 1996, p. 184), and can be seen in modern gentrification processes that are rapidly and dramatically occurring in Vancouver’s Chinatown (Rosenman, 2017).

Figure 1

The Chinese Head Tax, a law that prohibited, slowed, and hardened the ability of Chinese workers to bring their family over to Canada, was put in place “between 1886 and 1923”, but “few Chinese established families in Canada” (Roy, 2007, p.5). Few Chinese families were able to afford this kind of payment, as “in 1885 the tax was set at $50 and by 1903 it had been raised to $500”. This was “approximately two years’ wages for a Chinese Canadian worker at the time” (Dyzenhaus, 2005, p. 6).  In total, the Canadian federal government collected “$23 million from roughly 81,000 Chinese immigrants” with the intention of expressly “prevent[ing] the Chinese from immigrating” (p.6), as indicated and pictured in Figure 1. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was an advocate of the Chinese head tax, even by wanting to “increase the head tax from $50 to $500” in order to not “displace a good Canadian, or, a good British subject” (p.7). This kind of support from a person with such an enormous amount of power no doubt influenced the minds of those living in 19th century Canada at the time.


Figure 2

This head tax was not alone in its anti-Chinese ways. The premier of British Columbia is pictured (Figure 2) in a caricature done of him, where he is literally pushing a Chinese man out of Canada, was published and widely distributed around the province. The pride of my Chinese ancestors and my own pride as an extension of learning about my own family history has led me to understand the bounds by which culture is defined—culture is the food that we eat, the pathways that we walk around in, the people that we meet, the conversations we have, the time we spend with loved ones, and the entirety of an ecology of peoples. Cultural preservation and reconciliation are more than the preservation of buildings. The colonization of First Nations populations serves as a stark reminder of how processes of erasure can damage and displace entire communities of people. Displacement is not just an urban or rural process, it is a colonial process that is weighted specifically on people of colour.

The contribution of Chinese immigrants to Canada from Hoisan Province is indisputably an important moment in history, but acknowledging these intense and deep-rooted revanchist policies and perception is also an important step in the direction of reconciliation, for all minority groups that Canada has excluded from its mainstream identity for so long. Solidarity is shared between former Black residents of Hogan’s Alley, Coast Salish peoples whose land was unsurrendered and taken with force, along with the unforgiveable cultural assimilation induced by the Indian Residential School era, and between Chinese people whose contributions have been minimized to plaques or forgotten and overshadowed by xenophobic headlines about housing market takeovers. Canada’s celebrations of sovereignty can and should mention, acknowledge, and center upon the histories of these people in order to pride itself on its diversity and multi-culturalism and to start to deconstruct the systemic discrimination of people of colour, or else risk making the same racist mistakes as in the past, just in a more nuanced way.



Primary Sources:

Caricature. (April 26, 1879). The Heathen Chinese in British Columbia. Canadian Illustrated News. Caricature. (July 1921). The Veteran.

Huang, K. (2017). Personal Communication (Relative).

Marr, P. (2017). Personal Communication (Maternal Grandmother).

Yu, H. (2017). Personal Communication (Global Seminar Advisor).


Secondary Sources:

Gyory, A. (1998). Closing the Gate : Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. University of North Carolina Press.

Ng, W. C. (1999). The Chinese in Vancouver, 1945-80 : The Pursuit of Identity and Power. UBC Press.

Roy, P. (2007). The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67. UBC Press.

Shih, V. Y. (1967). The Taiping Ideology: Its Sources, Interpretations, and Influences. UBC Press, 553.


Theoretical Sources:

Murakawa, N., & Beckett, K. (2010). The Penology of Racial Innocence: The Erasure of Racism in the Study and Practice of Punishment. Law & Society Review, 44(3/4), 695-730.

Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier, Gentrification and the revanchist city. Taylor & Francis.

Knox, P. & Pinch, S. (2006). Social geography and the sociospatial dialectic. Urban social geography: an introduction, 5(1), 1-16.

Other Sources:

Rosenman, E. (2017). Lecture March 13 2017. University of British Columbia.

Weather Canada. (2017). Government of Canada.


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