They called Canada the Gold Mountain and came here seeking their fortune and a better life. But what awaited Chinese immigrants was backbreaking labour and systemic discrimination—not only from government policy, but also from mainstream society, which reviled them as an inferior race, unutterably alien, impossible to assimilate.
Yet the Chinese endured. With an intense focus on education, academic achievement, and incre-dibly hard work, they moved beyond the barriers to become strong contributors
to Canadian society in many arenas, from politics to business, from medicine to the arts. Present-day public figures of Chinese descent include Alberta Lieutenant-Governor Norman Kwong and Alberta Community Development Minister Gary Mar.
“Chinese people in Canada have really come a very long way,” says Ray Lee, founding president of the Sien Lok Society, a Calgary-based Chinese community organization. “The Chinese people have gone through a lot of adversity and persevered.”
Among the barriers the Chinese faced was the notorious head tax imposed by the federal government to restrict Chinese immigration—a tax that climbed
Systemic prejudice and isolation were largely responsible for many Chinese going into business for themselves. For years, Chinese were restricted from attending university or entering the professions, which forced them into commerce to support themselves and their families. Many turned to running commercial enterprises such as laundries, grocery stores, or restaurants—extremely hard work that, in many cases, no one else wanted to do.
While mainstream Canadian society treated the Chinese badly for some time, they have proven themselves to be extremely resilient, bearing prejudice and even physical attacks without vindictiveness. Chinese who served in the Second World War are just one example. “These soldiers were magnanimous in supporting a mainstream that had been mean-spirited. They rose above that. They chose to make a difference, to contribute to society,” says Lloyd Sciban, an East Asian Studies professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Communication and Culture. “While this magnanimity was exhibited most obviously in the Chinese who volunteered or were conscripted to fight in Europe and Asia, non-military personnel also made noteworthy contributions, for example, by purchasing large amounts of war bonds.”
Thrift and caring for others are traditional values. The Chinese have always saved all they could for the next generation, stressing
These values are seen in the stories of many Chinese immigrants to Canada, among them James Mah Poy, one of the Albertans profiled in Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, a permanent exhibit that will open at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, in February 2007. Mah Poy arrived in Canada in 1902 from the county of Toisan, in the western Pearl River Delta of southern China’s Guangdong province—one of the major sources of Chinese immigrants to Australia, the Caribbean, and North America from the mid-1800s onward. Mah Poy ran a café, first in Coronation and then Ponoka, from about 1918 until retirement in 1952. As opportunities to the Chinese opened up, the Mah Poy descendents went into law, medicine, and other professions; in the mid-1960s, one of their grandsons was the first Chinese Canadian lawyer admitted to the bar in Alberta.
In many ways, the Mah Poys typified the pioneer experience common to so many other immigrant groups, regardless of place of origin or ethnic background. “This is a story of an immigrant family who became totally integrated and became part of the social and economic fabric of mainstream Canadian society,” says University of Calgary anthropology professor Josephine Smart, born and raised in Hong Kong, who is researching the Mah Poy family for the Glenbow exhibit. “You cannot understand Canada without including (the Chinese).”
My own family’s experience was similar. My grandparents came to Canada from Guangdong, China, in the early 1900s (and one set of great-grandparents arrived in the late 1800s). In one generation, they made
of the family, one of my aunts, Nellie Hum, was one of the first Chinese Canadian school teachers in Alberta in the mid- to late-1930s. One of my uncles, Sy Mah, was a pioneer in the North American running movement. He encouraged thousands of people across North America to take up running for better health and fitness. He worked with elite female runners, and he held the Guinness World Record for the most number of marathons run (524 at the time of his death in 1988).
As with other immigrant groups, people of Chinese descent have contributed to the richness of Canadian society in many different ways. Chinese food is just one example. From the Chinese-run cafés that sprang up across the Prairies from the early 1900s, to the invention of ginger beef in Calgary in the 1970s, Chinese Canadian food has become part of mainstream culture.
For the Chinese, food also forms an integral component of health and preventing illness. “In the West, we are aware of that, too, but it’s much more pervasive in Chinese culture,” says Sciban. He notes that Chinese traditional medicine is a complement to this approach, which doesn’t so much target disease, as emphasize the importance of being active
The Chinese tradition of according older people high status is another plus. For the Chinese, elder care is extremely important, a value that is reflected in Chinese Canadian elder care centres and nursing homes. “These are the most respected and the most honoured. They are given the best,” Sciban says.
Over the years, Alberta’s Chinese community has changed considerably. More recent immigrants have come from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China—most of them well educated and many of them affluent. There are now almost 100,000 Albertans, and more than a million Canadians, of Chinese descent.
All of the immigrant groups that settled here make Alberta a far richer, more vibrant place. The contributions by the Chinese stand alongside those of their fellow citizens in making Canada the best country in the world in which to live.
Jacqueline Louie is a
freelance writer in Calgary.
Chinatown Gate in Edmonton, representing friendship between the twin cities of Edmonton and Harbin, China
Three Alberta writers consider the experience of communities that enrich Alberta's muticultural heritage.
The Mah Poy family, undated.