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The Chinese Settlers

In 1849 news of the California Gold Rush swept through Guandong, precipitating nearly a century of mass migration to the Western hemisphere. By 1851 fully 25,000 Chinese were seeking their fortune in unruly California. Most were gold miners, but few made substantial finds. Many decided that there was a future all the same in North America, which they called Gum Shan (Gold Mountain), a term still used today. Most hoped to accumulate sufficient savings to retire in comfort as respected elders in their native villages.

While overseas, the men sent money regularly to their families which often relied absolutely upon such assistance to pay for the necessities of life, that is, for their very survival.

In 1862 the United States federal government authorized the construction of a transcontinental railway. Two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, received commissions to build the railway. Faced with a shortage of willing workers, the Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese.

Chinese section men on handcars, Canadian Pacific Railway, ca. 1886. The men proved to be highly reliable, industrious navvies who would stoically brave severe weather conditions and hazardous terrain. One day, as the result of a wager on the part of one of the partners, a Chinese crew laid over sixteen kilometres (ten miles) of track. "It was an achievement that has never been equaled nor approached even by modern methods in the United States." Chinese labour was so accomplished that the Southern Pacific and Northwest Pacific railways also relied considerable on Chinese to build their lines.

During the year of peak railway construction (1883), there were 6,000 to 7,500 Chinese working on various sections of track at any one time. The men set up their own camps, brought in and cooked their own food, and were highly mobile and self-reliant. They fearlessly hazarded treacherous sections of the Fraser River Canyon - without their labours the railway would have taken considerably longer to build. An estimated 1,500 Chinese died in the course of the work, thereby indebting Canada forever to her Chinese citizenry.

The second wave of Chinese immigration to Canada occurred in the 1880s when Chinese laborers arrived to build the B.C. sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, arranged for more than 18,000 Chinese to come to Canada: some came from the United States, but the majority arrived directly from China aboard chartered vessels.

When the CPR was completed, a serious recession began in the Pacific province; it battered the economy and very adversely affected the available labor force throughout the province. In makeshift camps along the railway line, many unemployed Chinese endured extreme deprivation and malnutrition for months. Fleeing such conditions, those who had sufficient savings sailed home to China; many others crowded into B.C.'s few Chinatowns, seeking life's necessities from their fellow countrymen.

It was during these difficult times that a number of enterprising Chinese crossed through the easternmost mountains to seek a new life in the North-West Territories.

Reprinted from Moon Cakes In Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains by Brian Dawson with kind permission of the author.

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