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Chinese Community Growth and Occupations

Reverend James Chalmers Herdman, Presbyterian minister at Knox church in centre of photo. [Chinese  mission was founded in 1901 as a Presbyterian mission, but became non-denominational. Volunteers from different churches would teach English at night.] L-R: front row: boy, extreme left is Fred Jarrett; Boy, third from left is Alexander McEwing; woman fifth from left of chair, Mrs. C.A. Stuart. Back row: extreme right, Daniel McEwing, taught English. In the generation preceding 1925, Chinese urban communities in Alberta experienced considerable growth, both in terms of the number of Chinese residents and of the number of Chinese businesses in Chinatowns and elsewhere. Overall immigration to Canada was not significant in the decade after 1892, but after 1902 the policies of the Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, opened an era of immigration which resulted in the Canadian West being truly settled. During the rather chaotic "boom" years from 1902 to 1910, over 400 Chinese settled in Calgary, about 140 settled in Edmonton, and others found a livelihood in such centres as Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

The Chinese in Alberta were overwhelmingly located in urban centres. Of all ethnic groups in Alberta in 1926 - including English, Irish, and Scottish - the Chinese had the largest percentage of urban residents, namely 85.45 per cent. This is explained by the nature of occupations Chinese were engaged in performing.

Chinese who settled in Alberta had arrived hoping to take advantage of increased opportunities, and many new Chinese businesses were established after 1902. Because of cultural barriers and the continuing discrimination against them, most newly arrived Chinese had virtually no choice except to work at menial occupations. Chinese business enterprises in Alberta were predominantly restaurants, laundries, and grocery stores.

Sam Wing, Innisfail laundry, Innisfail, Alberta, 1904. Chinese had to work very hard to make a living, and in business the need to remain competitive was ever-present. Restaurants and groceries had to open early in the morning and close late in the evening in order to make a profit. Laundry work was especially wearisome, because it meant the soaking, scrubbing, and ironing of clothing solely by hand; moreover, prompt and high quality service was necessary to keep customers satisfied. Workers in laundries and groceries received the going wage of twenty-five dollars per month, and despite long hours the work-week was seven days. For the majority of the Chinese, then, the daily routine was almost solely working, eating, and sleeping.

There were a few other occupations available to Chinese, including hotel workers, laborers, and domestic servants. In the countryside, too, Chinese cooks were hired by ranchers on a seasonal basis, and they customarily returned to an urban centre during the off-season.

After 1900 a greater number of Chinese in Calgary were employed as domestic servants, owing to the needs of wealthy Calgarians, whose spacious residences were increasing in number.

Some Chinese houseboys also found employment outside the spheres of the social elite. In Lethbridge and Calgary, as elsewhere, they were frequently employed by madams to do all manner of household duties in local bordellos.

During the period 1902 to 1925, the number of Chinese grocery stores, restaurants, and laundries in Calgary all reached a peak in 1915. This was a direct, significant result of the tremendous influx of people into Calgary in the immediate pre-war years. Also of interest is the fact that, in the three business categories considered, the total number of Chinese businesses was one hundred in 1915, sixty-three in 1920, and seventy-two in 1925. Business prospects in Calgary in the immediate post-war years were clearly markedly inferior to those of five or six years previously, at least in the public service sector. During the next five years, business conditions did improve somewhat, however, for the Chinese.

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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