Saltwater City’s Mistakes On Chinese Labour Contractors, Illegal Immigration, Etc.

This is a review of Paul Yee's book, “Saltwater City : An Illustrated History Of The Chinese In Vancouver”, published in 1988.

Immigration Watch regularly presents reviews of immigration-related books in order to give Canadians more perspective on the immigration issue in Canada.


Saltwater City's Mistakes On Chinese Labour Contractors, Illegal Immigration, Etc.

It has been 20 years since Paul Yee published “Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver”. Saltwater City was the Chinese name for Vancouver which borders salt water. Its opposite was “Freshwater City”, the name given to New Westminster which bordered the Fraser River. Mr. Yee's overall purpose seems to have been to present a general picture of the lives of the Chinese in Vancouver's first 100 years. He has uncovered some very interesting factual material and has presented many intriguing photographs which greatly enhance the story he tells.

One of his more important aims is to say that the Chinese were unfairly treated and that there was no justification for the treatment they received. In our view, when he deals with this issue, he makes a number of mistakes which are particularly relevant today.

(1) WHY DID THE CHINESE COME? Mr. Yee begins by describing the area where most early Chinese came from, the southeastern province of Guangdong, particularly areas around the port of Guangzhou. According to Mr. Yee, from 1757 to 1842, it was the only Chinese port to trade with the West. Like most of China today, it had an excess of labour and it exported that very cheap labour to other places. By 1842, its population had risen from 16 million to 28 million with no increase in the food supply. In modern terms, it had exceeded its environmental carrying capacity. Around the time when it exported labourers to Canada in the 1880's, many residents had a very low standard of living. According to evidence presented to a 1901 Royal Commission, labourers of the kind who came to Canada earned around 7 cents a day in China—a probable indication of the economic pie being divided among too many people. When they came to Canada, they could earn 20 times as much. In effect, China was exporting its poor and unskilled and trying to reduce an environmental problem. Mr. Yee could have been more frank about Chinese immigration.

(2) WHY WERE MANY CANADIANS HOSTILE TO THEM? Mr Yee says that one reason often given by historians was that Chinese labourers over 100 years ago were displacing white workers. However, he himself questions whether displacement happened. Ironically, he then admits that “the brick industry, for example, once used all-white crews, but by 1900, it employed mostly Chinese.” (P.25) If displacement had not occurred, how did Chinese become the sole employees in the brick industry? He also notes that some historians say that many jobs were “race-specific”. If that was so, then why were “race-specific” Chinese brick industry jobs once held mostly by whites? In passing, Mr. Yee mentions the view that whites wanted to perpetuate their values and traditions. But he clearly does not want to give credence to the fear that China's population dwarfed that of most countries then—as it does today–and that if high immigration had been permitted, it would have overwhelmed Canada or any other country that allowed it.

(3) WHY WERE LABOUR CONTRACTORS AND WHY DID THEY PLAY SUCH AN IMPORTANT ROLE? Many Chinese depended on labour contractors to find work for them in other countries. Like some immigration consultants today, labour contractors were professional job-finders. They searched wherever they thought they could find employment. In return, they expected to earn a fee for every worker they provided to an employer. To secure jobs for their clients in the 1880's and on, Chinese labour contractors promised, in writing, to accept wages that were lower than those of the workers in the country where they went.

Mr. Yee presents Chinese labour contractors in a fairly benign light. He says that a Canadian employer used a Chinese contractor because the Canadian employer could not speak Chinese. (Pp.25-28) The contractor sometimes bid below his own costs on a contract in order to win a bidding war against his competitors. Mr. Yee confirms that practice when he says: “A contractor could bid low for a contract and pay out wages above the amount of the contract, then recover funds from the sale of supplies.”(P.28) Mr. Yee admits that the labour contractor system “fostered…inequity”. But he does not concede that this inequity towards white workers justified the resentment that whites subsequently displayed to Chinese labourers. To be fair, whites should have directed their anger at the Chinese contractors rather than at the Chinese workers the contractors employed. But the general point is that whites had a reason for getting angry at those who were displacing them from their jobs.

(4) HOW BIG AN ISSUE WAS LABOUR CONTRACTING IN BRITISH COLUMBIA? To Mr. Yee, it was not. However, Mr. Yee unintentionally presents some very damning evidence which shows that he should have said the opposite. He quotes the Vancouver Province which describes two Chinese businessmen who appeared before Mackenzie King's 1907 Royal Commission which investigated the 1907 Vancouver Riot. “This morning the two wealthiest celestials (Chinese) in B.C. appeared, Loo Gee Wing and Sam Kee (real name: Chang Toy whose property was worth $500,000 and who paid city taxes of $3000. Loo's and Chang's combined wealth exceeded a million dollars. This was a phenomenal amount of money at that time. The question is this: How did they acquire such wealth?

The businesses that Sam Kee (Chang Toy) was involved in suggest that he made a large part of his income as a labour contractor. He contracted labour for shingle mills and canneries, handled imported Chinese foodstuffs and sold steamship tickets for the Blue Funnel Steamship Line. In other words, he made a profit on each of the labourers he provided to employers. In addition, he made a profit on the food and other goods he required his Chinese labourers to buy from him. Finally, he made a commission on providing ship tickets to the labourers he imported from China (and whose tickets he bought at a discount). Yip Sang was another prominent and wealthy businessman. He estimated his wealth in property and buildings at $200,000. According to Mr. Paul Yee, “Yip Sang won the position of Chinese agent for the CPR, handling its lucrative Chinese passenger and freight business.” (P.36) In other words, he provided CPR tickets to Chinese who were travelling to and from Canada. According to Mr. Yee, four of the wealthiest businessmen in Chinatown “reported gross incomes of $150,000 to $180,000 annually. This was at a time when a wage of $2 per day for 320 days would have earned a person around $624 a year. The imported Chinese labourers earned less. This was a phenomenal difference and it suggests there was probably something seriously wrong. “The wealthiest businessmen prospered in import-export trade, labour contracting, and real estate.” (P.36) The fact that all these businessmen were involved in labour contracting indicates that it was probably a very extensive business at the time.

(5) WHAT CONNECTION EXISTED BETWEEN THE VANCOUVER RIOT AND LABOUR CONTRACTORS? Yee describes a number of incidents in which Chinese suffered. On a number of occasions, they were the victims of thugs. Of necessity, he mentions the Vancouver Riot of 1907, but he makes no mention of two important causes of the riot: the secret plans of the CPR and the Dunsmuir family to bring in over 2000 displacement labourers. It is true that these two cases of labour contracting involved mostly Japanese labour contractors and Japanese labourers. However, the same principle applied and white workers were the victims of the displacement which followed. Mackenzie King stated that rumours about displacement workers had been circulating before the Vancouver Riot. Mr. Yee does not mention this. He also fails to state that in 1907, around 12,000 Japanese, East Indians and Chinese had arrived in Victoria and Vancouver. Vancouver's 1907 population was around 60,000. In Mackenzie King's words, the sheer number of these new arrivals and the possibility of many more arrivals had caused “consternation” in the local population. In Chapter 1 of the book, Mr. Yee selectively chooses numbers which flatter the importance of the Chinese in British Columbia. Was Mr. Yee unaware of the things Mackenzie King (Canada's Deputy Minister of Labour in 1907) uncovered or did he deliberately omit mention of them in order to distort the causes of the Vancouver Riot in 1907?

(6) WHY WAS REDUCING IMMIGRATION IN TIMES OF HIGH EMPLOYMENT IMPORTANT? To his credit, Mr. Yee presents a case in which the Chinese in Victoria saw that high unemployment there meant that Chinese immigration had to be reduced. According to Mr. Yee, by 1916, 80% of Vancouver's Chinese were jobless. Many went back to China temporarily. Immigration dropped from 7445 in 1912-13 to 1250 between 1915 and 1918. Similar problems must have been occurring in Victoria. Recognizing the seriousness of this problem in December 1913, the Victoria Chinese Benevolent Association, a social networking and support system for Chinese in Canada, asked officials in Guangdong province to stop people from coming to Canada because of the joblessness here. (P.49) Mr. Yee does not mention whether Vancouver Chinese took any action similar to that in Victoria. Immigration reduction in times of high unemployment later became the official policy of Canada between the 1920's and 1990.

(7) HOW DID THE LABOUR CONTRACTOR ERA END? According to Mr. Yee, minimum wage laws for sawmills were introduced in 1926, and for restaurant workers in 1928. However, this removed the main reason for hiring the Chinese : the low wages they took. The result was that many employers dismissed their Chinese workers. Around 1950, the contract labour system “in the lumber and fish-canning industries was ousted when unions started organizing Chinese labourers.” Unions also advocated equal treatment of Chinese workers. (P.115) This was an important development, one of many at the time which indicated that Chinese-Cansdians had been granted acceptance.

(8) IS PROTECTION OF THE HOST POPULATION THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF IMMIGRATION? Mr. Yee quotes Mackenzie King King in 1947: “…the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of the population”. Mr. Yee comments that King's statement was an expression of favouritism of whites. However, if Mr. Yee were honest and were to consider the situation being reversed, he would probably have to admit that if white Canadians had migrated to China, the Chinese would probably have said the same thing that Mackenzie King did. In addition, the Chinese would have enforced it much more bluntly and severely. Foon Sien, the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, a Chinese organization which was devoted to helping other Chinese, commented that the Chinese did not want an open door to all Chinese. They just wanted family re-unification. However, the widespread immigration cheating which began in the late 1940's, and which Chinese-Canadian leaders excused, undermined Foon Sien's statement.

(9) WHO SHOULD DETERMINE CANADA'S IMMIGRATION POLICIES? The Chinese Exclusion Law was repealed in 1947, but it still allowed only children under 18 and wives (of Chinese already here) to enter Canada. According to Paul Yee, around 23,000 came from Hong Kong after 1946. (Yee does not clarify why these people were coming from Hong Kong rather than the Guangdong area, but we assume that these people had made their way from southern China to Hong Kong.) In October 1955, a front page article in a Vancouver Daily, The Province, charged that 50 to 85% of these Chinese immigrants used false papers to enter Canada and that Chinese-Canadian sponsors here paid great sums of money for such papers.” (P.128) Yee says that “Chinatown leaders admitted that abuses of the immigration system did occur, but only because the regulations were unfair”. According to Chinese leaders, the unfairness existed in the fact that Europeans with no family connections were being allowed in, but that Chinese with family connections were being restricted. In effect, this raised the question often raised today : Who should be making Canada's immigration rules : immigrant groups or the majority population? It also incorrectly assumes that Canada had never made restrictions against Europeans and Americans. To honest observers, cheating was cheating. No excuses should have been made—especially because the number of those cheating was so high.

(10) HOW DID ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AFFECT CHINESE-CANADIANS? Mr. Yee says that this wave of fraud focused negative attention on Chinese-Canadians at a time when they believed that proving themselves to be good Canadians was of paramount importance. In fact, Canada's first Chinese-Canadian MP (in 1957), lawyer Douglas Jung, claimed he had been defeated in 1962 because of all of the negative publicity around the issue of illegal Chinese immigration. (P.134) On May 24, 1960, the RCMP began trying to destroy the worldwide, multi-million dollar immigration industry operating out of Hong Kong. The RCMP estimated that 11,000 of the 23,000 who came from Hong Kong to Canada since 1946 had come on false papers. Rather than deport many people, in June of 1960, the gov't started an amnesty programme for the illegals. Over the next 13 years, 12,000 Chinese (higher than the original estimate of illegals) came forward. The gov't charged that immigration brokers (a mutated form of the old “labour contractors”) were terrorizing their clients to prevent them from helping the police. A number of major articles were published about Chinese immigration cheating. (Weekend and Maclean's) (Pp.128-130)

(11) WHAT CONNECTION DID IMMIGRATION ADVOCATES BELIEVE EXISTED BETWEEN IMMIGRATION AND THE ECONOMY? Starting in the mid-1970's, “a federal gov't hungry for business capital had been encouraging entrepreneurs to enter Canada. Applicants who could bring in $250,000 and start a business creating at least one new Canadian job could immigrate readily. In the first half of 1983, Hong Kong entrepreneurs brought into Canada $300 Million, half of which came to B.C.” (P.141) The Chinese Cultural Revolution caused fears in HK that people there would suffer greatly when the Chinese took Hong Kong back in 1997. These new arrivals were accused of driving up real estate prices, building cheaply and speculating. Mr. Yee defends them by saying that “local real estate experts refuted these statements immediately”. He quotes from a 1987 “Canadian Business” article which said that “Canada needs them as much now as we did a century ago—this time to revitalize our economy.” (P.144) Three years after “Canadian Business” made this statement, the Economic Council of Canada concluded its thorough report by saying that if Canada wanted a stimulus for its economy, it should not rely on immigration.

(12) HOW DID LOOSE IMMIGRATION PROMOTE MULTICULTURALISM? To show that discrimination still existed, Mr.Yee cites a letter to the editor of The Vancouver Sun (July 25, 1979) : “There are already 100,000 Chinese living in the Greater Vancouver area. Taking into account how rapidly these people multiply, it won't be long before they'll outnumber us two to one.” He finds the letter objectionable and comments, “The ongoing issue of immigration, with citizens asking what kinds of people Canada should take in, was a disturbing reminder that not all Canadians saw this as a multicultural country.” (P.146) In saying this, he implies that the host population should not be allowed to express any objections to being overwhelmed by inflows of immigrants. Later, he says that “heritage preservation” is one of two aspects of multiculturalism. (P.148) What he does not say is that the heritage to be preserved is that of the immigrants. To many Canadians, this means that the one to be tossed aside is that of the host population.

(13) HOW DID MULTICULTURALISM EVOLVE INTO SUPPRESSION OF FREE SPEECH? Near the end of 'Saltwater City”, Mr. Yee states that Chinese-Canadian “community representatives” supported federal multiculturalism policy and race relations initiatives at City Hall and the Vancouver School Board . They also used human rights legislation to fight back against perceived discrimination. In July of 1979, community representatives attacked the National Film Board for its documentary “Banboo, Lions and Dragons” and forced it to make 'corrections' . The film had tried to examine Vancouver's Chinese history by profiling two families. Community representatives also attacked CTV W5's “The Campus Giveaway” on 30 Sept, 1979. According to Paul Yee, “The segment alleged that Canadian taxpayers were subsidizing foreign students while Canadians were denied an education.” CTV apologized. To many Canadians today, this was an ominous foreshadowing of the witch-hunting and suppression of free speech that Canada's human rights commissions have engaged in since then.

(14) WHAT EFFECT DOES THE PROMOTION OF ETHNIC HISTORY HAVE ON CANADIAN HISTORY? Mr. Yee's “Saltwater City” does make a good contribution to an awareness of the Chinese section of Canada's history. However, Canadians should realize that the Chinese were a small part of our history. Canadians should also realize that the current over-emphasis on the history of the Chinese and that of other small groups has resulted in the “killing” or exclusion of larger parts of our history. In times of rising unemployment like the present, this over-emphasis has also resulted in Canada abandoning very important traditions such as the practice of reducing immigration in economic downturns. Canadians are now hearing some employer groups, Chinese immigrant advocacy groups and other parts of Canada's immigration industry advocate even higher immigration levels.

(15) WHAT EFFECTS ARE IMMIGRATION AND MULTICULTURALISM HAVING ON CANADA? At the beginning of Mr. Yee's book, he describes the poverty and environmental degradation of southeast China where Canada's first Chinese originated. Yet, to Mr. Yee, the large increase in the Chinese-Canadian population, although painful at times, has been a good thing. To him, multiculturalism policy has helped achieve that result. The idea of environmental limits in Canada, not to mention cultural and economic ones, is probably very foreign to him. However, when Mr. Yee described the Guangdong of 150 years ago, he was talking about a part of the world which at that point had effectively pulled the roof of the world down on its head. The land could not provide the food needs of the people. The economy could not support the people. Guangdong and many other parts of the world continue to live in the same way. Today, twenty years after he published “Saltwater City”, Mr. Yee should ponder carefully whether the “ethnic population catch-up” that his book indirectly supports is in the best interests of Canadians today. That includes Chinese-Canadians who do not agree with current high immigration.

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