Part 3: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?

March 22, 2006: Part 3: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?


The following is a continued answer to the question: Why Were the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted? (Source: “In The Sea Of Sterile Mountains” by James Morton, MD and Former Assistant Professor of Medicine at UBC.)

The events which preceded the Head Tax and Exclusion Laws provide key insights into why the two laws were enacted. As the historical events referred to in Part 1 and 2 demonstrated, the conventional wisdom of 2006 that the Chinese were victims of persecution by the B.C. government or Canada’s federal government is incorrect.

Most of the Chinese who came to Canada from 1858 to 1900 arrived in British Columbia first. Most of those who stayed in Canada, stayed in British Columbia. The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws were predominantly British Columbia issues. Well over 10,000 Chinese came here as temporary railway labourers in B.C and were supposed to return to China. Chinese labour contractors brought many more thousands here in the 1880’s and 1890’s as surplus labourers (in some cases as strike breakers), but in general as competing/replacement workers). Chinese contractors and certain businesses used Chinese labourers to compete with host population workers for employment and to replace host workers where possible.

The inflow angered people of all political stripes in the host B.C. population. The main complaint was that the Chinese would work for less than the wages paid to members of the host population. The vast majority of B.C.’s population supported provincial legislators who passed a litany of laws (1) to limit the numbers of Chinese immigrants through the use of a head tax or (2) to end Chinese immigration completely. Early calls for an end to the unfairness to host population workers were ignored by Canada’s federal government, but eventually received Ottawa’s attention. Starting in 1885, the House of Commons proclaimed a series of escalating head taxes.

Furthermore, in the 1880’s, the Government of Canada had issued re-entry certificates to individual Chinese to allow them to return to China to visit families. However, as had happened in the U.S., an illicit trade in re-entry certificates began. It was charged that individual Chinese were either sending/selling their own re-entry certificates to family members/friends/purchasers or buying other re-entry certificates and selling them. It is not known how many Chinese entered Canada in this fraudulent way. Chinese-Canadian groups which have long advocated Head Tax repayment should take special note of this fraud which many of them are very much aware of, but have chosen to remain silent about.

As details in Part 3 will show, the fourth Chinese Head Tax ($500, taking effect in 1904) reduced Chinese immigration, but it ironically increased Japanese immigration. Looking for an alternative for cheap labour, contractors had turned to Japanese labourers when the $500 Chinese Head Tax was imposed in January, 1904. Over 8000 Japanese arrived in 1907 alone. The September 7, 1907 Vancouver Riot, which was an attack on both Chinatown and Japantown, was a response to this inflow. It severely embarrassed Prime Minister Laurier’s government internationally, caused it to listen to the complaints of British Columbians and pushed it to do something to solve the problem.


(1) In the federal election of 1896, Liberal Party Leader Wilfrid Laurier voices the often-repeated observation that Chinese immigration restriction is not an issue in Eastern Canada. But he states that “Views of the Liberals in the West will prevail with me”. Since the political West at this time consisted mostly of British Columbia, and since all B.C. MP’s wanted stronger measures against Chinese immigration, he was virtually promising that Chinese immigration would cease. In May of 1896, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals are elected. (P. 177)

(2) Two weeks after the 1896 election, the Anti-Mongolian League holds a mass meeting in Vancouver and passes three resolutions:

A. The Head Tax on Chinese should be raised to $500.

B. The Head Tax should also be placed on Japanese. (Note: Both Chinese and Japanese were employed at cheaper wages in businesses such as canneries. The host population resented this. Also, the province continued to experience a depression and accompanying unemployment. As John Robson had pointed out in 1872, the Chinese were viewed as virtual slaves of Chinese contractors.

C. A province-wide petition should be organized to memorialize (remind) the Dominion government about the evils of the Chinese. (P. 178) (Note: Although the word “evils” referred to some of the habits of the Chinese such as opium-smoking, it was probably another reference to the effects of surplus Chinese workers on the host workforce.)

(3) In 1896, Li Hung Chang, Viceroy of China and Ambassador Extraordinary of the Empire of China (Minister of Foreign Affairs) visits Canada and is lavishly welcomed by the Chinese in Vancouver. At the same time, B.C. MP Reverend George Maxwell proposes in Parliament that the Chinese head tax be raised to $500. (P. 178)

(4) The U.S. passes an Alien Labour Act which prevented Canadians from working there. Canada passes its own version, excluding Americans from working in Canada. In 1897, the B.C. Legislature passes its own Alien Labour Act excluding Chinese and Japanese. The Canadian law remained in effect against Americans, but the B.C. Act against Chinese and Japanese was disallowed. (P. 181)

(Note: British Columbians undoubtedly observed the attitude of Ottawa.) The federal government continued to ignore B.C.’s requests for legislation and “was condemned for this by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the Trades and Labour Congress meeting in Hamilton and even by the Toronto Globe”. (P. 181)

(5) The economy of B.C.began to improve in 1897 as a result of a number of events such as the growth of mining in the Kootenay area, the construction of another trans-Canada railway, and the Yukon Gold Rush which brought an influx of miners. The Empress steam ships continued to arrive, each bringing about 500 Chinese and Japanese every time they docked. (P. 181)

(6) The B.C. Legislature again passed a restriction on Chinese and Japanese immigration in 1898, and again it was disallowed. Ironically, Canada’s Minister of Trade, not Canada’s Minister of Immigration, again responded to the B.C. efforts. B.C. MLA Francis Carter-Cotton explained that the Trade Minister was responding because the Head Tax comprised 2.07% ($30,000) of all revenue in the country and was thus big business. (P. 182) (Note: If Carter-Cotton’s estimate is correct, total federal revenue from all sources would have been around $1.5 million in 1898.)

(7) In 1899, the B.C. Legislature again requested the federal government to raise the head tax to $500. In the previous three years, an average of 2100 Chinese per year had entered Canada through B.C. There were an estimated 14,000 Chinese in B.C. and they had “driven working men of British race and blood out of many fields of labour”. (P. 185) The B.C. Legislature pointed out that New Zealand and New South Wales (in Australia) had passed head taxes of $100 and $500 respectively and were allowing only one Chinese per 50 tons of ship’s weight. (P. 185)

(8) Canada’s federal government again disallowed the legislation and advised B.C. not to put Japanese and Chinese together in their legislation since Canada and Britain had too much trade with Japan. Japanese and Chinese sought to escape legislation directed at them by becoming naturalized. Between 1893 and 1899, “1052 Japanese and 689 Chinese had become naturalized”. (P. 187)

(9) The B.C. legislature became determined to continue to pass Oriental legislation until the federal and British authorities “came to their senses”. In response to B.C.’s Natal Act (a reference to Natal, South Africa, not to birth) which required Oriental immigrants to pass a test to find out if they could read and write English, and which would also prevent Orientals from being naturalized, Prime Minister Laurier introduced a new Immigration Act in 1900. It raised the head tax from $50 to $100 and disallowed B.C.’s Natal Act. To placate B.C., Laurier promised a Royal Commission on Oriental Immigration. (P. 190)

(10) Prime Minister Laurier’s Royal Commission (3 members: a lawyer Chairman, one representative from Labour and another from business) met in the spring of 1901 for 3 1/2 months and did personal interviews with a large number of B.C. residents, including the Chinese. “The main complaint was that the Oriental worked for lower wages and therefore deprived whites of a livelihood…. It was the fishermen who complained most bitterly about the Japanese who held 1759 licences compared with 1142 for whites. Even the Native Indians were bitter toward the Japanese; there would be bloodshed if any more appeared, they said.” (P. 194)

(11) Former Victoria Mayor and MP Noah Shakespeare, who was now Postmaster of Victoria, reported to the Royal Commission on the amount of money which Orientals sent out of the province in the previous year, 1900. He could not report how much the Chinese sent back to China, but he said they had sent 5,010 registered letters in the previous year. The Japanese used money orders and had sent $134,000 to Japan in the same period. (P. 194) (Note: Since there were considerably more Chinese in B.C. at the time, it is assumed that total remittances to China would have been much higher.)

(12) Two of the three commission members (the Chairman and the Labour representative) proposed an increase in the head tax to $500. Even the business representative recommended an increase. He proposed a $300 head tax for the first two years and a $500 head tax thereafter. The federal parliament met later, but offered only to increase B.C.’s share of the head tax. In 1902, total revenue from the head tax totalled over $1.6 million. (Pp. 194-195) (Note: The revenue collected from the Head Tax in 1902 amounted to almost the entire yearly revenue of the government of Canada in 1898.)

(13) On March 17, 1903, Laurier introduced a bill to raise the head tax from $100 to $500 effective January 1, 1904. Over 2000 Chinese arrived before the new tax took effect. (P.196)

(14) In 1902, the federal government had disallowed 13 B.C. Oriental bills. In response, the B.C. legislature re-enacted all 13 of the bills again in 1903. B.C. However, when frustrated British Columbians asked Premier James Dunsmuir, whose coal mines benefitted from cheap Chinese labour, to take B.C.’s concerns to the foot of the British throne at coronation ceremonies for the new King, Dunsmuir refused. In fact, he reacted contemptuously to labour’s requests for higher wages, prohibition of Orientals, union labels on manufactured goods, the 8-hour day, the 6-day week and the abolition of the Senate. He shut down two of his mines. (Pp. 192-193)

(15) The $500 Head Tax definitely reduced Chinese immigration between early 1904 and late 1906, although the numbers began to recover in 1907. Contractors for Canada’s second cross-country railway complained that they could not build the railway without Japanese labourers.

(Note: The word “Japanese” was now being used instead of the word “Chinese” because the head tax discouraged Chinese contractors from bringing in the same large numbers of Chinese. But to the host population, this translated into the same demand for cheap labour that businesses such as the railways had been making for years. Behind the scenes, arrangements were being made for large-scale immigration of Japanese whose transportation costs would be borne by contractors who hoped to make a profit out of them.) (Pp. 202 and 210)

(16) There were frequent reports of Chinese being smuggled into the province on Oriental liners. In May, 1907, the Intermediate Class on the Empress of Japan was eliminated to make room for the large numbers of Orientals travelling to Canada by steerage class. (P. 202)

(17) Alarm about Oriental immigration became more and more focussed on the Japanese. Despite the fact that Canada was experiencing a mild recession in 1907, one rumour said that five Tokyo immigration companies had filled an order for 5000 Japanese labourers to work for a Canadian railway company in B.C. Another said that the ship “Kumeric” had been chartered for $20,000 to bring 1177 Japanese labourers from Honolulu at a fare of $36 each. (P. 202)

(18) Canadian manufacturers were experiencing a healthy trade with Japan and were prepared to sacrifice B.C.’s labour interests in order to preserve that trade. “Precisely the same thing had happened in the U.S. and anti-Japanese sentiment was running at a very high pitch” there. (P. 203)

(19) On June 24, 1907, the Vancouver News Advertiser announced that 12,000 more Japanese would arrive. The same day, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council met to form an Asiatic Exclusion League. On June 26, 1907, the Kumeric arrived with its 1177 Japanese labourers.(P. 203)

(20) The summer of 1907 passed quietly, but on September 7, 1907, a parade was organized to protest federal immigration policies. It began with about 700 marchers but grew to a crowd of 30,000 which gradually made its way to City Hall. At that time, City Hall was located next to Chinatown and Japantown (Little Yokohama). Speeches were made and the parade then broke up as planned. (Pp. 205-208)

(21) Shortly after, remnants of the parade assembled and rampaged through Chinatown breaking all the windows there and then proceeded to Little Yokohama to do the same. The Chinese were passive, but the Japanese fought back. Almost immediately after hearing about the attack, Prime Minister Laurier apologized to Japan, but said nothing to China. Canada’s valuable trade treaty with Japan, and no trade treaty with China, was the apparent reason. (P. 208)

(22) Laurier met with Japan’s special commissioner who had been investigating Japanese persecution in the U.S. The commissioner agreed that the spirit of a Canada-Japan treaty which restricted Japanese immigration to Canada had been violated. (Note: Japan had previously agreed to restrict immigration to Canada from Japan, but in order to bypass this law, Japanese had gone to Hawaii and then boarded ships to Canada. Technically, they could argue, they were not coming from Japan, but from Hawaii.) Laurier asked that Japan limit its immigration to Canada to 600 per year. (P. 208)

(23) A few days later, on Sept. 11, 1907, the largest contingent of Asiatics ever to come to B.C. arrived on the Monteagle: 901 East Indians, 60 Chinese and 65 Japanese. (A total of 1165) Vancouver’s East Indian population more than doubled. (P. 208)

(24) Future Prime Minister Mackenzie King arrived in B.C. in late October, 1907 to settle Japanese damage-compensation claims of $13,500. King uncovered some disturbing facts. “The Canadian Nippon Supply Company of Vancouver, backed by the CPR, had indicated to the Japanese government that labour was needed in B.C.” In the first ten months of 1907, 8125 Japanese had entered B.C.

(Note:Most of these Japanese had entered before Prime Minister Laurier had requested that Japan limit its immigration to Canada to 600 per year.) The CPR had brought 900 under contract while James Dunsmuir had brought an unspecified number for his coal mines. Negotiations had also been going on with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. “All the suspicions of a conspiracy to import Orientals, and the aggravating rumours of a behind-the-scenes conspiracy by big business, were amply confirmed.” (P. 210)

(25) “Mackenzie King summarized the matter of the riots with a considerable amount of understanding. ‘The influx of 8,125 Japanese in ten months naturally caused great alarm and if anything more were needed to occasion unrest, it was found in the simultaneous arrival from the Orient of Hindus by the hundreds and Chinese in larger numbers than in preceding years.’ ” (P. 210)

(26) “The riot (of 1907) had revealed the seriousness of the Oriental influx as well as the conspiracy of James Dunsmuir (coal mine owner), the C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) and the G.T.P. (Grand Trunk Pacific Railway)”. James Dunsmuir was now the Lieutenant-Governor of B.C. To show labour’s displeasure with the
conspiracy of Dunsmuir, a Socialist MLA moved that James Dunsmuir be impeached and removed from office. The MLA was ruled out of order. (Pp. 210-211)

(27) “As matters stood…(in 1908), the Chinese were somewhat restricted by the high head tax (though in May, 1908, 120 paid $60,000) and immigration from Japan would be voluntarily restricted by that government. The loophole through Hawaii was sealed through a new Dominion law stating that all immigrants had to enter (Canada) directly from their country of origin. This also stopped the East Indians, since there was no shipping directly from their country. They had previously all entered by way of Japan. One had to admit grudgingly that the September riot had met with some success.” (P. 211)

(Note: The plugging of the Hawaii loophole in 1908 was very similar to the enacting of the “Safe Third Country Agreement” recently between Canada and the U.S. In effect, both agreements said that if an immigrant/refugee passed through a “third country”—-his own was the first and Canada was the second—-his bid for immigration/refugee status would not be considered.)

(28) Future Prime Minister Mackenzie King returned to British Columbia on May 6,1908 to settle Chinese compensation claims for the riot damage of 1907. King noted to Chinese government representatives that China had paid British subjects $50,000 for damages suffered during riots against them in Shanghai in 1905 and that Canada was prepared to follow a similar course of action.

King was amazed to hear that of the $26,217.12 claimed by Vancouver’s Chinese, two claims of $600 each had been made by Chinese opium manufacturers in Vancouver for the loss of six days of business. Despite the fact that opium was regularly advertised on the front pages of The Colonist, and despite the fact that B.C. Oriental legislation and M.P. complaints had repeatedly referred to opium, the 34 year-old Mackenzie King had no idea that opium was used in B.C. (Pp. 211-212)

“It is remarkable, too, with what dispatch legislation can be hurried through the House of Commons when the suggestion comes from the right source. Mackenzie King’s report and recommendation on opium was dated June 26. On July 13 (1908), the House passed a law prohibiting the importation, manufacture and sale of opium for other than medicinal purposes.” (P. 213)

(Summary Notes for Part 3: It seems that a moral issue such as the use of the drug opium carried much more weight than the moral issue of importing Chinese and Japanese surplus or replacement workers. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of 2006, the large number of labourers from China and Japan (in effect, surplus or competing workers) and the lower wages they worked for were the major reasons for the overwhelming support for restrictions on Chinese and Japanese immigration in British Columbia.

The business interests which profitted from Chinese and Japanese cheap surplus workers were a minority of the population. The complete inattention of Chinese and Japanese immigrant importers to economic factors such as the depression of the mid-1890’s, the recession of 1907, and Canada’s unemployment levels undoubtedly angered the host population.

(The constant badgering from almost all members of the B.C. legislature, from B.C. MP’s, from labour organizations—-in B.C. mostly but also supporters in other parts of Canada—-and from the B.C. population had precipitated a series of Chinese Head Taxes: the nominal $5 in 1885; $50 in 1886; $100 in 1900; and $500 in 1903.

(The Vancouver riot of 1907 was a reaction to B.C. businesses which were then using Japanese cheap surplus labourers instead of their Chinese labourer counterparts.

(Canada’s federal government opposed attempts to impose a head tax on the Japanese on the grounds that such a tax would jeopardize lucrative Canadian/British trade arrangements with Japan. The interests of Eastern Canadian exporters prevailed over those of British Columbia labour.)