Part 4: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?


The following is the fourth and last part of an answer to the question, “Why were the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws enacted?” Once again, the emphasis is on presenting the series of events which preceded and precipitated both the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws. An awareness of these events is essential to understanding why the laws were enacted. (Source: In The Sea Of Sterile Mountains by James Morton, M.D. and former UBC Assistant Professor of Medicine)

Part 4 shows a recurring theme in this issue: attempts by some employers and Chinese contractors to import cheap Oriental labour regardless of the availability of labour already in Canada. Labour’s repeated complaint was that Chinese labourers had an unfair advantage in the job market because the Chinese contractors made agreements with employers for Chinese labourers to work more cheaply than labourers in the rest of the population.

Modern readers of the events would conclude that the Chinese contractors possessed many of the qualities of today’s “snakeheads”. If the term “victim” is to be used, it is especially true to say that Chinese labourers were victims of Chinese contractors.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who had visited B.C. to settle Japanese and Chinese damage claims after the 1907 Vancouver Riot, and who was well-versed in the issue, summarized the complaints against the Chinese as being “primarily an economic concern”.

Of special interest is a 1910-11 Royal Commission Report which revealed widespread, organized smuggling of Chinese on large steamships, as well as on tramp vessels, possibly with the involvement of contractors. This shocked the Commission Chairman as well as the general population.

It probably also raised the level of government frustration in dealing with this issue. The extent of this fraudulent entry into Canada and that of the earlier illicit trade in re-entry certificates have not been calculated, but both raise serious questions about whether current talk of a Canadian government apology and restitution should ever have started.

In addition to the Royal Commission, familiar calls for “Canada and Canadians First” were heard from soldiers (newly returned from WWI) looking for employment. Their protests about an oversupply of labour were difficult to ignore because of the service that the soldiers had rendered to Canada. Finally, businesses, who felt threatened by competition, began a lobbying campaign.

In early 1922, all 13 of B.C.’s MP’s (Liberals, Conservatives and Progressives) met with Canada’s immigration minister and unanimously urged him to enact exclusion legislation. Initially, the Mackenzie King federal government rejected the call, but it eventually met with the Government of China which agreed with the request in early 1923. Chinese consuls, merchants and students were still to be allowed entry to Canada.


(1) In September 1909, the President of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway called for 35,000 Oriental labourers to construct another railway. The labourers, it was said, would return to the Orient when the project was finished. Having already seen Chinese “temporary railway workers” ignore their obligation to leave, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council telegrammed Prime Minister Laurier: “We will not stand peacefully for the proposed further importation of Oriental labour into this Province at the behest of merciless, profit-seeking railway contractors. ….there are lots of available jobless men in Canada.” Eventually, railway construction began with both provincial financial guarantees for the railway and provisions to exclude cheap Oriental labour. (P. 215)

(2) In late 1910, Prime Minister Laurier heard reports that “the Immigration Act was being frequently ignored and that both Chinese and opium were being smuggled into the country indiscriminately”. Prime Minister Laurier appointed another Royal Commission on immigration to investigate. (P. 219)

(3) Mr. Justice Denis Murphy of Vancouver began 2 months of hearings on December 15, 1910. He was told Chinese were using two methods to avoid paying the $500 head tax. (a) Since merchants were exempt from the head tax, a number of groups (labourers, clerks and sundry others) got themselves classified as merchants. They did this by joining a business firm in China and paying $100 to become a bona fide merchant under the Immigration Act.

The Government of Canada’s Vancouver interpreter, the corrupt Yip On, was involved in this arrangement, possibly with the complicity of contractors. (b) “The second method was for the Chinese to hide in the holes in the huge coal bunkers of the Oriental steamships.” When port guards, who had been appointed from a patronage list, were conveniently in the ship’s saloon, “a large army of Chinese” stowaways left the ship. (p. 220)

(4) In late February, 1911, Mr. Justice Murphy made several recommendations: (a) The interpreter Yip On should face criminal charges. In the meantime, however, Yip On had fled to China. (b) The scrutiny of ships to prevent illegal entrants and the methods of identifying Orientals had to change. Murphy described the guarding of the ships as “farcical” and “the method of identifying the Chinese by such methods as names, birthmarks and scars as useless”. (c) Large-scale illegal entry had to be stopped.

“There was no doubt that many Chinese entered the country (illegally) through Vancouver, but, said Justice Murphy, ‘the Port of Union Bay (on the east coast of Vancouver Island) is practically a free port for the entrance of illegal Chinese and the smuggling of opium’. “The great ships from the Orient loaded their coal bunkers (at Union Bay) and it was here that Chinese and opium were discharged with wreckless abandon. Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Boat Harbour, served largely by tramp ships, were almost as bad.” (P. 221)

(5) The total number of illegals brought into Canada in this way was unknown. However, the number of legals from 1904 to 1910 (with some revisions) was as follows: 1904-4; 1905-8; 1906-50; 1907-745; 1908-893; 1909-469; 1910- 1286. Justice Murphy’s shocking revelations about illegal entrants (as well as the increased numbers of legal Chinese) led to the defeat of all of Prime Minister Laurier’s B.C. Liberal M.P.’s in the federal election of September, 1911. Laurier’s government fell.(P. 221)

(6) In 1912, after 300 years in power, the Manchu Dynasty in China fell. The queue (a symbol of Chinese subjugation by the Manchus) and the traditional costume came to an end immediately in China and eventually in the West. (P. 222)

(7) An editorial in Vancouver’s News Advertiser pointed out that there were 25,000 Asiastics (Chinese, Japanese and East Indians) —one-tenth of the population—in B.C. in 1912. “It originally was expected that the $500 head tax would be prohibitive to the peasant Chinese, and indeed it was for a few years, but..(in 1911), 5000 paid the tax, in 1912, there were 7000, and in 1913, the figure was expected to go over the 10,000 mark. Five hundred dollars was no longer a deterrant. A labourer, or servant, the editor said, could save this much in a year.” (P. 224) (Note: The volume, “Historical Statistics of Canada”, shows that hourly wage rates in Vancouver for labourers had almost doubled between 1901 and 1913. Between 1901 and 1920, hourly rates rose by 2 1/2 times. A decline followed over the next two decades.)

(8) In 1914, Ottawa passed a new naturalization law extending the requirement for residence in the British Empire from three years to five (the last year being in Canada), adding an educational test, and making an adequate knowledge of English or French now necessary. (P. 225) (Note: This was probably a response to earlier pressure from B.C., particularly its Natal Act.)

(9) On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru, with 370 East Indians aboard, arrived in Vancouver Harbour. It was challenging the Canadian law which required that immigrants had to come directly from their country of origin.(P. 226) The Komagata Maru had left from Hong Kong, not from India. It stayed in Vancouver Harbour for 2 months. (Note: This law had been passed as a result of Prime Minister Laurier’s talks with a Japanese government official in 1907. Laurier had requested that Japan limit its immigration to Canada to 600 per year.)

(10) “Not one of the passengers was allowed ashore, the East Indians would not allow the Japanese crew to depart, and a police force was repulsed when it tried to climb aboard. HMCS Rainbow then fitted up her great guns in Esquimalt (beside Victoria on Vancouver Island), steamed bravely across the gulf, and trained her armament on the single stack of the Komagata Maru. ‘After a day of excitement unparalleled in Vancouver’s history,’ as the News Advertiser put it, the East Indian passengers decided to relent. The Komagata Maru left and 12 days later, World War I began. (P. 226)

(11) In 1914, over 7000 Chinese entered Canada, but a traditional exit near the end of the year for Chinese New Year in China was higher than normal, possibly because “war contracts had evaded British Columbia” and resulted in unemployment. Also, “the great Oriental ships which brought business, in the form of tea and silk and many other articles, were conscripted for wartime duty”. (P. 226)

(12) Vancouver MP H.H. Stevens “accelerated the exodus of Chinese by promoting an order-in-council which allowed the Chinese to return…(to China) for the duration of the war, after which they would be allowed to re-enter without paying the head tax”. The Trades and Labour Council estimated there were 6000 unemployed Orientals. (P. 227)

(13) “China had declared war on Germany in August, 1917. It “sent a reported 200,000 ‘coolies’ to work behind the lines in France. … many of these travelled across Canada in bond from Vancouver. A camp was set up for them in Petawawa (Ontario), where they rested before continuing to France.” (P. 229) Naturalized Japanese and Chinese were conscripted and sent to Europe. A memorial in Vancouver’s Stanley Park attests to this. General George Pearkes recalls that “at least one platoon of the 52nd Batallion was composed largely of Chinese Canadians who fought in the Ypres salient in 1917.” (P. 229)

(14) Some businesses pressured the federal government to abolish the Chinese head tax because of a labour shortage caused by conscription. But after seeing the attitudes of early-returning soldiers in 1918 to men who had escaped conscription, and forseeing possible similar behaviour towards Chinese occupying jobs the soldiers believed they should have, it wisely refused. (P. 230)

(15) Forty-five thousand of the Chinese who had worked behind the lines in France were to be returned (to China) through B.C. ports. “Shortly before the first Armistice Day, 1450 of these coolies arrived by train, heavily guarded by Canadian and Imperial troops. They were transferred to the Princess Charlotte and taken to William Head, the quarantine station on Vancouver Island, to await the next ship to the Orient. Two months later, another 3500 arrived…. In March 1919, they began rioting and 2000 broke out of their enclosure. Most of them were ’rounded up and herded back’ at bayonet point, but an indeterminate number slipped away to melt into Victoria’s Chinatown.” (P. 232)

(16) Returning soldiers expected to see some appreciation for their efforts. “The Great War Veterans’ Association went on record as favouring the complete cessation of Oriental immigration for 20 years.” The Retail Merchants Association pointed out that while Canadian boys were fighting in Flanders, Orientals (and southern Europeans) stepped in to take over much of the commerce in the province.

To counteract this antagonism, the Chinese in 1919 set their quota (of bonds to be purchased) at $50,000. This was soon subscribed, and a second goal of $100,000 was soon achieved. A few weeks later, in protest over Japan’s imperialistic policy in Asia, Chinese grocers refused to sell Japanese oranges, a luxury to which British Columbians had become accustomed during the Christmas season.” Japanese wholesalers were left with a mass of rotting oranges. (P. 233)

(17) In 1920, reacting to reports that Japanese were buying orchards in the Greater Vancouver area and in the Okanagan, the Provincial Board of Trade began to lobby government for more controls. (P. 233)

(18) “Unemployment and the presence of a militant group of returned men (soldiers) brought further pressure upon the various governments involved. Unemployed veterans responded to a tag-day in Vancouver in January, 1921, for the benefit of famine-stricken China. Standing beside Chinese and white girls who were selling tags on every corner of the city, the veterans displayed signs which said: ‘Canada first—China last.’ ‘We licked the Hun and this is what we got.’ A 25-cent meal ticket was attached to the sign.” Other signs read, ”Why not take care of our own homeless, starving and unemployed?’ ” , (P. 234)

(19) “The veterans were bitter. It seemed strange to them that money should be collected for a country that had played no part in the war, and they became even more incensed when they read in the newspapers that eggs were being imported from China. If Chinese were starving, why did they export eggs? They were told that Chinese had always given generously to local relief and patriotic funds.” (P. 234)

(20) “In the post-war period, then, the Chinese were faced with new problems: unfriendly business organizations, unemployment, organized trade unions, militant returned men (soldiers) and anti-Japanese sentiment (since antipathy to one Asian nation always affected the others.).” (P. 234)

(21) “Early in 1922, another great campaign against the Oriental was begun, culminating in the appearance of British Columbia’s 13 MP’s…before Charles Stewart, the Minister of Immigration. They demanded total exclusion of all Orientals from the province. Stewart was most impressed with the unanimous opinion of members from all parties; he expressed his personal sympathy and promised an early consideration of the problem.” (P. 237)

(22) In speaking in Parliament in 1922, Prime Minister Mackenzie King described Asiatic immigration as “not a local or provincial matter; it was a national or international one. Although it was partly racial and religious in its nature, it was primarily an economic concern. The head tax had been ineffective,…but he did not believe in exclusion”.However, more pressure followed from B.C. organizations and the B.C. Legislature.

Finally, on February 23, 1923, “Charles Stewart, the minister of immigration. stated that the government of Canada had been in communication with the Chinese consul-general in Ottawa, who had just returned from discussions in Peiking. It had been generally agreed that no more Chinese would enter Canada, the exceptions being consuls, merchants and students. Thenceforward, there would be strict regulation of Chinese already in the country, Vancouver and Victoria would be the only ports of entry, and a controller of Chinese immigration would be appointed. The Republic of China had agreed to the stipulations and there was no ill will. The greatest stumbling block, trade, would not be affected.” (P. 238)

(23) Protests followed in B.C., stating that this was not really an exclusion law because of previous fraud that Canada had experienced with granting exceptions to merchants and students. But the federal agreement stood. “The average annual number entering the country for the 11-year period ending in March 1922 was 2,294. From 1924 to 1947, only eight Chinese were admitted as immigrants.” (Pp. 239-242)