Down Repressed Memory Lane: What Does A 1901-02 Royal Commission On Immigration Say About The Chinese Head Tax Issue? (Part 1)


A Summary and Highlights of a 1901-02 Royal Commission’s Findings on Chinese and Japanese Immigration (Part 1):

(1) In 1891, over 70 petitions were presented to the Dominion Parliament (representing labour organizations in B.C. as well as those from Vancouver to Halifax) to prohibit Chinese labourer immigration to B.C. (P.1) (Note: The emphasis is on the word “labourer”. Many people continue to ignore this word and fail to see the self-preservationist/economic reason for the Head Tax. Also, Chinese merchants and students did not have to pay the Head Tax, were exempt from the exclusion law and could continue to enter Canada.)

(2) In 1892, even more petitions were presented calling for an end to Chinese labourer immigration or an increase in the Head Tax from $50 to $500. (Pp.1-2)

(3) In 1897, similar petitions were sent from many areas of B.C. calling for Canada to imitate the actions of the U.S. government which had excluded Chinese immigration and the Australian colonies which had used a head tax of $500 to discourage such immigration. (P.2)

(4) In May 1900, two petitions were presented. They cited “grave injury…to the working class by the large influx of labourers from China and Japan, as the standard of living of the masses of the people in those countries differs so widely from the standard prevailing in the province” and “that it is in the interest of the Empire that… (B.C.) should be occupied by a large and thoroughly British population rather than by one in which the number of aliens would form a larger proportion”. (P.2)

(5) From 1891 on, the B.C. Cabinet and B.C. Legislative Assembly repeatedly called for increases in the Head Tax, decreases in the number of labourers each ship could carry, or exclusion.

(6) In 1899, the B.C. Legislature pointed out that the influx of Chinese labourers, “together with the present Chinese population of the province, has already driven workingmen of British race and blood out of many of the fields of labour, and threatens before long, if not stopped, to leave very little occupation remaining for the white labourer….”. (P.3)

(7) On October 11, 1900, the Commission Chairman, Mr. Clute, and Mr. Munn, one of three Commission members, visited the U.S. (which had already excluded Chinese labourers) in order to gather copies of all evidence presented there on the subject of Chinese and Japanese immigration. (P.3)

(8) The 3-person Commission (R.C. Clute of Toronto, R. Smith of Vancouver—later resigned and was replaced by C. Foley—and D.J. Munn of New Westminster) conducted its first hearings in Victoria between March 13 and April 9, 1901. Counsel for the province, the Chinese and the Japanese attended. (P. 4) “At Victoria, 114 witnesses were examined.” (P. 6)

(9) The Commission presented 34 topics for investigation. Chinese and Japanese immigration were to be handled separately.(Pp. 4-5)

(10) The Commission also listened to the following number of witnesses in different locations: Nanaimo (32); Union Bay (14); Vancouver (77); New Westminster (37); Fraser River canneries (2); Kamloops (19); Vernon (4); Revelstoke (10); Rossland (11); Nelson (7); Sandon (4); and Kaslo (5). The last day of taking evidence in B.C. was May 31, 1901. On June 1, the Commission went to Washington State. They heard witnesses in Seattle (7); Fairhaven and Whatcom, (visited canneries and mills; got evidence of managers). They returned to Vancouver to hear evidence from counsel for the Chinese, Japanese and province. Lastly, the Commission went back to the U.S. to visit Portland and San Francisco. (P.6)

(11) The first Chinese had come to B.C. from the U.S. (a few hundred) and Hong Kong (about 1577) in the early 1860’s for the B.C. Gold Rush. The second group of Chinese (around 15,000) had come in the early 1880’s as temporary labourers on a B.C. section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1901, census figures state there were 16, 792 Chinese in Canada: 14, 376 in B.C.; 712 in Ontario; 1044 in Quebec; 206 in Manitoba; 59 in N.B.; 104 in Nova Scotia; 4 in P.E.I; and 287 in The Territories (Alberta and Saskatchewan). (Pp. 7-8)

(12) Nearly all of the Chinese in Canada had come from the Chinese province of Kwang-tung near Canton. There, they were farm labourers. (P. 8) They carried their living habits to Canada. It is critical to know what these habits were in order to understand what white labourers were competing against in Canada.

(13) Chester Holcombe (Interpreter, Secretary of Legation and Acting Minister of the U.S. in Pekin) provides the following information in his book, The Real Chinaman”: “Poverty (in the U.S.) means a narrow and limited supply of luxury; poverty in China “means actual hunger and nakedness, if not starvation within sight”. The average skilled (Chinese) labourer receives 20 cents a day (in China); the average (Chinese) unskilled labourer receives 7 cents a day in China. The food of the unskilled labourers was meagre and simple. (P. 9)

(14) Rev. A.H. Smith, who had spent 21 years as a missionary in China, and who was author of “Chinese Characteristics” stated: Food for an adult Chinese costs not more than 2 cents a day. (P. 9) “The Chinese constantly carry their economy to the point of depriving themselves of food of which they are really in need.” (P.10)

(15) These farm labourers came from farms of 4 to 10 acres. Three generations lived in a number of small houses on each farm: grandparents; sons and their wives; and children. No heating and no cooking facilities were in the houses. Beds were boards. Furniture was simple. (P.10)

(16) Acording to Alfred Dyer, English journalist, full legislation had been passed in China regarding these emigrant-labourers. Areas that had a surplus of Chinese labourers were visited by recruiters who assembled the potential emigrants in places called barracoon houses. The emigrant-labourers went to many areas of the world. The recruiters paid recruiting expenses, head tax, if any, and an advance to the family left behind. “It is impossible for the Chinese (labourer) to pay his own passage. He could not do it.” (P.11) The average these labourers could make in China would be about $2 per month. “A man and his wife and two children could live on …$2 a month.” (P.12)

(17) In China, at expenses of 2.5 cents per day, a Chinese labourer’s cost of living would be $9.12 for a year. At 5 cents a day income for 300 working days, the Chinese labourer’s yearly income would be $15. (At 7 cents a day for 300 working days, the labourers’ income would be $21.) That meant the Chinese labourer earned $5.88 (higher at 7 cents a day) more than he spent in a year. Mr. Dyer asked: “Is it advisable that the labourer of (Canada) should be brought into competition with such conditions?” (P. 12)

(18) Because the Chinese population in B.C. is almost all male, “the number of Chinese in British Columbia does not convey an accurate idea of the extent to which the white population is being replaced by Chinese.” (P. 14) Chinese labourers were a significant part of the B.C. labour force.

(19) In Canada, the Chinese labourers lived in Chinatown lodging houses. One of the best lodging houses in Vancouver, the Armstrong, had 27 rooms upstairs, each 20x13x10. Six men stayed in a room and each paid 50 cents per month in rent. In fact, the Commission found almost all the rooms with more than 6 in each room. The men slept in bunks and cooked on a stove in each room. Their food cost them a few cents a day. They bought their food at Chinese stores. (This self-contained economy was a source of complaint.)

Sanitary conditions were “vile” (especially with regard to solid human waste) and “it was very difficult to get Chinese to adopt sanitary methods, even when every convenience was provided”. (P. 14) The dwelling conditions demonstrate “the close economy” of these people…which enables them to live at but a fraction of the expense necessary for the maintenance of our people of the same class”. (P.15)

(20) The more common lodging houses consisted of shanties with one 10×10 single room with many bunk beds. “Doctors unanimously concur(red)” in the opinion that the living conditions are “a menace to health”. (P.16) Dr. O.M. Jones reported 5 cases of leprosy. All 5 went to Darcy Island. Dr. A.T. Watt, Supt. of Quarantine for B.C., reported that “19 of 32 deaths of Chinamen were from tuberculosis”.

The 19 Chinese deaths from tuberculosis represented about half of all deaths caused by this disease even though the Chinese were a much smaller proportion of the population. (P.17) Dr. Walkem of Nanaimo stated that “One of Victoria’s smallpox epidemics was ‘traced’ to Chinatown”. C.P. Wolley from the B.C. Sanitary Commission reported that “an epidemic of typhoid fever at Rossland…was distinctly traceable to the Chinese”. (P.19) Mayor J.D. Phelan of San Francisco said that sanitary conditions in that city’s Chinatown were poor and that the city had had to go to considerable expense to clean up its Chinatown. (P.19)

(21) Although conditions in Chinatowns were favourable to epidemics, only two had occurred in Canada. “The unusual prevalence of tuberculosis among the Chinese, coupled with the fact that the greater number of domestic servants sleep in ‘Chinatown’ and return to work (to white households the next morning), presents probably the greatest danger from the sanitary point of view”. (P.20)

(22) Although the Chinese compose a disproportionate (20%) part of the penitentiary population, they were a law-abiding group. Although the evidence provided in court by Chinese merchants was reliable, that from labourers was not. (P.21) When a Chinese labourer was charged with an offence, it was difficult to get a conviction. If more respect for oaths existed, more Chinese convictions would have been obtained.

(23) More than 12 officials of different churches gave evidence on the moral and religious aspect of the case. (The undermining of white labourers’ wages, Chinese opium-smoking, gambling, and prostitution were concerns.) Many churches had small numbers of Chinese labourers as members. The biggest obstacle to large-scale conversion was that most Chinese tended to ostracize converts. Lack of a minimum wage law made Chinese labour attractive to employers. This discouraged people here, reduced locals’ standard of living, and caused people to leave. (P.26) Low wages interfered with (and lowered) the dignity of labour. (P.27) “The presence of a transient population is inimical to the best interests of the country.” (P.27) Skilled labour such as brick-laying received $3 to $5 a day. Unskilled was paid around $2 a day. The Chinese labourers in B.C. are “a servile class”. “The nearest approach to slavery in our country is …the coolie class of Chinese we have here.” (P.28) The ordinary agricultural class in Britain is similar to the Chinese here. (P.29)

(24) In answer to the Commission question, “Would you deny the right of one class of men to any portion of this earth, Rev. Edwin Scott (Methodist Minister in Vancouver) replied: “We are not universal nations yet. Universal nationality and universal brotherhood are two different things. There are distinct national lines and it may be that those those lines will exist until judgement.”

(25) In answer to the Commission question, “What right have nations to take exceptions to the rights of men?”, Mr. Scott answered: “I suppose that no objection would be taken by any nation to the inhabitants of another country coming there in small numbers; then it would be perfectly right to care for them as Christians.; but when it comes to an immigration by thousands, affecting the industrial work of the nation, then I think the national governments have a right to protect their people, and to send such a large number of aliens back to their own land.” (P.30)

“It is a different thing when small numbers of a foreign nation come here from that of a flood of aliens overrunning a small part of our great Dominion. If we could flood the labour market in China with thousands from America, there would be the same question on hand in China that you have here now, and it would not affect the religious question at all.” (P.31) “The labour market here is congested.” (P.31)

(26) Rev. John Perry Bowell (Methodist Minister in New Westminster) had come to B.C. 17 years before from Newfoundland. Several members of his congregation had tried to get jobs in mills, but the mills employed only Chinese and Japanese. He knew of a large number of Newfoundland fishermen who had come to B.C. and were doing well until a large influx of Japanese arrived. The Newfoundland people had been displaced and had to go to other parts of the province for jobs. Other Newfoundland fishermen and skilled labourers came but they were discouraged by labour conditions. Boys on holidays during the fishing season would willingly work in the canneries, but “they are debarred from doing so from the fact that that the Chinese here have the preference…. I have known this to affect my own boys as well as others”. (P.32) The best situation for settlers was one where farming and fishing could be combined, but this had become almost impossible.

(27) Rev. Tom Chue Thom (Chinese missionary): “I believe the more converted Chinese we have, the better citizens you will have. I know the unconverted men, and the moneymaker(s) out of Chinatown, they don’t want to see Chinamen get converted, because they are ashamed of themselves, or they can’t cheat them as easily as the unconverted ones. I believe there are Chinese enough to fill the demand of labour in the country at present. I favour restriction and regulation but not taxation.I think it is a great sin to any government to put a head tax on any nationality coming into the country. (Pp.34-35)

“I wish the government would make some little change in method of collecting revenues from our Chinese. It will do the Chinamen good and benefit the country. That is, put a heavy tax on the Chinese food, instead of head tax. History shows that Chinamen are bound to live on Chinese food and use Chinese goods. The government will not lose any revenue from head tax, but in the long run will derive more tax from the Chinese. If our Chinamen were willing to abandon their habits and customs, they would be good citizens to the country, but I do not think the Chinese will ever assimilate with the Canadians….” (P. 35)

(28) Rev. Alexander Brown Winchester (Knox Presbyterian Church): “Neither missionaries nor the Church have moved a finger to bring Chinese into British Columbia.” “From inquiries made of Chinese, I fancied not many came with the intention of remaining. Their idea was to make a competency and return to China. I have met Chinese who had experienced a desire to become citizens, but who claimed they could not do so and maintain their self-respect. In explanation, they said they could not bring themselves to belong to a nation that treated another nation so unfairly, instancing the unwarrantable attacks made upon Chinese in the press.” (P.36)

“If it could be established that white workingmen were prevented from raising their families decently because of Chinese competition, there should be no further debate of the question.” “In the matter of restriction, I would prevent persons of any nationality coming into Canada under certain conditions.” “I do not approve of the suggestion that Chinese should be admitted to the country to enable employers to cope with the alleged tyranny of labour.” (P.37)

(29) With her staff, Miss Morgan, a teacher and evangelist in the Chinese Girls’ Home in Victoria, rescued (by 1900) 40 Chinese (ranging in age from 5 to 45) and 8 Japanese females who had been brought to Canada as “slaves and held for purposes of prostitution”. (P.38) Miss Morgan and her workers effectively stopped this practice. Evidence was presented to the Commission of the sale of one woman (Woon Ho) who was sold for $302 and then brought to Canada. Her total bill to repay to her owner at 7% interest was $373.50. (P.39)
Miss Morgan estimated there were about 24 Chinese prostitutes in Victoria.

Her general comments on Chinese immigration: “I don’t think immigration unrestricted is advisable. It is not so to the Chinese and I know it is bad for the country.” Many or all who attend the Church night schools (for instruction in English) do so from self-interest (not for interest in Christianity). (P.38) Many of the Churches offerred free night classes.

(30) The Commision’s conclusions about the religious and moral question: “While there is no conclusive evidence of their (the Chinese labourers) having been brought here under any form of servile contract, it has been shown to our satisfaction that their resident merchant class exercise a strong influence over the immigrants of the labouring class, and largely control the numbers coming into the country.” (P.40)

(31) The Commission’s summary of testimony regarding payment of taxes: The Commission heard reports from many areas of the province. “It is certain, having regard to all the facts, that the Chinese bear no fair proportion of the burden of (general) taxation.” (p. 44) For example, a yearly poll tax of $2 to $3 existed for all labourers in the province. In Victoria, in the year 1901, there were about 4000 Chinese. Some were merchants and their families, but most were labourers. Only about 1000 paid the tax. The other 3000 evaded payment. Tax collectors reported that some were too poor to pay. Tax evasion was a common practice by Chinese labourers all over the province. (Pp.41-44) (Note: The earliest calls, one by future Premier John Robson, for a Head Tax were actually calls to remedy Chinese poll tax evasion and Chinese refusal to bear part of the province’s yearly expenses.)

(32) The Commission’s summary of testimony regarding the effect of Chinese immigration on land clearing and agriculture: Bringing in Chinese immigrant-labourers to clear heavily-timbered land to convert it to farmland cannot be done profitably. Regarding the “all-important” issue of the effect of Chinese labour on white labour, “The result of the evidence….shows a strong consensus of opinion opposed to further immigration of either Chinese or Japanese.” (P.63)

The following reasons were given:

A. “Their mode of life and small cost of living make it easy for them to undersell in the markets and leave a good profit.”(P.63)

B. “They have no homes to build or keep up, no wife or children to support, and no contribution to churches to make. The cost of their clothes, board and lodging is trifling. They live in small shanties and crowd even worse in the country than in the cities, six to ten and fifteen in a room.” (Pp.63-64)

C. “The presence of the Chinese to the extent of their numbers retards settlement and promotes isolation, and so renders social life difficult or impossible, and the locality an undesirable place to live in.” (P.64)

D. Settlers have seen that market gardening has been taken over by Chinese who sell their produce very cheaply. This important source of income does not exist for settlers. (P.64)

E. “If he has wood upon his land, he cannot cut it into cordwood and sell it at a profit. The Chinese and Japanese undersell him.” (P.64)

F. When the settler applies for off-farm work at a sawmill, he finds “the Chinese and Japanese are both there” (at cheap wages). (P.64)

G. If the settlers’ children look for part-time work at canneries, they find that little is available because the cannery employs mostly cheap-labour Chinese. (P.64)

H. If the settler “turns to fishing in the summer season, there he finds the Japanese in such numbers that, except in great runs, the individual catch is so small that the profits have been cut down to a mere nothing.”

I. “Under these circumstances, the settler often abandons his holdings, upon which he has spent time and money, and is forced to quit and the mortgagee takes possession; and too often he crosses the line (the border into the U.S.) where there is a Law of Exclusion against the Chinese, where they are not employed in the mills, nor shingle business, nor in the woods, and where, rightly or wrongly, he thinks he has a better chance.” (P.64)

J. “This condition of things is becoming worse and worse from year to year; cause and effect act and react on each other, increasing the difficulty.” (P.64)

“The verdict of the great body of agriculturalists is in favour of a high restriction or total exclusion.” (P.64)