Down Repressed Memory Lane: What Specifics Did A 1901 Royal Commission Report on Chinese Immigration Give About the Chinese Head Tax Issue?" (Part 2)


The general picture that emerges from a study of the Chinese Head Tax issue is the following:

(1) The practice of paying Chinese labourers about half or less of the wage given to other labourers in B.C. originated in the early 1880's with the building of a section of the CPR in B.C. Contractors (most likely Chinese) arranged to bring farm labourers from Kwang Tung province in Southern China to work on the Onderdonk section of the CPR. The contractors paid the transportation cost (and later the Head Tax) for the labourers who were obliged to repay this cost over a period of time. The Chinese labourers were accustomed to receiving very low wages in China. Around 1900, the average wage for unskilled labour was estimated to be 7.5 cents per day for work in China. According to Pierre Berton's “The Last Spike”, In Canada, they were paid around $1.00 per day for railway work arranged for them by the contractor starting in 1881. Other unskilled workers on this section of the CPR were paid about $1.50 to $1.75 per day. Later, Chinese labourers were paid $1.25 per day (probably around 18 times their daily wage in China).The contractors were very much aware of the difference in pay, but knew that the Chinese would be willing to accept this status.

(2) This practice continued for over 40 years, undoubtedly because of its profitability to the contractors who charged interest and commission on their loans. After paying back the loans, some Chinese labourers returned to China while others stayed. Eventually, it is possible that they might have acquired wage equality with other workers. However, their efforts would have been continually undermined by the arrival every year of several thousand more Chinese labourers who had been imported and contracted to work for employers at low rates of pay.

The pay rates established by the Chinese contractors started a 40-year litany of complaints against Chinese immigration by other workers who could not obtain jobs because employers could hire the Chinese at half the wage, or who were displaced from their jobs by the Chinese because employers could hire Chinese for less. Displaced workers were forced to move to other areas where they could find employment. Displaced workers, in particular, communicated this unfair labour environment to potential immigrants in Britain and discouraged people from coming to B.C. Some who had lived in B.C. for a long time moved to the U.S. where a Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed and where they would not have to compete with cheap Chinese labour. It should be clear that complaints by B.C. labour against Chinese labourers were primarily economic and legitimate.

(3) Chinese labourers brought with them from China their frugal living habits. Thinking of themselves as temporary workers in Canada, many lived with other lone males in very crowded conditions and were able to live much more cheaply than other B.C. workers who were married with families. Chinese labourers were regarded as an impediment to the development of settlement in many areas because their interests, in contrast to those of real “settlers”, were primarily economic and impermanent. Evidence shows that although Chinese merchants paid taxes, most Chinese labourers evaded taxes. These labourers were viewed as not contributing to the maintenance of communities. They also tended to buy from Chinese merchants.

Conclusion: A proposed apology and compensation to Head Tax Payers and their descendants demonstrates a lack of awareness of the background for the Chinese Head Tax. To say the least, it would be extremely unwise to do this. The government might want to consider the following questions:

(A) Are we directing our action in the correct direction? Should we continue to demonize B.C. citizens of that era, or should we be taking a closer look at the work of Chinese contractors?

(B) Are we prepared to deal with a substantial counter-claim from the descendants of B.C. workers whose own lives as well as those of their families were severely disrupted by the actions of Chinese contractors who imported cheap labour from China?

(C) Most important of all, what implications do an apology and compensation have for current and future Canadian immigration policies? For example, will it become even more difficult to make necessary reductions to current completely unjustified immigration levels?

The following are a number of specifics which illustrate conditions of the early 1900's: The Commissioners requested submissions from a number of industries in order to determine the extent of Chinese and Japanese labour in those industries. The Commissioners were particularly interested in whether or not cheap labour was necessary to the economic well-being of the province and of those industries.

(1) By 1901, market gardening was controlled by the Chinese. It was a very successful business enterprise for a number of Chinese such as Lee Dye who testified to the Royal Commission that he employed 24 to 48 Chinese labourers in Victoria. Andrew Strachan (a farmer) testified that in 1871 when he arrived in B.C., there were few Chinese market gardens, but by 1891, cheap Chinese labour had displaced other market garden operations and the Chinese dominated the market gardening business. (Pp.64-65)

(2) The objections to the Chinese in market gardening were that the Chinese threatened community health by using their own urine and excrement as fertilizers; that they undersold their vegetables; that they paid low wages to employees; and that Chinese gardeners had private commission arrangements with Chinese cooks employed in houses to discriminate against non-Chinese vegetable sellers.

J.T. Smith (farmer) testified: “They (the Chinese) use their own water (urine). They save it all winter in jars. They take it out and pour it on vegetables…. I have seen it done and dozens of other farmers have seen the same.” (P.68) The Chinese cooks who were employed in private households bought only from Chinese vegetable sellers. Harry Atkinson, “landscape and market gardener” (in Britain) , testified to this commission: “I know from Chinamen who have told me.” (P.67) “If a white man applies to a Chinese cook to sell vegetables, the answer is:'None are wanted'; if a Chinaman applies, he sells.” (P.68)

(3) On the subject of Chinese labourers being brought to Canada under contract by Chinese businessmen, G.T. Thomas (farmer) in Vancouver testified: “I know for a fact that those labourers working for Chinese market gardeners stayed for three years, or until they pay the expenses of the man who brought them out (from China)…. Then the markert gardeners send for a fresh supply again, and those who have served their time are turned loose on the country.' (P. 69)

(4) The Commisioners stated: “Medical witnesses who were called undoubtedly regard this practice (of using human urine and excrement) as a constant menace to health.” (P.69) “We (the Commissioners) believe that agriculture and market gardening would have been much further advanced if there were no Chinese to keep out those who would otherwise go into the business.” (P.70)

(5) In 1900, B.C. coal mines produced 1.59 million tons of coal. Most (0.9 million tons) was exported. Two major businesses were involved in coal-mining: the New Vancouver Coal Mines and the Dunsmuir Mines. Most of B.C.'s mines were located on Vancouver Island which, in 1900,according to B.C. government statistics, employed 3701 men. Of these, 568 were Chinese and 51 were Japanese. (P.71)

(6) The Superintendent of the New Vancouver Coal Company, Samuel Robins, testified that the lowest wage paid to Chinese labourers was $1.12 per day and the lowest to white labourers was $2.60 per day. Young people do not want to do work involving manual labour because of the association of this kind of work with Chinese labourers. (P.72) “It would be very undesireable for any foreign nationality to be largely imposed upon us. The standard of living and the mode of living of the Chinese are largely removed from that of a white worker in the same calling.” (P.73) I am of opinion that none of the existing industries in the province would suffer by forbidding of further Chinese immigration.” (P.73) “Speaking as a superintendent of a company, I say that a wage be paid to a man upon which he can live respectably and support a family respectably. An employer may reduce wages by small degrees now and again until you are ashamed to look a workman in the face…. That is the effect of the importation and employment of cheap alien labour.” (P.75) The use of coal oil as a fuel replacement for coal in San Francisco, an area that imports much coal from us, is pressuring mines to keep costs down.

(7) F.D. Little, General Manager of the Wellington Colliery (owned by the Dunsmuir family), testified that employing whites only was costly and unprofitable. The Chinese could do the same work for less. Dunsmuir had imported 200 Scottish miners (P.77) and 65 blacks from the U.S.(P.79), but neither group was satisfactory. This venture was unprofitable for Dunsmuir. The Chinese were very good employees.

(8) A number of miners expressed views on Chinese labour. W. J. McAllan (a miner who had worked in the U.K., N.Z., Australia and B.C.): “Any business requires traders, and if you have people (such as the Chinese) who send their money out of the country, you cannot build up the country.” “No cheap labour is employed in Australia in the mines or on the surface.” (P.81) J. Calligan: The Chinese were paid $1.25/day; white men were paid $2.50/day. “The Chinese acted as helpers to the miners.” (P.81) W. Woodman (engine driver): The Chinese are “effective for capitalists to oppress the labour element”; they compete with women for domestic service jobs; personally, they are clean but they have poor public sanitary habits (P.81); they displace British-born subjects; “I regard it as a national weakness to bring about conditions which compel our youth to emigrate.” (P.82)

(9) John C. McGregor (representing the Miners' Union) presented a union resolution to restrict Chinese labourers from working underground. The reason given was that two major accidents had occurred: one in Nanaimo, “resulting in the loss of over one hundred lives, and (one) the following year in Wellington with almost a similar result…(76 deaths)”. (P.83) The union alleged that Chinese workers were responsible for the two disasters. Mine owners subsequently removed Chinese labourers from underground work.

(10) J. Cartwright testified: “If we had the minimum wage and there was an enactment providing that that would be the lowest wage, there would be very little competition from the Chinese. There would be no working for half the wage of a white man then…. We would not need to drive them out; they would go out.” (P.85)

(11) E.L. Terry (Secretary of the Alexandra Miners' Union in Nanaimo) presented a resolution which stated that Chinese labourers were a menace to underground mining safety; had lowered white men's wages; deterred white men from coming to B.C.; caused many to leave B.C.; competed unfairly because they accepted a lower standard of living; and were a grave menace to the public peace (because of the resentment they aroused by displacing other workers). (Pp.85-86)

(12) Placer gold mining in B.C. had produced total revenues of $62.5 Million from the early 1860's to 1901. Atlin (north-west) and Cariboo (central) districts produced the most gold. About 3500 men were employed in Atlin. None were Chinese. About 1200 men worked in the Cariboo for 150 different companies. Some were Chinese. There were many other private placer gold claims being worked in the Cariboo by (around 1000) Chinese labourers. (P.90) These areas had been worked by other miners previously. Major Charles Dupont testified: “In placer mining, the Chinese are content if they can make from $1 to $1.50 a day.” “We paid white men $2.75 a day; that was for shovel work; skilled men, we paid more.” (P.91) E.B. Kerby, General Manager of the War Eagle and Centre Star (Mining Company), testified: “The Chinese are working placers and taking a large amount of money, hundreds of thousands of thousands of dollars, out of the country, and that undoubtedly has an effect on the whole community.” (P.92) The Commisioners concluded that “Under the present conditions of the labour market, the Chinese are a necessity. Those there are trained to the business, and are sufficient in numbers to meet the demand. Exclusion of further immigration of Chinese will not affect this industry.” (P.93)

(13) “The metaliferrous mines” yielded $16 Million in 1900, “the largest amount annually of any natural industry of the province”. Lode gold was the largest contributor, yielding over $10 Million. If there were “No further immigration of this class of labour, it would not retard the development of this industry. The opinion of those interested is almost, if not quite, unanimous in favour of excluding further Chinese immigration.” (P.97)

(14) The B.C. lumber industry, in exports alone, from mills in Greater Vancouver and Lower Vancouver Island, had a revenue of $84 Million in 1900 (P.99). This demonstrated that the lumber/sawmill industry was one of the largest industries in B.C. at that time. Some Chinese and Japanese were employed at sawmills in the Vancouver and Vancouver Island areas. The Commissioners listened to a number of informed British Columbians. They also went to Washington State to hear testimony. They did this because the U.S. had already enacted a Chinese Exclusion Law and they wanted to determine if the exclusion of further Chinese (cheap labour) immigration had had a negative effect on the American lumber industry.

In the Commissioners' summary of their evidence on the B.C. Lumber Industry, they drew this conclusion: “It is clear from the evidence that so far as this branch of the industry is concerned, it does not depend to any considerable extent even now upon (Chinese labour), and the exclusion of further Chinese (cheap labour) immigration would not appreciably affect it.” (P. 118)