We Are Immigrants (II) Project Statement

WE ARE IMMIGRANTS (II) celebrates the resilience of early Chinese Canadian immigrants whose perseverance and hard work helped solidify the geographic boundaries, armed forces, and economic capacity of this country. The first wave of economic migrants from the mid-19th century were predominantly men, and their employment opportunities were so restricted that they could only work as labourers, servants, or merchants. Most notable are those who built the Rocky Mountains section of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Obligated to support their families, young boys soon followed their predecessors in pursuing the gold-mountain dream. To dodge discriminatory immigration laws, many of the boys (and eventually girls) purchased identities of friends or relatives. In fear of being discovered by authorities, these paper sons and paper daughters had no choice but to maintain their assumed identities for the rest of their lives while in Canada. To protect future generations, the migrants also concealed their birth identities from their descendants.

Chinese women also contributed to Canada in significant ways. Though granted entry much later than men, many women joined forces with local communities in raising funds for the Pacific War effort, mending socks and sweaters, and replenishing first- aid kits for front-line soldiers. Equally important and perhaps least acknowledged in the fabric of Chinese Canadian history are the countless grass widows, young brides left behind in China to care for their in-laws and children, enabling their husbands to work abroad indefinitely. Notwithstanding their daunting predicaments, history indicates that with financial help from their overseas husbands, grass widows often heeded their calling by becoming prosperous entrepreneurs, caring for their families while managing businesses in their own community. Similarly, wives who eventually immigrated to Canada shouldered the responsibilities of running family businesses with their husbands. Often being much younger than their spouses, these wives would become primary business operators as their husbands approached retirement.

Early Chinese Canadian communities were segregated because of social and institutional biases, yet these communities thrived despite severe constraints. The Chinese Immigration Act (1923) separated over twenty thousand families. With 2023 marking the legislation’s centennial anniversary, there is renewed opportunity to reflect not only on the hardships, but also on the contributions and the resilience of early Chinese Canadian families. Furthermore, the centenary presents an opportunity for wider and continued discourse, emphasizing the futility in racism as it can never succeed in quashing a people despite its relentless endeavor in doing so.