Chinese Canadians

views updated

Chinese Canadians


Identification and Location. Originating from the southern provinces of China, Chinese Canadians first came to Canada around 1858. The first settlements were in British Columbia; this was followed by a gradual dispersal to other provinces. Today the greatest concentration of Chinese Canadians is in Ontario and British Columbia.

Demography. The 1981 census reported roughly 290,000 Canadians of Chinese originapproximately 1 percent of the total population. In the 1986 census, Chinese Canadians were listed at 360,320, or nearly 1.5 percent of the population. In 1981 British Columbia had 34.5 percent of the Chinese population, while Ontario had 40 percent; the two provinces together accounted for approximately three-quarters of the entire Chinese-Canadian population. Among the remainder, 12.8 percent lived in Alberta and 6.3 percent in Quebec, with the other 6.3 percent sparsely distributed in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Maritimes, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. The Chinese have tended to settle in metropolitan areas such as Toronto and Vancouver, in which 60 percent of the Chinese population is concentrated. Other cities with sizable Chinese populations are Calgary, Edmonton, and Montreal.

Linguistic Affiliation. The primary language spoken by Chinese Canadians is Cantonese, with some scattered remnants of the Toisanese dialect of southern China still being spoken by elderly members of the community. This dialect, however, is rapidly disappearing. The educated younger generation (university students and civil servants) is literate in English.

History and Cultural Relations

Chinese immigration to Canada began around 1858 with the discovery of gold in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. In response to this gold rush many Chinese migrated from the West Coast of the United States, where they had engaged in placer mining. Subsequent groups came directly from China. This was especially true between the years 1881 and 1885, when they were employed in large numbers as contract laborers on the Canadian Pacific Railway. This influx of Chinese migrants caused great concern among governmental authorities as well as politicians, union leaders, white workers, and employers who feared the effects on the economy and the labor market. As a result, various anti-Chinese bills were enacted. This legislation not only denied the Chinese political rights such as the right to vote but also prevented them from owning property and land and denied them entry into certain professional occupations.

Between 1884 and 1923, a number of commissions were appointed by the national government to study the problems associated with Chinese immigration. Their findings resulted in further restrictive legislation and the imposition of an ever-increasing head tax on the immigrants. In 1900 this tax amounted to $100, and by 1903 it had risen to $500. Although the tax did not reduce the number of Chinese entering Canada, it slowed the rate of increase. Nevertheless, in every census year before 1931 the Chinese population increased. The decline after 1931 probably was due in large part to the long-range effects of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which prevented all Chinese from entering Canada. This act, in conjunction with the fact that many of the older immigrants had retired from active work and returned to China, was a primary factor in the reduction of the Chinese population.

The Chinese Immigration Act, along with other discriminatory measures, had a profound effect on Chinese social life, family patterns, economic activities, and community structure. It was not until the post-World War II period that the Chinese population began to show signs of increasing again. Many of the discriminatory laws were rescinded, and the community's civil rights were gradually restored. In 1947 the parliament repealed the Chinese Immigration Act. In that year the Chinese were allowed to vote in British Columbia, a right they gained in 1951 in Saskatchewan. By the late 1950s nearly all the discriminatory clauses had been removed from provincial and federal statutes. The liberalization of immigration regulations brought about a sudden increase in the Chinese population. In the period 1961-1971, there was more than a 100 percent increase in the Chinese population, from 58,197 to 118,815. The removal of voting restrictions gave the Chinese greater access to goods and services, bringing about an unprecedented degree of socioeconomic mobility. With increasing dependence on the social institutions of the host society to meet their needs, reliance on the traditional Chinese community gradually diminished. In the late twentieth century the government's official espousal of ethnic pluralism and multiculturalism has led to the participation of the Chinese in the national sociocultural life.


In the nineteenth century, San Francisco, Victoria, and Vancouver were the major Pacific ports of entry to North America from China. As Chinese immigrants arrived in those port cities, they tended to confine themselves to one or two streets, called tangren jie (Chinese street). In the gold-mining settlements these living quarters were called Chinatowns. The term "Chinatown" was so commonly used over the years that it has become a standard term and has been used to refer to the Chinese quarter of an urban area composed generally of Chinese-owned residential, business, and in some cases industrial structures. As the Chinese population increased and economic activities became more diversified, the port city Chinatowns began to expand, often occupying several city blocks and functioning as self-contained towns. Chinese settlements or quarters were established in other major metropolitan areas as the Chinese population expanded beyond the port cities. As an integral part of many major urban areas, Chinatowns still function as an important part of Chinese social life, especially for older immigrants who want to maintain traditional cultural values. A younger, educated generation that is being integrated rapidly into Canadian society finds the need for dependence on the social and cultural values of Chinatown far less compelling than do its elders.


Commercial Activities. Serving as a cheap source of labor was the primary economic function of early Chinese immigrants, but racism and discrimination placed the Chinese at a distinct disadvantage in the labor market. In the sectors in which they were employed along with white workers, they had to settle for lower wages. As anti-Asian feelings intensified, the Chinese were excluded by law from industries that their labor had helped build. As racial hostility and legal barriers made it increasingly difficult to compete in the labor market with whites, the Chinese began to retreat into the ethnic business sector, primarily in the service industries (laundries and restaurants), where they could avoid competition with whites. These small businesses may be viewed as a method of developing alternative economic opportunities in a hostile labor market. Although the initial investment in a small business was relatively small, many Chinese had to rely on partnerships to finance the operation. These partners would work as a team to avoid the cost of hiring other workers; this was especially true in the restaurant business. After World War II, many Chinese brought their families from the home country to Canada. These family members provided additional labor in business enterprises, often resulting in the breaking up of partnerships. In subsequent years the younger generation, with better education and access to employment, became less willing to enter their forefathers' occupations. Many sought employment in various areas of socioeconomic life from which their parents and grandparents had been banned.


Kin Groups and Descent. The two basic units of kinship organization among Chinese Canadians are the clan, based on surname commonality, and the lineage. The clan forms an important part of the voluntary organization known as the clan association.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. As a result of Western influence the traditional Chinese marriage ritual has undergone radical change. The modern generation believes in courtship and romantic love as a prerequisite to marriage. Consultation with parents before marriage has been maintained, but arranged marriages through a match-maker are nearly nonexistent. The exchange of rings and the giving of gifts to the bride's family are still practiced, but the payment of bride-price is no longer part of the marriage ritual. Marriages between persons with the same surname are avoided, and cross-cousin marriages (between the mother's brother's daughter and the father's sister's son), though not forbidden, are not prevalent in the society.

Single immigrants to Canada often return to Hong Kong to look for a wife. Once a man is introduced to a potential spouse, lines of communication between the couple are kept open through an exchange of letters and photographs. If the prospects for a marriage look encouraging, arrangements are made to bring the future bride over for the marriage ceremony. The ceremony is generally performed in the Canadian style, although it may contain elements of the traditional Chinese ritual. Weddings today are performed in a church, with the reception held at home, where the new bride is expected to serve tea to the parents and relatives. Gifts and money wrapped in red paper are given to the couple by friends and relatives. At the wedding dinner, which usually is held in a restaurant, elders make speeches and toast the newlyweds' prosperity, health, and marriage. The bride and groom make their rounds, thanking guests for coming.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. After Chinese immigrants established themselves in an urban environment, they evolved a unique social structure that united all the Chinese in the locality, protected them from the outside world, and regulated the internal affairs of the community. This social system involved the establishment of organizations and associations that acted as a protective barrier against white society and reinforced ethnic solidarity and mutual dependence, helping to maintain cultural traditions in the face of outside pressure to assimilate. This social system was based on principles of patrilineal descentlineage or clan membershipcombined with locality of origin (one's home village or county in China). Throughout the United States and Canada, clan and district associations, as well as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), were hierarchically arranged, with the clan or surname associations forming the bottom level. In very large Chinatowns these clan associations were further divided into fongs, whose members were united by having a similar surname and by the fact that they came from the same village in China. The next level of organization was the district association, whose membership was based on residence in the same county or district in China. District associations might encompass several village and surname groups, although in smaller municipal Chinatowns they often operated independently of or at the same level as the clan associations. At the top was the all-embracing community organization, composed of the leaders of the district and clan associations. Although the name varies with the locality, in North America this organization is often called the CCBA. Variations of this name include the United Calgary Chinese Association in Calgary and the Chinese Community Centre in Toronto. Additional types of organizations in the Chinese community included "secret societies," "merchant associations," and tongs. These associations provided an alternative for individuals who were not accepted in the other associations. Often tong leaders achieved considerable power in the community through illegal enterprises such as gambling, prostitution, and smuggling. Other secret societies were genuine mutual aid and protection organizations.

Political Organization. Effective leadership in early Chinatowns was in the hands of wealthy merchants who also served as clan or district association heads. Leadership of a clan association was a direct route to power and prestige in the community.

Social Control. Chinese associations provide an effective means of social control within Chinatown and an effective mediating structure between the Chinese and non-Chinese worlds. In theory, membership in a clan or district association is ascriptive and thus mandatory, but in reality one's status in these organizations is dependent on monetary donations and time spent on association projects. If one wishes to find employment or open a business in the ethnic community, one has to belong to an influential clan or district association that tends to favor its own membership in business matters. A poor relationship with one's association is tantamount to exclusion from the ethnic economy.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In twenty-first century Chinese-Canadian society organized religion is not a prominent factor in social organization. For those involved in religion, a number of Chinese-Christian churches provide religious services. These churches include the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Gospel, and United churches.

Ceremonies. Customary Chinese festivals are not extensively celebrated in Chinese-Canadian homes today, nor do recent immigrants observe these occasions seriously. The celebration of Chinese New Year has become more of a fashion than an opportunity for family reunions and togetherness. Ancestor worship associated with ching ming, a semi-religious ceremony to pay honor to the ancestors, although still carried out by the elderly, has lost importance as an expression of kinship solidarity. The celebration of most Chinese festivals is on the decline. Some of the customary festivals observed by Chinese Canadian families are the Chinese New Year, the Ching Ming Festival, the Dragon-Boat Festival, and the Moon Festival.

Although the worship of ancestors is no longer an important element in family life, many homes have family altars or shrines to commemorate the spirits of ancestors. Some elderly Chinese may observe ancestor worship on a very superficial level by praying to the sky and burning incense sticks. The elders say that ancestor worship is observed in this way because this is not their "home village." In contrast to their elders, Canadian-born Chinese consider ancestor worship an impractical, superstitious form of religious practice.

Death and Afterlife. Modern Chinese society funerals are conducted in accordance with Western traditions. In compliance with government regulations, some elderly Chinese, although they may not be Christians, have Chinese ministers arrange the funeral service (usually held in a funeral home) and prepare the death certificates. Because of the lack of Buddhist or Taoist priests, the Chinese church minister may be considered a role substitute for these purposes. Soul tablets are absent from the rites, and there are no post-funeral ceremonies. Sometimes a funeral includes Chinese traditionalism and Western symbolism. The selection of a grave-site by means of geomancy (the divination of the appropriate location for a grave by confluence of mountains, waterways, and the direction of the wind) is seldom practiced today, partly because of the shortage of space in Chinese cemeteries. At the turn of the millennium, educated Chinese and Canadian-born Chinese tend to bury their dead in white cemeteries. The elderly prefer a Chinese cemetery, where they may practice traditional funerary rituals and where most of their friends are buried.

For other cultures in Canada, see List of Cutures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


Hoe, Ban Seng (1976). Structural Changes of Two Chinese Communities in Alberta, Canada. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

Li, Peter S. (1988). The Chinese in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, Richard H. (1989). Toronto's Chinatown: The Changing Social Organization of an Ethnic Community. New York: AMS Press.


About this article

Chinese Canadians

Updated About content Print Article