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Photograph of small child wearing hat and walking away on wooden sidewalk in front of stores

A child in Victoria, B.C., sometime between 1880 and 1897

Photograph of man wearing felt hat and traditional Chinese clothes, on a street carrying yoke with basket

A man carrying yoke and baskets, in Victoria, B.C., sometime between 1880 and 1897

You speak English?

"People see me and say, ‘Wow! You speak English?’ Sure, I speak English. I was born here, in 1895. I speak Chinese, too. I went to Central School until Grade 3. Then my father died. I was only 12 years old. I was the oldest girl, so I went to work, taking care of a baby, in Fairview. Every cent I earned, I gave to Mama. If I had stayed in school, I would have made something of myself. My brother Sam, he went to university. He was an engineer. But he couldn’t get work here, so he went to China." (Lillian Ho Wong, a hat-maker and hotel-keeper in Vancouver, British Columbia, speaking in 1981 at age 86).

- Fictional character created by author
Paul Yee

Click on each photo for an enlarged, printable version.

ARCHIVED - The Early Chinese Canadians

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The History: Looking at the Early Chinese in Canada

Chinese people had begun arriving in Canada before 1867, the year of Confederation. These early Chinese immigrants came from one tiny area of southern China and they spoke the dialects of that region.

Their experience differs greatly from those who have immigrated to Canada in more recent years. During the 1990s, for instance, the largest number of immigrants arriving in Canada came from China, but they came from every region of that vast country. As well, immigrants of Chinese descent arrived in the 1990s from Southeast Asia, India, South America and other places.

Many people look at early Chinese-Canadian history to study the anti-Chinese legislation that existed in this country until the Second World War. Awareness and understanding can help ensure that Canada does not repeat unjust actions of the past.

At the same time, the Chinese in Canada have a proud history here. They helped to build and develop our economy. As well, they formed communities to support and protect their fellow immigrants who arrived from China.

This exhibit explores the first century of Chinese-Canadian history, with the help of photographs, historical documents and suggested reading material from the collection of Library and Archives Canada.

Each section of this history is accompanied by a "vignette" -a comment from a fictional character created by Canadian author Paul Yee- suggesting what it might have felt like to be a Chinese immigrant in Canada in those early days. The fictional characters are based loosely on interviews with many members of the Chinese community in Canada.

Find out more about the early Chinese in Canada

  • For first-hand accounts from Chinese Canadians about their early communities, read these collections of oral history interviews: Chinese Canadians: Voices from a Community, by Evelyn Huang with Lawrence Jeffery, and Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women, edited by the Women's Book Committee, Chinese Canadian National Council. Both books include interviews with people who grew up or moved to Canada in the early 20th century.
  • Struggle and Hope: The Story of Chinese Canadians, by Paul Yee, covers the time period from the 1850s until the late 1990s. (For Grade 6 readers and up.)
  • From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada, edited by Edgar Wickberg, provides a more in-depth look at this subject.
  • Many-Mouthed Birds, edited by Bennett Lee and Jim Wong-Chu, and Strike the Wok, edited by Lien Chao and Jim Wong-Chu, are collections of short stories written by contemporary Chinese Canadians. Several stories are set in the early 20th century.
  • Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories, edited by Brandy Liên Worrall, presents stories created by participants in a workshop on writing family history.
  • Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English, by Lien Chao, looks at the development of Chinese Canadian voices in fiction, drama, poetry, and essays.