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Photograph of view of street and storefronts, including sign for Sin-Hap Washing House

During the Gold Rush, a large Chinese community formed in Barkerville, BC. Notice the sign for the Sin- Hap Washing House in this 1868 photograph.

Photograph of line of men pushing  wheelbarrows up a hill, using a narrow wooden board as footbridge. Tall trees in background

Completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway cleared the way for B.C. to join Confederation. Chinese workers made up three quarters of the railway builders in B.C.

Photograph of back view of four men standing at a counter, with large pile of fish on floor in foreground

Chinese workers helped B.C.’s salmon-canning industry become a valuable export. Here, workers wash fish in a B.C. factory

Photograph of man standing next to a large machine and holding cut-up fish

Salmon-canning machines replaced many workers in the early 20th century. Here a worker uses the Smith Butchering Machine in a Namu, B.C. cannery in 1945.

Click on each photo for an enlarged, printable version.

ARCHIVED - The Early Chinese Canadians

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The History

Working in B.C.: Gold, Railway, Mining, and Salmon

What's in this section?

In the 19th century, British Columbia earned its wealth from the export of resources such as gold, coal and salmon. Ships transported these goods to Europe and other parts of America. In the 20th century, British Columbia turned to the railway for moving goods. This time it was timber to build houses, and the destination was the Prairies.

The Gleam of Gold

In the Gold Rush of 1858, hundreds of Chinese miners joined 30,000 gold-seekers heading to British Columbia. In three years' time, several thousand Chinese were prospecting there, and more arrived in the following years.

White miners had robbed, murdered and driven Chinese miners from goldfields in California. The Chinese feared similar violence in British Columbia so they did not compete directly with white miners. Instead, they reworked sites that white miners said were worthless. In these deserted claims, they found several dollars worth of gold each day.

The most gold was found in the Cariboo region, located 750 kilometres northeast of the site of the future city of Vancouver. It was there, in a town called Barkerville, that 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese lived. The Chinese trekked to all of British Columbia's gold rushes and as far north as Yukon.

They also earned wages by working for various employers. They helped to build the Cariboo Wagon Road, a 614-kilometre route that took much-needed supplies into gold territory. They cut firewood, dug ditches, hauled gravel and built flumes (wooden channels for water) for the miners. They also grew vegetables and other crops because imported food was costly.

After the gold rushes ended around 1870, most people left the territory, but Chinese workers stayed to continue mining. In 1885, they made a big find near Lillooet and took out $7 million of gold.

The Railway: Connecting a Country

In 1871, British Columbia became Canada's sixth province. A key point that persuaded the province to enter Confederation was Canada's promise to build a railway to connect the Pacific coast to the rest of the country. One of the hardest parts of building the Canadian Pacific Railway was cutting through the Rocky Mountains.

Chinese workers were employed for several reasons. The most important reason was that, before the railroad was built, the easiest way to bring large numbers of labourers to British Columbia was by water across the Pacific or northwards from California. With the increasing demand for labour in British Columbia, Chinese labourers were indispensable. Chinese workers, however, were paid lower wages than white workers, even though they were more efficient. The use of Chinese workers has been estimated to have reduced the cost of building the railway by between $3 million and $5 million.

Among the Chinese crews were experienced workers who had helped to build railways in the United States. They cut out a path for the railway, tearing down trees and clearing undergrowth. They removed rubble from tunnels in the mountains and cut away hills. To build up roadbeds, they dug ditches for drainage on both sides of the path and then built mounds of crushed rock and gravel. The tracks and ties were laid on top of this path.

Railway construction lasted from 1880 to 1885. During this time, about 7,000 Chinese workers arrived in British Columbia, but they did not all stay for the entire job. At any single point of time, about 3,500 Chinese were on hand. They formed three-quarters of the total railway workforce in the province.

Many workers died from dynamite accidents, landslides, rockslides, cave-ins, cases of scurvy because of inadequate food, other maladies, fatigue, drowning and a lack of medical help. The death count of Chinese workers over the entire construction period has been estimated to be from 600 to 2,200 workers. No definite count exists because no one accepted responsibility for the Chinese workers beyond the work they did in laying the track.

The Mines: Underground Trouble

In 1900, 50 percent of Canada's coal exports came from Vancouver Island. The coal mines depended on Chinese workers, but racism made the workers' lives difficult. Thirty Chinese were first hired at a mine near Nanaimo in 1867. They sorted coal above ground. Then they went underground and pushed coal-filled tubs to the surface. White miners hired them as helpers to dig out coal. Soon the Chinese learned how to dig coal and formed one-third to one-half of all mine workers.

In 1877, white miners at Wellington, on Vancouver Island, went on strike for better wages and working conditions. The owner used Chinese workers to break the strike. White miners had not let Chinese men join their union.

In 1883, miners went on strike again at Wellington. Their union demanded that all Chinese miners be fired. The owner refused and the strike failed.

In 1887 and 1888, two terrible accidents, at Wellington and Nanaimo, killed a total of 208 miners, including 104 Chinese. White miners blamed the accidents on the Chinese miners because of their limited English skills. Investigators cleared the Chinese of blame but white miners succeeded in getting the provincial government to pass a law banning Chinese workers from working underground. Some mine owners, however, continued to use Chinese workers there.

In 1912, white miners started a strike on Vancouver Island that would last for two years. When one mine owner used Chinese strike-breakers, the strike-breakers' homes and stores were looted.

The Canneries: Sharp Knives Needed

By 1900, salmon was British Columbia's second most valuable export. The salmon-canning industry had grown with the help of low-cost Chinese labour.

It was a tough business to start. A lot of money was needed to pay for a site, buy salmon and supplies, and hire labour. The run of salmon might be low, which would reduce the supply of fish and raise its price. The selling price of canned salmon might drop if too much product reached the market. It took several months to ship the salmon to Britain and more time to sell it and receive payment. To make a profit, the processing costs had to be kept down. The use of Chinese workers made this possible.

Salmon canning was done by hand until machines took over in the 20th century. Cans were cut from sheet tinplate, formed and soldered by hand. When fish reached a cannery, butchers removed the heads and tails and gutted the fish. The fish were then cut up and stuffed into tins. The tins were cooked and then sealed.

White workers avoided this work because it was short term and unpleasant. Canning was done in July and August. Smaller crews worked in the few months surrounding the season.

In the 1870s, Chinese workers were paid between $25 and $30 per month while whites received between $30 and $40. The industry expanded and wages rose. In the 1890s, the discrepancy between the wages of white and Chinese workers was even greater.

Find out more about working in British Columbia

  • First Son: Portraits of C.D. Hoy, by Faith Moosang, explores the work and times of this photographer who emigrated from China in 1902 and settled in the interior of British Columbia, where he created a unique collection of portraits of the local people.
  • The railroad, canneries and mines form the backdrop to Paul Yee's Tales from Gold Mountain, a collection of ghost stories. For Grades 7 and up.