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All across Canada, starting in the 1890s, cities and larger towns began to develop their own Chinatown districts. These areas were safe places for Chinese people to live, to find Chinese goods, and to meet socially. People who wanted to harass the Chinese would be less likely to do so when many Chinese people lived and worked close by and could fight back. Chinatowns often emerged in older, poorer parts of town which were less desirable.
Some of the few white people who visited Chinatown regularly were Christian missionaries. They taught English, preached the gospel and tried to make the Chinese into Christians. They found the most success with Canadian-born Chinese.
Chinatowns also contained halls with altars featuring various gods and/or clan ancestors. Immigrant men paid their respects there.
Before 1923, most of the Chinese people living in Canada were men without families. They were unmarried, or had wives and children waiting in China. The men sent money home regularly and made plans to return to China to retire. People who had enough money also brought their families to Canada to settle. But after 1923, Canada shut its door to Chinese immigrants.
From the 1890s onward, Chinatown provided news about the homeland, which Chinese immigrants keenly followed. China wanted to modernize its industries, education system, and army and navy. Its government changed from a monarchy to a republic. These were exciting issues.
Chinatown provided goods and services needed by the immigrants. Its stores sent money on behalf of immigrants across the Pacific to their families in China's villages. Grocers imported familiar Chinese foods. The immigrants visited barbers, restaurants and herb doctors. In larger cities, Chinese firms published newspapers, prepared time-honoured barbecues and baked traditional cakes. Although many Chinese lived and worked outside of Chinatowns, the districts served as hubs for activity and central gathering places for men who were spread far and wide across Canada.
Mutual-help groups in Chinatown rented out rooms and provided space where men met, discussed politics and gambled. They organized banquets for the Lunar New Year or graveyard visits on Ancestor Day. They raised money for causes in China, such as flood or drought relief. When Japan bombed Shanghai in 1932 and sent its army to invade China in earnest in 1937, the Chinese in Canada raised money to defend their homeland.
The Chinese Benevolent Association in cities across Canada spoke for the community. After 1923, it held protests called the "Day of Humiliation" every July 1, the day that the law banning Chinese immigration came into effect. During the Depression, the association asked the government for help for Chinese communities.
Before 1923, the small number of Chinese who had families in Canada were mostly merchants. The head tax had made it costly for Chinese Canadians to bring relatives to Canada. The merchant families included Canadian-born Chinese, who grew up speaking both English and Chinese. They formed sports teams in soccer, hockey and basketball, and played teams from outside the Chinese community. Some attended university. However, anti-Chinese racism stopped them from finding good jobs in Canada.
When the Communists took power in China in 1949, many Chinese in Canada decided not to return to China. Instead, they brought their families to Canada. With growing public acceptance of the Chinese here, Chinese Canadians faced a brighter future.
British Columbia was home to over 60 percent of Canada's Chinese before the Second World War. But for many years after the ban on Chinese immigration was revoked in 1947, the province received only one-third of new Chinese immigrants. This meant that Chinese families were settling all across Canada.
Find out more about communities for Canada and China