The first influx of Chinese came to North America to pan for gold in the 1850s. North America was dubbed Gum Sahn, which means Gold Mountain. Poverty-stricken Chinese migrants started panning for gold in San Francisco, but many headed north to Fraser River in British Columbia once gold was discovered there in 1858.
Between 1880 and 1885, more than 15,000 Chinese migrant workers were hired to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were only paid about half of what other workers were paid for the same jobs. Chinese workers were often called on to do the more dangerous jobs, working with explosives, for instance, and carrying massive rocks. Hundreds died in the process.
Cheap Chinese labour was greatly appreciated by politicians and businessmen during the building of the railway. Non-Chinese Canadian labourers, however, weren't happy about this group of cheaper workers taking valuable jobs. And once the railway was complete in 1885, Canadians from all walks of life wanted the Chinese to leave. The "nation-building" leaders and politicians, for instance, were concerned about what a large Chinese population could do to the character of the new country.
In 1885, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that the Chinese worker "has no common interest with us, and while he gives us labour he is paid for it, and is valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement which we may borrow from the United States on hire and return it to the owner on the south side of the line… he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote."
To keep the Chinese population down, the Canadian government implemented a head tax on all Chinese immigrants in 1885. This was a tax paid by the Chinese to allow them to enter the country. This started out as $50 per person, but was raised to $100 in 1900, and then $500 in 1903.
For a Chinese labourer in the early 20th century, $500 was a massive amount of money — it is said to be about the equivalent of almost two years' wages.
The Chinese are the only ethnic group in Canada ever to be explicitly subjected to a race-based head tax, according to Anthony B. Chan's 1983 book Gold Mountain. By contrast, British immigrants were often given financial assistance to help pay their way to Canada during this same period.
The Chinese in Canada at this time were shunned from white communities, so Chinatowns developed. Chinese people lived and ran businesses in these segregated areas, the most well known of which was in Vancouver.
In the early 20th century, Chinese people were essentially restricted to a few different employment options: manual labourer, domestic labourer (the "Chinese houseboy"), restaurant worker or laundry owner.
Early 20th-century Chinese-Canadian society was considered a "bachelor society" because the head tax was so high it usually restricted men from bringing over their wives. Canadian census data from 1911 shows that there were 27,831 Chinese people in Canada, and less than 1,000 (or around 3.5 per cent) of those were women.
In 1923, the federal Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. It restricted virtually all immigration from China to Canada: only diplomats, children born in Canada, merchants and students would be permitted. This act effectively stopped immigration to Canada between 1923 and 1947 (the year it was repealed). Census data shows that the overall number of Chinese in Canada dropped between 1921 and 1951, from 39,587 to 32,528.