Effort of Ottawa Chinese during the Time of the Chinese Exclusion Act

By Jeff Wang ( 笑言)

I was honored being a panel speaker at the event to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 9, 2017.  Senator Lillian Dyck, Senator Victor Oh and Senator Yuen Pau Woo co-hosted this event at Wellington Building of Parliament Hill. Below is my remarks at the event.

In 1923, the Chinese immigration act was passed in order to limit Chinese immigration more strictly. The act narrowly defined the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants.

In 1915, the Chinese Consul Yang Shuwen (杨书雯) presented to the Canadian government a “gentlemen’s agreement” that was similar to the Canada-Japan gentlemen’s agreement, but it was not taken seriously or simply ignored due to China’s poverty and low international status.

During the summer of 1922, the Canadian government was negotiating a new treaty with China. Chinese communities across Canada, with the encouragement of Chinese Consul-General Zhou Qilian, organized a petition to the Canadian government requesting that the new Canada-China treaty accommodated Chinese views.

“Humiliation Day”
The Chinese Exclusion Act passed into law on July 1st, 1923, coinciding with the Dominion Day of Canadian Confederation. The Chinese community referred to this day as “Humiliation Day” and refused to participate in Dominion Day celebrations for many years to come.

Story of Joe’s Family – The last lucky person
Mr. Bill Joe is well known in Ottawa Chinese community, not only because of his success in business but also because of his legendary family history in Ottawa. Bill’s father Shung Joe (周相) opened Joe’s Laundry & Cleaners at Slater Street sometime between 1915 and 1916. In 1919, he went back to China and married Kai-voon Zhang (张启云). However, she could not return with him to Canada and had to remain in Guangdong because the voyage was quite expensive. After a great effort, Mrs. Joe became the last lucky Chinese to arrive in Ottawa in 1922 just before the act took effect.

The Beechwood Cemetery and the Chinese Benevolent Association
At 1920s, if it was affordable, Chinese wished to have their bodies sent back to China after they passed away. When Chinese Exclusion Act was in force, the number of Chinese families and clans decreased. More and more Chinese died alone without money to be carried back to China or even buried locally. Ottawa Chinese united together and helped each other. In 1925, the brothers Hum, Shung Joe and Sue Wong etc. raised funds to designate an area at Beechwood Cemetery as a Chinese section. Twelve years later, in 1937, upon the outbreak of war in China against the Japanese, which cut off civilian transportation across the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese community made a second major purchase at Beechwood of another 50 lots.

When I visited the area in 2015, there were around a hundred Chinese graves. In Chinese tradition, people are buried in small mounds with a standing tombstone at the front. These graves were, however, underground and all tombstones were also set flat on the ground. The tombstones were so close to each other that I would have thought that they were step stones at first glance.

In 1993, the Ottawa Chinese community raised funds and built up a memorial pavilion at Beechwood, called Huaiyuan Ting (怀远亭).

Supporting the War against Japan
Of all the periods in the history of Canada’s Chinese, the decade of 1937-1947 was the most exciting and momentous. It was the time when the Chinese communities in Canada also achieved the greatest unity they had ever had.

Fund raising activities were widely and intensively spread in Ottawa and the surrounding areas. In 1940, the Chinese government issued state-owned bonds. Ottawa Chinese responded positively, Mrs. Susan Lee and Mr. Bill Joe showed me the bonds that they have kept until today.

On November 18, 1941, the Chinese Government formally signed an agreement with the Canadian government to elevate the diplomatic relations between the two countries from the consular level to the ambassador level. Mr. Liu Shishun (刘师舜) was appointed as the first ambassador from China to Canada. He worked very hard to build a positive image of China by giving public speeches and meeting all levels of Canadians.

Stories about the Flying Tigers
Apart from various fund raising, some Chinese directly returned China to join the Chinese army in the frontline. Some of them lost their lives in their motherland.

A Chinese Canadian, Dan Wong married Mary Fong from Ottawa and ran a business between Montreal and Ottawa. Around 1943, he bought an airplane and flew back China to join the Flying Tigers of the Chinese Air Force. Joe Hum, a former president of the Ottawa Chinese Community Association, mentioned in his memoir Albert and Cederic Mah, his brothers-in-law. The brothers also joined the Flying Tigers and left many stories in history, especially about the famous “hump route”.

The First Lady of China visited Canada
On February 17, 1943, the First Lady of the Republic of China, Mrs. Chiang also known as Madame Song Meiling, was invited by US President Franklin Roosevelt to visit the White House. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King made a special trip to New York and invited her to visit Canada too. On June 14 of the same year, Mrs. Chiang travelled from New York to Ottawa for a three-day visit. She gave a speech at Canada’s Parliament Hill.

Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act
During the Second World War, Canada and China became allies. This linked the support of Canada’s Chinese for both China and Canada. This wartime united effort significantly improved White Canadian attitudes towards Chinese Canadians.

Back in the 1880s, Chinese laborers made great contribution to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In the subsequent decades, although the Chinese were restricted to working in the very limited business and services, the importance of their contributions still gained the recognition from Canadians. Chinese in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and other places repeatedly called on the federal government to repeal the unreasonable act.

On May 14, 1947, the Canadian government finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. A huge celebration took place everywhere in Chinese communities across Canada. Thousands of Chinese family reunions happened in the following years. Twenty four years of suffering were finally ended. Nowadays, after the great effort made by generations of Chinese in Canada, the Chinese have gained all the same rights as all other Canadians have. We must be grateful to the pioneer Chinese generations and we must also be grateful to the Canadians who have supported this redress movement.