New archive highlights years of racism faced by Chinese Canadians

December 6, 2016

By Evelyn Kwong, Toronto Star |

Seventy-one years ago Mavis Chu Lew Garland and eight of her preschool classmates were photographed on the porch of the Chinese Canadian Institute on the corner of Dundas St. W. and University Ave.

Times were different, rather “extremely difficult,” she says, being born to a Chinese immigrant father and a white mother when interracial marriages were seen as unacceptable.

But now, at the age of 76, Garland and her classmates have come together to recreate a photo that was taken during a period of discrimination, and now represents a snapshot of Canadian immigrant history.

The photo, which Garland found while scrounging through old shoeboxes is just one of the artifacts donated to the Toronto Public Library as part of a three-year initiative, the Chinese Canadian archives, which opened on Tuesday at the Toronto Reference Library.

Since the announcement calling for donations in July, the library has received hundreds of articles to commemorate the historic voices of the Chinese people in Canada. Among the collection are old photographs of the city’s first Chinese restaurants, and businesses that once existed in the area where City Hall stands today.

But among the pieces of colourful memorabilia are documents highlighting a Canadian history of discrimination, including documentation on the racist Chinese head tax, showing how it rose from $50 in 1885 to $100 in 1900 and eventually to $500 in 1903 — at the time the price of buying two houses in Toronto.

“We can’t tell the history of Toronto, even Canada, without telling the stories of the Chinese Canadian,” project co-ordinator Suk Yin Ng of the TPL said. “We have to tell their stories illustrating their daily living, community spirit, struggles, successes, failures, dreams … and for the younger generation, to learn about the history of their ancestors and what brought them to where they are.”

The Chinese-Canadian legacy began before the birth of the nation. In 1778, Chinese workers were used as cheap labour by British fur trader John Meres to build a trading post for the area that is now Nootka Sound, B.C. The Chinese workers were recognized as hard-working and willing to take lower wages. Many more immigrated to help with the Fraser River Gold Rushes in 1858.

Then there was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881, when an estimated 17,000 Chinese workers were brought to Canada and endured long working days, for around $1 a day. Due to the poor working conditions and illnesses, records estimated that they died in the thousands.

“All of them remained nameless in the history of Canada,” the monument standing just outside the Rogers Centre commemorating the Chinese CPR workers reads.

“I feel like a lot of the lives, work, and contributions of Chinese-Canadians have remained nameless,” 28-year-old Coly Chau told the Star.

Chau immigrated to Montreal from Hong Kong at the age of 5.

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