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Victoria’s Chinatown: Not Enough Women

For the week of Monday February 28, 2011

On March 1, 1860, Mrs. Kwong Lee, the first Chinese woman arrived in Canada. Among the many people attracted to the 1855 gold rush in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia were wealthy Chinese merchants from San Francisco. They quickly set up shop in Victoria and created the foundation for what would become a prosperous Chinese community. However, between 1860 and 1885, a mere 53 Chinese women officially entered the province, compared to the several thousand men. Although this gender imbalance also existed amongst most immigrant groups, it was rarely as pronounced as it was with the Chinese.

A wealthy Chinese-Canadian
family wearing western clothing

© William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / e008445412

Victoria experienced a surge in its population as thousands of Chinese labourers established themselves in Chinatown, only aggravating the already disproportionate gender ratio. Many of these men were eager to marry, but that same year, the government had imposed a $50 head tax on future Chinese immigration of labourers and their families. For many, the head tax was simply unaffordable, especially when it was raised to $500 in 1903. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act put an end to immigration of all people of Chinese “race.” Furthermore, cross-cultural marriages were then extremely unusual, in large part because of the strong anti-Asian sentiment felt by Euro-Canadians.

From its inception, Chinatown was segregated by racism and women became highly sought after. Kidnappings, prostitution and abuses became a concern for the leading merchants, since most of the women were their wives and daughters. So, several influential members of Chinatown took it upon themselves to re-establish order in their community. In 1884, they sent a letter to the Qing Consul General in San Francisco, calling for help in eliminating discriminatory laws and prostitution. In response, the Qing Consul established the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (the CCBA), which was incorporated under Provincial Statutes in 1885 and continues to exist.

Four Chinese-Canadian children wearing traditional Chinese clothing
© Library and Archives Canada / e008304169
Acting as the de facto Chinese government, the CCBA did much to re-establish harmony in Victoria’s Chinatown and in gaining individual and group rights for people of Chinese origin. Immigration laws eventually became more inclusive after the Second World War and many Chinese women chose to make Canada their home, but the gender imbalance was not overcome until the 1980s. Today, the total number of Chinese-Canadian women living in Canada is greater than that of Chinese-Canadian men.

As the oldest surviving Chinatown in Canada, Victoria's Chinatown was designated a National Historic Site in 1995.

For more information relating to Victoria’s Chinatown or Chinese immigration please read: Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers and Legalizing Racism in the This Week in History Archives.

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