This Week in History


Toward A Better Future

This story was initially published in 2002

On May 15, 1858, a Chinese miner who had gone with some prospectors from California to explore the Fraser River returned to San Francisco, where he confirmed that there were impressive gold deposits in British Columbia. This news sparked the first wave of Chinese immigration to Canada.

Chinese man washing gold

Chinese man washing gold
© LAC / PA-125990

The British Columbia gold rush first attracted Chinese miners living in California, where they were subjected to increasing discrimination. Soon after, they were joined by thousands of Chinese who crossed the Pacific in search of a better life. Most of these new immigrants were men who came from Guandong, a province ravaged by war, natural disasters, unemployment and famine. They arrived in Victoria, where they stayed temporarily before continuing on to the Fraser River and the Cariboo in hopes of finding a fortune. In Victoria, the Chinese formed a small community, which grew quickly with new immigrants arriving constantly. Among them were shopkeepers who opened grocery stores, fruit stands and various import businesses. By setting up a community centre and a Chinese school, they were able to build a social life and support networks and also preserve their culture. Thus, Victoria became the site of the first Chinatown in Canada.

In 1860, more than 5000 Chinese were in British Columbia searching for gold, generally working on abandoned mining concessions or for Euro-Canadian land owners, who were often distrustful and intolerant of other races. Despite these poor working conditions, some made extraordinary discoveries. In 1860, a miner named Ly Wing found gold nuggets worth over $5000.

The Chinese Public School built in 1909

The Chinese Public School built in 1909
© Parks Canada / Mills / 1995

Many Chinese who did not take part directly in the gold rush opened restaurants and laundries to serve the growing population of miners. Others worked to develop communications in British Columbia by helping install telegraph wires or build roads. Still others worked as servants, cooks or seasonal workers in canneries. When the gold deposits were exhausted, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway became a new source of work for the Chinese miners, which sparked a new wave of immigration in the 1880s.

Despite prejudice and difficult working conditions, the Chinese made Canada their home.  Victoria's Chinatown and Chinese Construction Workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway have been designated respectively as a site and an event of national historic significance.

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