“Paper Sons”: Chinese Immigration to Canada

Looking west from Columbia to Carrall on E. Pender St, 1904, Vancouver, BC © Vancouver Public Library/Philip Timms VPL Accession #: 7234

For the week of May 27, 2019.

On May 29, 1960, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Bill Cunningham reported that police were investigating suspected illegal “smuggling” of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver, British Columbia. Prominent Chinese Canadians spoke out against the raids, including Jean Lumb, who later became the first Chinese-Canadian woman to receive the Order of Canada. “It brought a cloud of suspicion over the Chinese people,” she said. “What a terrible mess. How could people go through the rest of their lives with the wrong surname, living in fear of being deported?”

Canada had long restricted Chinese immigration to the country. Under the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, the federal government imposed a punitive “head tax” that effectively denied many people of Chinese origin admission to Canada. This severe limitation on Chinese immigration reflected continuing and deep-seated anti-Asian prejudice within Canadian society, which found further expression in the exclusionary Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. This legislation was repealed in 1947, but Chinese immigration was still restricted. Given earlier restrictions on immigration, few Chinese Canadians met the citizenship requirements to sponsor the entry of spouses or children into the country.

Many were fleeing conflict with Japan in the 1930s, civil war in China in the late 1940s, or Chinese communism in the 1950s. During this time of exclusionary immigration policies, many Chinese people adopted the names of families already in Canada in order to gain entry to the country and therefore became known as “paper sons.”

In 1960, Douglas Jung, a veteran of the Second World War and the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament, introduced a private member’s bill to grant amnesty to “paper sons.” Under the Chinese Adjustment Statement Program, nearly 12,000 of these immigrants were granted amnesty between 1960 and 1973. During this same period, new regulations in 1962 and 1967 also removed explicitly racist provisions limiting immigration to Canada. The implementation of a “points system,” for example, made skill more important than “race” or national origin in the selection of newcomers.

Vancouver’s Chinatown and Victoria’s Chinatown are designated national historic sites. 
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about the histories, achievements, and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent by exploring articles in our online archives about “Paper Sons”: Chinese Immigration to Canada, SS Komagata Maru, the forcible relocation of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple, and The New Canadian: A Voice for Japanese Canadians.