Tag: Canada

Confusions of citizenship

As I approach the end of my month in Canada I’m feeling like I know less than when I left home, in spite of a good many hours spent in the archives and in conversation with knowledgable people.

It’s a feeling that’s been growing over the past few days, and in the end I think my problem is that while I’ve done all that reading and talking I’ve formed new questions and uncovered complexities that I haven’t yet untangled in my mind.

At the centre of this niggling uncertainty is something that the Canadians themselves don’t seem to get quite right – the story of Chinese Canadian citizenship.

Yip Sang, who was naturalised in 1891, and some of his Chinese Canadian children. Chung Collection, UBC Library, CC_PH_00222 (photograph by A. Savard, Vancouver)
Yip Sang, who was naturalised in 1891, and some of his many Chinese Canadian children. Chung Collection, UBC Library, CC_PH_00222 (photograph by A. Savard, Vancouver)

The following paragraphs, from UBC’s The Chinese Experience in British Columbia, 1850–1950 website, are a case in point:

Prior to 1947, anyone born in the United Kingdom or another Commonwealth country, which included Canada, was designated as British subjects. A person received the rights and privileges as a British citizen even if he or she had migrated to Canada.

However, not only were Chinese immigrants not considered British citizens, even Canadian-born Chinese were categorized as aliens. Such Chinese could become British subjects only through naturalization. Only on rare occasions could naturalization laws be appealed by a judge if he or she decided that the petitioner would make a good citizen. Although some well-established, successful Chinese businessmen did become naturalized British subjects, the majority of Chinese could not.

Things changed when peoples of Chinese and Indian descent won the franchise in British Columbia and the Japanese Canadian community established the pan-Canadian National Association of Japanese Canadian Citizens Associations. The Canadian Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 1947 was the first naturalization statute to introduce Canadian citizenship as an entity independent from British subject status. As the Canadian citizenship act also came into effect in 1947, anti-Asian measures such as the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Chinese Head Tax, and the Continuous Journey Act were overturned.

While this question of ‘Chinese Canadian citizenship’ is a bit tangential to my exact project at hand – a study of the naturalisation of Chinese in BC to about 1915 – it relates to broader questions about the place of nationality and citizenship in the history of Chinese restriction or exclusion in the British settler colonies. And it relates to my interest in how Australia’s discriminatory laws of the White Australia period impinged on the rights of Chinese Australians, especially Australian-born British subjects of Chinese descent.

Something that I’ve heard a number of time while I’ve been in Canada is that the Chinese did not get Canadian citizenship until 1947, the implication being that this was another example of the discrimination they faced, including the head tax, immigration restriction (exclusion) and disenfranchisement. 1947 was the year that the Canadian Citizenship Act came into force. It was then that the legal status of Canadian citizen was created – before then the Canadian-born were British subjects, as in Australia.

(Complicating things a little is the fact that the Immigration Act 1910 introduced a definition of ‘Canadian citizen’, but according to the Canadian Government this didn’t count as ‘legal status’. Another puzzle to sort out, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

The introduction of the Canadian Citizenship Act at the beginning of 1947 was followed by the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act (the Exclusion Act) later that year. The linking of these two events has been described like this by Lily Cho of York University:

With the beginning of Canadian citizenship, there was a national conversation about race and citizenship. In the first months of 1947, there were extensive debates in the House of Commons about the racial and ethnic identity of Canadian citizens. These conversations led directly to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in May, 1947, and an end to the era of exclusion.

(Note to self: look at more of Lily Cho’s work, including ‘Redress revisited: citizenship and the Chinese Canadian head tax’, in Reconciling Canada: Historical Injustices and the Contemporary Culture of Redress, edited by Jennifer Henderson & Pauline Wakeham, University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 87–99.)

It’s also stated that the first Canadian citizenship ceremony of Chinese was held in Vancouver in 1947.

I know that British subject status was a different thing from Canadian citizenship, but what’s puzzling me is the almost complete absence of discussion of how before 1947 Chinese born in Canada were British subjects under common law, just like their white counterparts (for definitions see, for example, the Immigration Act 1910 and Naturalization Act 1914). And that Chinese migrants to British Columbia could be and were naturalised as British subjects from as early as the 1860s – my initial research suggests that up to 1000 Chinese were naturalised in British Columbia before 1915, and around 400 more were naturalised in Canada as a whole between 1915 and 1951.

I’m not far enough into my research to know whether Canadian-born Chinese or naturalised Chinese in BC argued their equal status as British subjects, as some in Australia did, to push back against racially discriminatory treatment. Perhaps they didn’t, and perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed much today. But if not, why not? And if British nationality was of no perceivable benefit in the face of discrimination, why did those hundreds of men choose to become naturalised?

A Chinese bunkhouse in Richmond, BC

I’ve really been struck during my visit to Vancouver by the similarities between Australia and Canada (or this bit of it, at least), particularly regarding the ‘big’ themes in the historical experience of Chinese people in these two far-distant places. But it’s also very cool to consider the differences that geographical location and physical landscape bring to that experience. (Note gratuitous photo showing how glorious Vancouver looks in the spring. Yes, I like it here.)

Today I went to the Britannia Shipyard National Historical Site at Steveston in Richmond, just south of Vancouver. It is located on the Fraser River, where there once was a salmon run that supported 15 canneries in Richmond alone. The canneries there and further up the Fraser River employed Chinese workers to process the fish – paying them a fraction of what they would pay Anglo-Canadian employees. A skilled Chinese butcher would process between 1500–2000 fish in a 10-hour day.

At the Britannia Shipyard site is a Chinese bunkhouse that was built in around 1920 by the Anglo British Canadian Packing Company at Knight’s Bend, further along the river. It was moved down the river by barge to Steveston in 1951, after which it was used to store nets and lumber. In 1992 it was relocated to its present site at Britannia after being donated to the City of Richmond.

The 2000-square-foot two-storey timber building was restored in 2007. It, and the timber houses around it, is built on pilings and accessed by a wooden boardwalk over the water. The downstairs of the bunkhouse is now used as a funtion/meeting space, while the upstairs has been recreated to suggest the living conditions of it original Chinese residents and to provide a display on the history of the Chinese cannery workers. Although there are no photographs of the inside of the building in its original use, they have based the interior fit-out on contemporary descriptions. And they’ve done a really nice job of it.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of Vancouver’s Chinese history when I visit Chinatown in the coming days. I only wish that I also had the time to also visit British Columbia’s oldest Chinatown, which is in the provincial captial, Victoria, located a couple of hours away on Vancouver Island west of Vancouver city. Lots of buildings there are listed on Canada’s register of historic places. Oh well, I’ll just have to come back another time!

‘Chinese through the Americas’: a beginning to the 5th WCILCOS conference

I’m writing from the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where tonight I’ve been to the opening dinner of the 5th International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies. Henry Yu from the Department of History at UBC gave a really good keynote address (more on that in a minute) and we had great view – all rhododendrons and sea and sunset and distant snowy mountains. Being here in Vancouver is a bit like being in a slightly odd version of home – the mountains are pointier and snowier, the cars are on the wrong side of the street, the newspapers are a funny shape and ‘veggie burgers’ don’t seem to be vegetarian … but a lot of the ads on TV are the same, people are friendly and helpful and the Queen is still on the money. Perhaps Vancouver’s apparent familiarity is really a reflection of the fact that, over the past decade, my only foreign destination has been Guangdong, and Guangdong, and Guangdong again and again.

I spent some time this afternoon wandering in the UBC bookshop and was impressed that in the four shelves on Canadian history, there were seven books that specifically discussed Chinese Canadian history. I bought one of them – Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921 by Renisa Mawani, which looks at crossracial encounters particularly between aboriginal peoples and the Chinese. I will be interested to see if it mentions intimate relationships between Chinese men and white women at all; there seems to be quite a lot of interest in relationships between First Nations women and Chinese men, including a couple of sessions at the conference, but I haven’t yet heard any discussion of Anglo-Chinese relationships.

In Henry Yu’s talk tonight – titled ‘ The rhythms of the Cantonese Pacific and the making of nations’ – he set out to do two main things: introduce the major themes of the ‘Chinese through the Americas’ conference and tell us something of the $1.2 million ‘Chinese Canadian Stories’ project he has been leading. Henry used the term ‘Cantonese Pacific’ to talk about the ways in which Chinese in BC (and Canada more generally) were part of a network of nodes that stretched out from Hong Kong, including Sydney, Yokohama, Vancouver, San Francisco, Mexico and Hawaii, and of how this network was made up of people from a particular cultural and linguistic background. This was not a ‘Chinese’ world, but a ‘Cantonese’ one, with migrants coming from about eight different counties in the Pearl River Delta.

Henry spoke of how we need to try to understand the history of the Chinese in settler nations around the Pacific from their perspective, with an understanding of their terms of reference and their imaginaries. As an example, he discussed the idea of ‘gum saan’ (gold mountain). Each new Pacific settler society, as a destination for migrating Chinese, was called ‘gum saan’ – not because Chinese migrants didn’t have proper names for these places, but because ‘gum saan’ was naming a dream and a set of aspirations for life; it was not really the name of a place but that of a geographic imaginary where dreams of wealth, prosperity and a successful return home could be realised. Henry also discussed the importance of understanding the linguistic background of these early Chinese migrants – their letters make no sense and their poems don’t rhyme if you read them in Mandarin. An important part of the Chinese Canadian Stories project has been to draw on community knowledge to help with particular activities where dialect language skills are essential, such as making connections between the places of origin (or sending villages, as Henry called them) that are given in the head tax records with their proper Chinese names and locations.

Henry said a lot more about the Chinese Canadian Stories project and showed us some of the nifty visualisations they’ve developed from the head tax record data (they’ve got info on 97,123 individuals). Good stuff. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it in the following days.

‘Gay panic and yellow peril’

An interesting blog post from Canadian Hamish Copley on Racism and homophobia: The Chinese in Victorian Canada, in which he tells of the moral panic expressed in Canada’s 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration about the apparently rampant homosexual tendancies of the Chinese. Copley writes from the perspective of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) history, and provides some interesting comparisons to other similar discussions of homosexuality at the time.

The arguments put forward in the Canadian Royal Commission evidence are startlingly familiar. They are almost exactly the same as those expressed in Australia. There are no women among the Chinese, therefore they are driven to ‘sodomy’. But what struck me was the date. By the 1880s, white Australian colonists had definitely moved on from a panic over homosexuality – to a panic over the seduction of young white girls and an ongoing fear of the whole racial mixing thing.

The homosexuality arguments were put in earlier discussions of Chinese immigration, particularly in the 1850s, but it seems that in Australia at least there just wasn’t the evidence to sustain that argument for very long. Yes, Chinese men continued to come without bringing Chinese women with them, but the more likely result of this was forming sexual relationships with white women, not with each other.

I don’t know of anyone who’s seriously considered the question of homosexuality among the 19th century Chinese community in Australia. I’ve discussed the fears which arose from the masculine nature of Chinese immigration, with a brief bit about homosexuality in Section 1 of my thesis, pp. 35–41.