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Chinese Community Leadership: Case Study of Victoria in Canada

By David Chuen-Yan Lai

Review By Larry Wong

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 169 Spring 2011  | p. 158-161

I am particularly interested in this volume, having been born in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1938 and having a father who was treasurer of a district association. He was a shirt tailor, and I remember in the 1940s and 1950s his friends were on the boards of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) and other societies. I didn’t realize how community-minded and influential these people were until much later in my life. One outstanding friend of my father’s was Wong Foon Sien, then national president of the CBA in Vancouver. For many years in the 1960s he regularly made pilgrimages to Ottawa to lobby for the opening up of immigration laws for Chinese. 

In his book, David Lai examines the persistence of early Chinese organizers in helping those in need and providing community leadership. He provides rich details about early Chinese history in Canada, illustrated by the reproduction of original documents, other records, and a seven-page bibliography. Lai’s focus is on the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association in Victoria. 

It was March 1884 when a group of Chinese merchants in Victoria wrote to the Chinese consul-general in San Francisco requesting the establishment of a consulate in Canada. The Chinese had first arrived in Victoria in June 1858, yet, for almost thirty years, there had been no representatives of their homeland other than clan associations. Why? Because the Manchu simply didn’t have a consulate in Canada. The consul-general in San Francisco obviously thought it was a good idea and gave the go-ahead for the Victoria merchants to form the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), allowing it “the power and authority to ‘govern’ Chinatown and Manchu subjects in Canada” (28). 

The following month, a temporary board of directors in Victoria sent out a notice to all Chinatowns in British Columbia about the formation of the CCBA, which sought a minimum of two dollars from each Chinese and offered special recognition to those who gave more than three dollars. In addition to fundraising, the CCBA wanted to function as a collective voice to fight against the ten-dollar provincial head tax and the fifteen-dollar gold-mining tax (as well as against other discriminatory practices then in place). 

The next step was to draw up a constitution written in both English and Chinese, with the former being sent to the Registrar of Companies as part of an application for incorporation. On 18 August 1884, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association became a legal entity; for the next twenty-five years it was the official voice of the Chinese communities in Canada, until a Chinese consulate-general was finally installed in Ottawa. 

We know about the Chinese labourers who helped construct the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) but not about their misery and poverty. Things were so bad that merchants sent a discouraging message to China, warning labour recruiters that two thousand Chinese had died not only from accidents but also from the cold climate and beriberi. The message was ignored, however, and more Chinese labourers came to Victoria in June 1884. Once the CPR was completed, an economic slump set in, and all of the Chinese railway workers became unemployed. Workers drifted to Victoria in large numbers, making merchants uneasy. There was no Chinese consulate in Canada, and it became increasingly important to have community representation such as that provided by the CCBA. 

Twenty merchants sat on the CCBA provisional board. Their mandate was to look after the sick and poor, arbitrate disputes, police social vices in Chinatown, and fight racial discrimination. Board members were mostly in the import and export business as well as in labour-recruiting, land development, and opium-manufacturing. Opium was legal then and profitable, particularly for the province, which collected taxes on it. 

In 1885, the CCBA purchased property on Fisgard Street and built a three-storey brick structure: “the street façade displayed a double tiered projecting balcony with wooden supporting posts, decorative corner brackets, fretwork and turned balusters, dividing and decorative canopies” (3940). The street level was for commercial use; the second floor housed the association office; and the third level was a temple. 

Merchants in Chinatown enjoyed a certain amount of prestige during the 1880s. They were mostly immigrants from poor backgrounds; however, in “Gold Mountain” (a name Chinese used when referring to California and/or British Columbia), by working hard, these people could enhance their social status through honorary official titles and ranks awarded by (or purchased from) the Manchu government. This was a means for the latter to acquire the loyalty of overseas subjects, particularly through their fundraising for investment in China or for the provision of relief from drought or flood in the home country. 

By the 1890s, CCBA members had nine broad functions: they worked for the consulate-general in San Francisco; fought discriminatory laws; sought protection of Chinese citizens from abuses; enforced the integrity of Chinatown; arbitrated internal disputes; operated the Chinese hospital, cemetery, and school; shipped bones back to China for burial; fundraised for relief work in Canada; and fundraised for relief from disasters in China (6465). 

In a surprising revelation, David Lai notes a letter from the CCBA to the Tung Wah Hospital in Hong Kong, warning it not to send more Chinese to Canada, not because of the impending federal head tax of fifty dollars but because of the high unemployment rate among Chinese railway workers upon completion of the cpr and Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. The hospital – for the CCBA the equivalent of a Chinese charitable organization – responded that there was nothing it could do to stop the flow of immigrants as the Manchu government was under pressure from the British government to encourage Chinese labourers to emigrate from China and to work in British colonies despite the infamous head tax. 

Chinese immigration to Canada therefore continued. By 1901, the CCBA had established a code of conduct. Most immigrants were from poor villages and were unfamiliar with Western culture and customs. The following rules were drawn up so as not to offend Western passengers and, perhaps, to save face: 

“whether being met by relatives or by friends at the pier in Canada, make sure you have five dollars for travelling after you go ashore; buy dresses, trousers, hats, and socks in Hong Kong before boarding the ship, and put them on before disembarking. Then you will not be disgraced in front of Westerners; on board the ship, do not undress and catch fleas. Go to the toilet and never urinate overboard. Westerners will not excuse you if you commit this offence; line up for meals and do not jump the queue; when Westerners are eating inside their rooms, do not pop your head in and look, otherwise you will be chided; after the ship docks, a Western doctor will come aboard to check the health of passengers. Listen to the interpreter and disembark in an orderly fashion. Clean yourself first and put on new clothing before disembarking. “(76

David Lai also documents other aspects of Victoria’s Chinatown, such as the Chinese school, the Chinese hospital, and the Chinese cemetery. He describes how bones were collected from all over British Columbia after seven years’ burial and stored in Victoria. He also provides a detailed map of the province, with the locations of gravesites. 

He himself participated in the mass burial of bones and the national designation of the Chinese cemetery in Victoria at Harling Point. Other interesting subjects appear in the chapter entitled “Organizational Growth, 18901930s,” which addresses the short-lived Chinese Empire Reform Association, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Revolutionary Party, and the expansion of the clan and county associations. 

When Canada recognized China in 1970, the CBA in Vancouver was divided into two camps: the pro-Taiwan camp moved out of the 108 East Pender Street building in which it had been based and established the Chinese Benevolent Association of Canada at 537 Main Street in December 1978; the other camp became the Vancouver Chinese Benevolent Association. Recently, there has been talk about reintegrating the two groups. 

David Lai brings his book up to the present time, allowing both a retrospective look and a glimpse into the future. Chinese Community Leadership is generously illustrated with original documents, such as circulars, regulations, lists of directors, and minutes of the CCBA and other organizations. Thanks to his long involvement in Victoria’s Chinatown and decades of research, Lai offers insights no one else can provide. Unfortunately, this is his last book – a testimony to his endless curiosity and his passion to record history. It will stand proudly next to my copy of Edgar Wickberg’s From China to Canada: A History of Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982).