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Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba

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They helped build the railway that bound a new nation from coast to coast.

But once the last spike of the CPR was driven into the earth at Craigellachie, B.C., in 1885, low-paid migrant workers from China were no longer welcome in Canada.

At a time when Europeans were being offered free land to settle the still-fledgling nation, the government imposed a 'head tax' of $50 on new Chinese immigrants -- the equivalent of more than $1,000 today.

Unable to find new work or bring their loved ones to Canada, many Chinese workers returned home. The rest -- mainly men -- struggled to earn a living in a land where they were viewed with suspicion, if not hostility.

Such were the humble beginnings of the Chinese people in Canada.

Once the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, some men rode the rails east to the Prairies in search of opportunity. In the 1880s, they began to open hand laundries in communities such as Winnipeg, Brandon and other Manitoba towns -- one of the few occupations open to them.

"They had to make a living. Nobody would hire them because of their race," said former Conservative member of Parliament Inky Mark, a third-generation Canadian.

Mark's family history is representative of many longtime Canadian families of Chinese descent.

His grandfather, Ma Sing, was one of thousands of Chinese labourers who toiled on the mountainous British Columbia portion of the CP. He would have earned a fraction of what non-Chinese workers were paid. When the railway was completed, he returned to China.

But in 1901, he came back to Canada, paying the head tax, which by that time had increased to $100.

Ma Sing worked in wash houses as he made his way eastward from Victoria until he reached Russell, where he settled. He later opened his own laundry in the town.

Laundry work was tedious and physically demanding.

"A lifetime spent sorting, soaking, boiling, washing, scrubbing, rinsing, starching, drying, ironing, pressing, folding, packaging, collecting and delivering could break the health of even the strongest laundry worker," according to one account of that period.

Typically, in the early days, the men worked in Canada and sent money home to China to support families they rarely saw. The head tax, which was increased to $500 per person in 1903, made the immigration of whole families prohibitively expensive.

According to the 1901 census, there were 206 people of Chinese descent in Manitoba -- all of them male.

Ma Sing returned to China to visit his wife in 1907, and Mark's father, George Mark, was conceived. George Mark came to Canada in 1922 as a 13-year-old to live with a father he had never known, paying the $500 head tax.

One year later, the Chinese Immigration Act was passed, which banned those of Chinese ancestry from immigrating to Canada altogether. No other ethnic group was similarly targeted. The draconian law would remain in effect until 1947, splitting families and causing thousands of Chinese to return to their homeland.

 

Philip Lee arrived in Winnipeg, fresh out of high school in Hong Kong, in the late summer of 1962.

 

The youngest of nine children from a well-to-do entrepreneurial family, Lee held a British passport. He was sponsored to Canada by his sister Angeline, who had moved to the Manitoba capital earlier to study education at the University of Manitoba.

His initial reaction upon arriving in Canada? "Wow, it's so spacious. The air is so clean," Lee said recently.

Unlike Chinese immigrants in years past, Lee's acclimation to Winnipeg -- other than the cold and the mosquitoes -- was relatively easy. His sister, an outgoing woman who made friends easily and had married a University of Manitoba agricultural economist, was established in the community.

Lee settled in Fort Garry, near the university, and studied chemistry. His plan was to obtain an undergraduate degree and then return to Hong Kong to article in law. But by the time he graduated, political tensions between nationalists and communists in the then-British colony caused him to change his mind. Rumours swirled about a possible British pullout.

On the advice of his mother, who had also moved to Winnipeg, Lee decided to put down roots.

The man who would become Manitoba's first lieutenant governor of Chinese descent parlayed his science degree into a job with the Metropolitan Corp. of Greater Winnipeg, a municipal umbrella organization that predated Unicity. He worked as a chemist, studying the city's water. One of his early discoveries was that Winnipeg was using far more chlorine in its water than was needed. He worked for the city for 38 years, eventually becoming branch head for industrial waste.

As a young, educated man who spoke good English, Lee caught the attention of longtime respected Chinese community leader Charlie Foo. Although he was still in his 20s, Lee found himself introduced by Foo in the late 1960s to then-mayor Steve Juba, the local police chief and other prominent Winnipeggers as his heir apparent.

The first people of Chinese descent known to have settled in Winnipeg arrived by stagecoach in 1877. Charley Lam, Fung Quong and an unnamed woman opened up a laundry business.

 

In the latter part of the 19th century, low-paying service jobs were the main occupations available to early Chinese residents in the city. Eleven Chinese wash houses emerged in the 1890s. And by 1901, there were 100 men working in 29 laundries throughout the city. According to author Paul Yee, the first Chinese store, Quong Chong Tai, opened on King Street in 1905.

In order to avoid competing with one another, Winnipeg's Chinese laundries were well spaced out. That, in part, delayed the development of a Chinatown in the city until 1909.

By 1920, Winnipeg's 900 Chinese residents included eight families with 31 children. They ran 150 laundries along with three restaurants, eight Chinese grocery stores and three coal-heated greenhouses, according to Yee.

Brandon University religious studies Prof. Alison Marshall said in the early days, Chinese could own land in Manitoba -- unlike in British Columbia, for instance. They could also vote. In British Columbia and Saskatchewan, ethnic Chinese were disenfranchised until 1947 and 1951 respectively.

At one time, Chinese could also practise medicine in Manitoba, but not in B.C. "Manitoba was a very welcoming place," said Marshall, who has authored two books on Chinese settlement in the eastern Prairies, including one soon to be published by the University of British Columbia Press.

But Manitoba was "welcoming" mainly in comparison to some other provinces. The provincial legislature passed a bill in 1913 banning Chinese from hiring white women in their businesses. Although the law was never proclaimed, it was indicative of the attitudes of the time. Chinese Canadians were not allowed into theatres or dance halls. And there are accounts of laundrymen being harassed or bullied when picking up clothes or making deliveries.

Most hurtful were national policies and laws that kept Chinese husbands and their families apart. In 1923, with the Chinese Immigration Act (known also as the Chinese Exclusion Act) banning virtually all immigration, families began to lose hope of ever being united in this country. Many left Canada. The country's Chinese population shrank to 32,528 in 1951 from 46,519 in 1931. Winnipeg's population shrank by about 25 per cent in the 1930s, Yee said.

The imbalance between males and females among Chinese Canadians continued to be great. In 1921, there were 1,533 Chinese males for every 100 females in Canada. (The ratio of males to females wouldn't come into the balance until the 1980s.) And the few Chinese women who did live in Prairie towns such as Winnipeg felt a debilitating isolation. Many didn't speak English and did not venture into the community unless escorted by a male family member. "The ones who tended to flourish were the ones who converted to Christianity and got involved in the picnics that were organized in Winnipeg beginning in 1917," Marshall said.

 

Dr. Joseph Du has no regrets about moving to Winnipeg (via Regina) from Taiwan in 1962.

 

"I think my life has been fulfilled," the 79-year-old retired pediatrician and longtime Chinese community leader said recently.

Du, along with Philip Lee, was a driving force behind the revitalization of Winnipeg's Chinatown in the 1980s. Now 79 and forced to undergo dialysis three times a week, he continues to broker new projects for the area in his role as head of the Chinatown Development Corp. He's also president of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre.

Du was born and raised in Vietnam, where his family had moved from China three generations earlier. He was living in the northern part of Vietnam when the Geneva Conference split the country in two in 1954.

Du's family was poor. His dad had died when he was young. But during the political turmoil in Vietnam, he was given the opportunity to enter Taiwan as a refugee and attend university on a full scholarship from the government. Du enrolled in medicine.

By the time he completed his studies, the Vietnam War had begun. He didn't want to go home and be drafted. So he came to Canada, where his first stop was Regina's Grey Nun Hospital.

Du recalls being one of three Chinese doctors from Taiwan at the hospital in 1961. They worked long hours, had no money and no girlfriends. They were lonely.

So, too, were the elderly in the hospital's seniors ward. At night, the three young doctors would visit the ward to help out. The nurses on watch were glad for the extra aid. The seniors were glad for the company.

"They were happy (to see us). We practised our broken English," Du said, smiling at the recollection.

Du's passion was to become a pediatrician. He learned Winnipeg had one of only three children's hospitals in Canada at the time. The other two were in Montreal and Toronto. Winnipeg happened to be closest to Regina. Du moved here in 1962, landing a job at Misericordia General Hospital, where he stayed until an opening came up at the Children's Hospital.

Du soon became a leader in the city's Chinese community. In the early '60s, it was dominated by single men, the result of decades of discriminatory Canadian laws. The few families who lived in Winnipeg took turns hosting potluck suppers once a month to visit one another.

Du was part of a small wave of young Chinese professionals and students who settled in Winnipeg in the 1960s. The immigrant numbers were still modest compared to what they would be in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Men such as Du and Philip Lee encouraged the Chinese community to become more outward-looking and to promote its culture. They knew that by participating more in the political and social mainstream, the community would have more influence in the decisions affecting it, Lee said recently.

"Otherwise (you're) sitting outside watching people on the inside making decisions on your behalf."

With this attitude, Lee helped organize the Chinese community's participation in the inaugural Folklorama in 1970.

But Chinatown by then was a far cry from its heyday in the 1920s. Buildings that no longer qualified for fire insurance were being torn down. An attempt to revitalize the neighbourhood in 1969 was unsuccessful. Lee said a considerable amount of money was spent on a proposal the community wound up rejecting. The problem was it would have displaced too many existing businesses without giving them a viable option in the interim.

By the early 1980s, when the federal-led Core Area Initiative program came into being, the community had its ducks in a row. All three levels of government and the private sector got behind a new proposal to build a cultural centre along King Street, on the site of some vacant warehouses owned by the city and province.

The distinctive multi-roofed Dynasty Building, a six-storey commercial complex that is home to the Chinese cultural centre, was opened in 1987. The Chinese Heritage Garden, Chinatown Arch and King Street beautification project were officially dedicated at about the same time. The Harmony Mansion apartment complex on Princess Street was also completed. The cultural centre, Chinese gate and garden have since become tourist attractions.

Other developments in Chinatown in recent years have included the Sun Wah Supermarket and mall on King Street near Higgins Avenue and the government-funded Peace Tower apartment complex at Princess Street and Logan Avenue. The latter, a 48-unit structure designed to provide affordable housing to newcomers, will be ready for occupancy early next year.

 

Winnipeg's ethnic Chinese population is estimated today to be more than 20,000. That includes about 5,000 folks who listed Chinese as part of their ethnic background in the 2006 census.

 

After Canada repealed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947, it opened its doors just a crack to Chinese immigrants -- allowing relatives here to sponsor family members in China. (More liberalized Chinese immigration was not permitted until the 1960s.) Between 1949 and 1955, 4,247 Chinese children and 3,325 Chinese wives entered Canada, according to author Peter S. Li.

It was during this period, in 1955, that future Dauphin-Swan River Conservative MP Inky Mark arrived in Canada at age seven with his mother and younger sister. Husband and father George had lived in Manitoba since 1922, when he came to join his father as a teenager. George was a stranger to his kids. His children had been conceived during the rare trips he made to China.

George operated the Rex Café in Gilbert Plains, where Inky and his sister Debbie grew up.

"We were the only coloured kids in the community (of about 1,000 at the time)," Mark recalled recently. "So basically, we were raised by the community."

Although he and his sister heard racial slurs, Mark said generally the western Manitoba community was a "pretty welcoming environment." He added this was likely because "there weren't many of us."

He and his sister participated in school and community events like other kids. A lot of doors opened to Mark because of his participation in the United Church.

"We didn't live in a Chinese environment. We lived in a small-town environment and became just like everyone else. Only our skin colour was different."

That experience would shape his strong views that immigrants should integrate in the broader community, as opposed to forming highly concentrated self-sufficient enclaves as in some of Canada's largest cities.

Mark taught high school in Dauphin and was elected to the town council in 1991. Three years later, he became the town's mayor. He was first elected to the House of Commons as a Reform candidate in 1997. At the time, he was one of three MPs of Chinese descent -- and the only one who did not represent a riding with a large Chinese Canadian population. Mark served for 13 years before retiring from federal political life in 2010.

 

Over the past three years, close to 4,200 people from mainland China have immigrated to Manitoba. And there's every indication the numbers will remain high for some time.

 

Four decades ago, in 1971, Winnipeg was home to only 2,535 Chinese people. The population has grown eightfold since then due to several waves of immigration.

A refugee boom from Southeast Asia from 1978 to 1981 brought the total to about 6,000, according to a book commemorating the centennial of Winnipeg's Chinatown in 2009.

Subsequent waves of immigrants from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s and then from mainland China in the past decade have given the local population a boost. However, the number is minuscule compared with centres such as Toronto and Vancouver.

In Manitoba, the community's social and economic prospects have soared dramatically. A growing number of professionals, entrepreneurs, students and academics are making Winnipeg home. Many of the newcomers are settling near the University of Manitoba in communities like Fort Garry and Fort Richmond.

Wealthy Chinese families are sending their children overseas to study at the city's post-secondary institutions -- and many of these kids plan to plant roots here once they graduate. (See Schools attract them on J16.) A number of these families are buying homes for the students to live in, helping to spur a residential construction boom.

At the same time, Chinese labourers are still being lured to Canada -- and Manitoba -- to fill jobs that many here still shun. By 2008, close to 500 Chinese workers were employed in Brandon's Maple Leaf Foods Inc. pork-processing plant. Chinese immigrants have also been recruited to toil in a pork plant at Neepawa.

 

In 2009, when Lee was named the province's 24th lieutenant governor, there was joy in Manitoba's Chinese community.

 

Lee's title was a sign there were no limits now on what their children could accomplish here.

The appointment also showed how far Canada had come in embracing people from all ethnic communities.

"Suddenly, the ethnic groups all sort of circled around me," Lee recounted recently. "They said, 'If you can be appointed the Queen's representative, all our children in the future will have a chance for any position in the government.' "

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

-- secondary sources:

Peter S. Li, The Chinese in Canada, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Alison R. Marshall, The Way of the Bachelor, Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba, UBC Press, 2011.

Paul Yee, Chinatown, An Illustrated History of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

Winnipeg Chinatown: Celebrating 100 Years, A Remarkable Achievement 1909-2009.

Government of Canada websites.At the same time, Chinese labourers are still being lured to Canada -- and Manitoba -- to fill jobs that many here still shun. By 2008, close to 500 Chinese workers were employed in Brandon's Maple Leaf Foods Inc. pork processing plant. Chinese immigrants have also been recruited to toil in a pork plant at Neepawa.

 

-- -- --

 

In 2009, when Philip Lee, a former city chemist and community leader, was named the province's 24th lieutenant governor, there was joy in Manitoba's Chinese community.

Lee's title was a sign that there were no limits now on what their children could accomplish here.

The appointment also showed how far Canada had come in embracing people from all ethnic communities.

"Suddenly the ethnic groups all sort of circled around me," Lee recounted recently. "They said, 'If you can be appointed the Queen's representative, all our children in the future will have a chance for any position in the government.' "

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

 

Secondary sources:

Peter S. Li, The Chinese in Canada, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Alison R. Marshall, The Way of the Bachelor, Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba UBC Press, 2011.

Paul Yee, Chinatown, An Illustrated History of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

Winnipeg Chinatown: Celebrating 100 Years, a Remarkable Achievement 1909-2009

Government of Canada websites

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j1

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