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July 1 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Concordia’s Alice Ming Wai Jim reflects on the racist 1923 law that restricted Asian immigration to Canada
June 29, 2023

Chinese labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway Nearly four decades after 17,000 Chinese labourers worked in perilous conditions on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Government of Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act. | Image D-07548 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

July 1, 1923 was a dark day for Canada.

Nearly four decades after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, which saw 17,000 Chinese labourers hired to work in perilous conditions, the Government of Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act.

Commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the law severely restricted Asian immigration to Canada.

Within 12 months of the law being passed, Chinese and other Asian people had to register with the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization. They had to carry a registration card that has been likened to South Africa's apartheid pass book, and failure to show it meant they could be subject to deportation.

As a result, it is estimated that only 15 Chinese immigrants gained entry to Canada between 1923 and 1946.

A duty to remember

Professor Alice Ming Wai Jim is an art historian and curator at Concordia whose work addresses the lack of representation of racialized communities in Canadian art history. She has been educating Canadians about anti-Asian, Black, and Indigenous racism in North America and artistic responses to these darker lesser-known chapters.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of three decades of anti-Asian sentiment manifested through anti-Asian movements, race riots, and other laws intended to 'Keep Canada White,’" she says.

“In visual culture, you see a lot of racist caricatures in the historical records of Chinese people depicted as invading alien hordes, and this is also where the idea of the ‘Yellow peril’ begins to pick up steam. The result of the ban was an early Chinese Canadian bachelor society because it was mostly men who were recruited to work on the railroad in the 1880s, basically through a form of indentured servitude for four- to five-year periods."

Infamously, no Asian or Indigenous labourers were included in the photos of the final railroad spikes being driven into the ground.

The Chinese head tax had been applied from 1885 until the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923.

"When the railway was completed in 1885 you had a lot of labourers in need of other jobs," she continues. "The government was wondering if these people were going to stay and seek enfranchisement — so that's when these policies originated."

The rapid increase in the cost of the head tax, which went from $50 in 1885 to $500 in 1903, is an indication of how quickly legislated anti-Asian racism and yellow peril discourse progressed.

"These discriminatory policies had a profound impact on Chinese Canadian and other Asian communities. It separated families for decades and created a sense of exclusion that persisted long after the act was repealed in 1947."

A woman with black hair wears dark clothing in front of a gray background Alice Ming Wai Jim

A call to act for change

A national remembrance event took place on June 23 in the Canadian Senate, hosted by senators Yuen Pau Woo, Victor Oh and members of the Action! Chinese Canadians Together foundation. The event included speeches, poetry readings, performances and the unveiling of a plaque.

However, as Jim explains, and as evidenced by reactions to current allegations of Chinese interference in Canada, it's important to remain vigilant and keep the conversation going.

"This gives support to ongoing anti-Asian hate awareness campaigns," she says. "The ACCT is very active in trying to educate people about the history of anti-Asian racism in Canada and to eliminate these historical erasures as one path towards reconciliation and healing.

Lesser-known histories in Canadian art

In her own work, Jim is interested in exploring the contributions of racialized communities to Canadian art throughout its history. Her 2007 Vancouver exhibition Redress Express explored the head-tax issue, bringing artists and activists such as Sid Tan and Karen Tam together.

Jim also founded the journal Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, and she is currently working on a book on Canadian artists of colour who engage with a different group of sevens. “It involves important dates in Canada’s immigration history that have had a significant impact on not only visible minority immigrants but also relations between people of colour and Indigenous communities on whose unceded territories these struggles have taken place historically to present day,” she explains.

The centenary of the Chinese Exclusion Act should be seen in the larger context of structural discrimination against racialized peoples that affects everyone, Jim believes. “And yet, we know so little about the exclusion years, or the Komagata Maru or the Japanese Canadian internment, for that matter.”

"I think that the racial reckoning that has been amplified by the efforts of Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, and the upsurge of white supremacy and anti-Asian hate during COVID-19 has made us intensely aware that there's an urgent imperative to work toward a more just society — and for that to happen we have to be much more aware of our past. We should be provoked into wanting to act, and now is a good time to be having these conversations."

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Art History.

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