Early Chinese Canadian history is challenging to research in our archives as racism and language barriers meant that records relating to the Chinese experience weren’t particularly valued by non-Asians. No-one saw the significance of these pioneer experiences. Also, the majority of 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese immigrants were single men whose families remained in China—their correspondence to their families is now lost to us. Many were also illiterate—thus records created by the Chinese community are sparse and only a few have made it into the care of the BC Archives. In order to try and understand what life was like for Chinese Canadians in British Columbia in the 19th and early 20th century we had to look to the records created by those outside of the Chinese community, particularly the BC government itself.
For example, records created by the coroner’s office reveal how Chinese workers were often given the most dangerous industrial jobs. In 1887 a huge mine explosion in Nanaimo killed 53 Chinese miners, and the ‘transcripts of evidence’ detail their difficult working conditions underground. Sadly their names are not recorded—the only record of their existence is a list of numbers. We’ve digitized dozens of other inquests relating to the industrial deaths of Chinese in British Columbia—underground, in sawmills and canneries, and explosives factories.
Other collections reveal that Chinese miners were often paid less than ‘white’ labourers and treated very callously. Two letters from coal baron James Dunsmuir (who was the largest employer of Chinese in BC, and later both Lieutenant Governor and Premier) show his contempt for them, as he instructs his payroll clerk to deduct $1.00 off each “chinaman” for Court Taxes, “irrespective of what he is working at” (i.e., pay grade). Dunsmuir was annoyed because he was being forced to take a case regarding his right to employ Chinese labourers to the Privy Council so he punished his own Chinese workers for it.
Another set of records that we are digitizing is a selection of letters received by the Attorney General’s office (GR-0429) between 1872 and 1925. These letters hint at the discrimination and prejudice that came with being Chinese in BC during this time. In 1888 Dr. J.S. Helmcken writes about the Chinese in the Victoria Gaol, complaining that the jail is being used as a dumping ground by the police for Chinese men who are homeless or ill. But Helmcken is not particularly sympathetic to the prisoners—instead he writes that they should be sent back to China as his main concern is that they will spread contagion. Other letters document acts of violence, from attacks on a Chinese freighter’s horses to a crowd in Phoenix chasing a Chinese man out of town.
One of the earliest set of records that we’ve located shows that, perhaps contrary to our expectations, the Chinese community was sometimes supported by the law. By combining information found in online sources and in our own archives we’ve been able to determine what actually happened in a case of exploitation and abuse. In 1865 a Captain Bartlett and a Chinese man called Gung Wo were involved in bringing a large group of Chinese labourers to Victoria from Hong Kong on an overcrowded ship, the barque Maria. The British Colonist from May of 1865 reports that the Chinese passengers were treated very badly during the voyage and that when they arrived in Victoria the Chinese brought a case against the captain. Records in the archives corroborate this as we hold the tickets issued to the passengers plus a short handwritten note that notes the deplorable conditions on the ship. According to the note, passengers were only given a quarter-pound of meat a day for 10 men, and had only 14 inches of space per man to lie down in, for a 60 day voyage. It’s likely that these were exhibits in the case and that the notes were written by either the judge or a lawyer, although we have no other information about how they ended up in the archives. The captain was found guilty and a warrant for his arrest was issued so, in this instance at least, justice prevailed. Unfortunately Captain Bartlett evaded capture—he took his ship out of the harbour surreptitiously and illegally at night and headed for American waters. When last heard of, the Maria was sailing out of Hawaii under an American flag.
The end result of this project will be a great set of primary resources, available online to students, researchers, the Chinese Canadian community and anyone interested in the way in which British Columbia and Canada treated one of its most significant immigrant populations. It will be good to see some of these shadowy and relatively unexamined lives brought into the limelight.