Sept/Oct 2010

Chinese labourers in BC’s coal mines

By Correy Baldwin

Chinatown, Cumberland, BC 

 Miner standing outside his cabin in Cumberland’s Chinatown | Photo courtesy of Cumberland Museum and Archives (0040-003N)

In the late 1800s, British Columbia was rich in “Chinatowns” — vibrant places where Chinese labourers who worked in industries throughout the province could find familiar food, medicine and entertainment, as well as the comfort of fraternity. In Chinatowns, they worked as barbers, tailors, launderers, grocers and restaurant owners.

Neighbouring white residents who wandered into Chinatowns discovered a new culture. In February 1891, the Nanaimo Free Press reported that “a great number of our citizens” visited Chinatown to witness the Chinese New Year celebrations. Their curiosity was welcomed, and they were treated to cigars, liqueurs and firecrackers.

Chinese opera houses (Victoria alone had three) hosted acting troupes who had travelled from China to perform Cantonese opera. Among the performance halls and reading rooms were other forms of distraction: gambling houses, brothels and opium shops.

The first Chinese labourers came for the Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley in the 1860s, where they stayed to mine jade, the value of which was unknown to white prospectors. More labourers — almost exclusively male — arrived to work in the coal mines around Nanaimo.

Most came from Guangdong province in southeast China, which had been devastated by the first Opium War with Britain and the years of upheaval and economic ruin that followed. A 60-day journey at sea brought them toward desperately needed employment.

One major employer was coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, whose Wellington mine was the province’s largest. His empire was built on Vancouver Island’s richest coal seam. It was also partly built by the Chinese, who made up more than half his employees. His Cumberland mine was known as the Chinese Tunnels because it was worked entirely by Chinese miners.

Like other mine owners, Dunsmuir realized that he could hire Chinese labourers to work under conditions and at wages that other miners would not accept. Their wage scale was often less than half of that received by white miners, and they were largely employed in low-skill jobs. The mine camps were segregated, and at Cumberland Dunsmuir alotted them the swampy area on the edge of the camp.

When a large strike broke out at the Wellington Mine in 1883, Dunsmuir replaced striking white miners with Chinese from Victoria. This fed already brewing anti-Chinese sentiments, and the striking miners eventually withdrew their demand for higher wages and insisted only that Dunsmuir rid his mine of the Chinese. Dunsmuir refused, held out, and broke the strike.

The BC Legislative Assembly, in which Dunsmuir sat as an MLA, was soon debating anti-Chinese bills. Some wanted to exclude Chinese from positions of responsibility or high skill (and thus higher pay) or to remove them from the mines altogether. Others wanted to rid the entire province of the Chinese. When an anti-immigration bill was passed in 1884, the Canadian government decided to step in.

The Canadian government had its own motivations for keeping Chinese labourers in the country: they were employed on the railway. Prime Minister MacDonald had lured British Columbia into confederation with the promise to build a railroad that would connect it to the rest of the country. It seemed an impossible feat, and it was an enormous political gamble. If the railway failed, so would the Prime Minister’s career, along with his National Dream.

Chinese labourers were essential to the railway’s success. Thousands were hired to overcome a shortage of white labour. Not only were they assigned the most dangerous work through the most difficult terrain, but their low wages (again half those of white workers) saved contracters $3 million, making construction economically feasible.

And yet, just a few weeks after blocking British Columbia’s anti-immigration bill, the Canadian government passed its own Chinese Immigration Act, knowing that it would not come into effect until after construction was completed. Timing was everything. The Act restricted and regulated Chinese immigration, and imposed a $50 head tax on any Chinese entering the country, making it unaffordable to bring a wife and family to Canada.

When the railroad was completed, thousands of Chinese labourers were left unemployed. Most never received the return passage that they were promised by the Canadian government, and the US Exclusion Act of 1882 meant that the Chinese in British Columbia could not enter the United States. They had nowhere to go.

The first winter was especially difficult: lack of employment led to lack of food and shelter. A soup kitchen set up by Victoria’s mayor was objected to by the newly formed Anti-Chinese Union, one of many such groups formed to counter the “yellow peril.”

In 1887, an explosion at a Nanaimo mine killed 150 employees. The miners blamed the Chinese, claiming that their lack of English made them a safety hazard — a logic that was not applied to many European miners — and they called for the Chinese to be banished from the mines. After another deadly explosion, Nanaimo and Wellington miners refused to work unless the Chinese were removed, and several mine owners complied. The miners then took their demands to the provincial legislature.

The public was not always in favour of these measures — many people enjoyed friendly relations with the Chinese community. But the political influence of the lobby groups was strong. The head tax was increased to $100 in 1901 and to $500 in 1903. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act (known as the Exclusion Act by the Chinese) banned most forms of Chinese immigration.

To deal with the rising animosity and the needs of the unemployed, the Chinese community in Victoria formed the Chinese Benevolent Association. Community associations had long been a part of the Chinese community, arranging travel to and from China, transferring wages to relatives, or simply offering a bed. The Benevolent Association provided general welfare assistance and opposed discriminatory laws, supporting the community through the worst years.

Chinese labourers were essential to Canada’s industries while the nation developed, and yet they were often exploited and treated poorly. In 2006, the Canadian government took a step toward repairing that rift by offering an official apology and compensation to the Chinese community.

Works cited

Dunae, Patrick A. 2007. Reconstructing a Harbour City in the Pacific Northwest with GIS: Nanaimo in the 1890s. Paper presented to the Historical Geography Network of the Social Sciences History Association, Chicago, November 16, 2007

Post a comment


PDF Version