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Early Chinese Laborers: The Canadian Experience Essay

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Updated: Jul 8th, 2021


Chinese Canadians represent one of the largest ethnic groups in the country and have a significant impact on the economy. Despite their importance to the economy, including the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, many European Canadians showed their hostility and opposition to the immigration of Chinese workers. With the help of the prohibitive head tax and other restrictive measures, the Chinese experienced severe limitations when trying to immigrate to Canada between 1885 and 1947. As the country celebrates Canada Day on July 1st, Chinese Canadians refer to the holiday as “National Humiliation Day” since their ancestors belonged to the only group ever to be prohibited from emigrating to Canada.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese Canadians settled around urban areas, predominantly Toronto and Vancouver, and contributed to the development of every aspect of Canadian society, including literature, sports, music, business, and education. Due to the complex heritage of Chinese immigrants in Canada, exploring their representation in such media as literature is important for exploring how writers chose to portray the population. In the current exploration, how early Chinese laborers were depicted in the literature of Chinese Canadian authors is expected to shed light on the issues of that time and further the understanding of the challenges that the community faced, especially in terms of labor.


During the rebellions that took place in China in the nineteenth century, many workers and peasants were forced to seek their livelihood in other countries. Prospects of major opportunities were seen especially overseas, from where it was possible to send money back to relatives who remained in China. The major waves of immigration from China to Canada between 1858 and 1923 caused drastic changes in the policies established by the government.

For instance, from 1885, migrants had to pay $50 of head tax before entering the country, and this requirement applied only to Chinese entrants. By 1900, the tax was raised to $100, with requests from British Columbia to increase it to $500. The Royal Commission appointed by the government saw Asian immigrants as “unfit for full citizenship… obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state” (Chan). Because of the high tax, the costs of bringing relatives from China to Canada became unmanageable. This meant that men came alone as bachelors, and in 1931 out of the total population of Chinese immigrants of 46,519, only 3,648 were women (Chan). Moreover, there were meager numbers of married women immigrants.

The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway represents a landmark event in the social development of Chinese Laborers. The railway that tied one side of the country to another had to pass through rocky and mountainous land, which made the work of laborers hard and even dangerous (University of British Columbia). Chinese workers made tunnels through the rock with the help of dynamite to clear the roadbed for the railway’s building. The use of explosives led to a large number of work-related accidents.

Despite the large role that Chinese workers played in the construction of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 a day, and unlike others, they had to pay for their transportation, food, clothing, medical care, and other services that should have been available to employees at construction sites for free (University of British Columbia). In addition, the workers lived in extreme conditions, had to cook food over outdoor fires, and had a diet of predominantly tea, dried salmon, and rice (University of British Columbia).

Since they did not have enough money to buy fresh produce, many of them suffered from severe vitamin C deficiency, and in the absence of medical care, workers relied on herbal care for treatment. Nevertheless, the workers referred to their work on railroads as the “Gold Mountain” that promised them money that they could send home (Choy 9). Further sections of this paper will dig deeper into several works of Chinese Canadian authors to shed light on the portrayal of early laborers.


The Jade Peony: Wayson Choy

The description of Chinese immigrants working at the railroad was partially described by Wayson Choy in his book The Jade Peony. The novel is set in the late 1930s and 40’s in Chinatown of Vancouver told through the reminiscences of the children of a Chinese immigrant family. While the events on the railroad took place much earlier to the novel’s setting, it served as a reminder of the hard past of Chinese workers whose identity was completely shattered.

The Chinatown in Choy’s novel is described as a community of people that do not belong to Canadians or Chinese; they are ‘neither this or that.’ However, to survive in a tough environment, they had to use grit and humor. The family in the novel recognized the importance of the past – children were often told stories about the struggles their ancestors faced, like the story of Monkey Man who sailed to China transporting the bones of men who died in fishing, lumber, and railroad camps (Choy 187). Further sections of this paper will dig deeper into several works of Chinese Canadian authors to shed light on the portrayal of early laborers.

Yip Sang: and the First Chinese Canadians: Frances Hern

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese workers came to the Western Coast of North America to get away from poverty and look for better opportunities, especially through working on railroads. The book Yip Sang: and the First Chinese Canadians by Frances Hern tells the story of Yip Sang, a Guangdong native who moved to Vancouver in 1881.

He moved there after being unable to reach success in California. Nevertheless, his luck changed upon moving to Canada; through perseverance, hard labor, and pursuing opportunities Yip Sang managed to become very successful and wealthy. His money passed to his wives and twenty-three children after he died in 1927 (Hern 21). What is interesting to mention is that Yip Sang is that he was an unofficial Chinatown mayor and played a vital role in helping immigrants from his homeland to overcome a variety of challenges that they had faced.

The fascinating history of Yip Sang is inspiring as it showed that hard work pays off. The success of Sang and the first Chinese Canadian immigrants played showed that it was possible to build new lives and develop a long-lasting legacy for their communities and families. In the book, early Chinese laborers are presented as adventurous men who value hard work and understand that no success would come to them as foreigners if they did not try.

The example of Yip Sang served as an inspiration for many generations of Chinese Canadians who felt ostracized from the community and were not welcomed. The fact that Yip Sang managed to overcome not only financial challenges in the form of head taxes but also issues associated with his acceptance in the community.

Altogether, despite the flaws of Yip Sang as a character, his story of success illustrates a great example of hard work rewarding people in the end. Since most Chinese immigrants had no future despite desiring to have it, Yip Sang was the exception to the rule and managed to further the development of his community socially, politically, and economically.

The Railroad Adventures: George Chiang

While in Choy’s book, the labor on the railroad served only as background knowledge and did not imply much detail, it is important to analyze the work of a Chinese Canadian author who dedicated more time to explore the issue. George Chiang, a writer, actor, and playwright from Montreal created a book for children The Railroad Adventures of Chen Sing. The book is centered around the life of a Chinese boy, Sing, who travels to the West of Canada to work as the builder of the transcontinental railway.

Along his way, he encounters numerous accidents, encounters with wild animals, and makes new friends. The story is based on multiple stories that Ike Sing retold to Chiang before passing away in 2003. Despite the book being meant for children, it reflects the challenges that Chinese workers experienced in the railroad (Chua).

The description of relationships with Indigenous people is what makes the book unique. For instance, the actual story of Ike Sing was retold by Chiang. When Cheng Sing’s crew was dying of scurvy and had no idea what disease they had, he went off to find some Indigenous groups to ask for help. The latter taught Sing to make spruce tea and gave him some berries to replenish their vitamin C intake. Thus, the Indigenous people saved the lives of Chinese railroad laborers.

The book represents the desire of Chinese Canadians to educate children about the complex history of their ancestors who had to work very hard on the railroad despite not being accepted as important contributors to the Canadian economy. The format of a children’s book may not be stylistically valuable; however, its context should not be undervalued. The prototype of an early Chinese laborer is an individual who went through numerous challenges, risks, and adventures to seek the brightest future. The fact that they were not accepted and were punished for being foreigners made the workers stronger since the challenges allowed them to look for unique solutions to problems, made them closer to each other as communities, and helped them to become inventive.

Ghost Train: Paul Yee

Ghost Train written by Paul Yee and illustrated by Harvey Chan is a powerful story based on the lives of Chinese workers who came to North America, and Canada in particular. The plot revolves around a Chinese girl, Choon-Yi, coming to Canada to reunite with her father who worked at the railroad, only to find out that he died in an accident (Yee 3). Soon after, the girl encounters the ghost of her father and uses her talent to paint a train that can transport the ghosts of other Chinese laborers who were killed during railroad construction. Their souls longed to see their motherland for the last time, and the talent of the girl could make that possible.

The book is beautifully illustrated, and the imagery of it plays a defining role in showing the nature and the spirit of Chinese workers as a group. It is through their talent and the desire to have a bright future would make the laborers stick to their work despite the numerous challenges along their way.

Upon reading the book, the beauty of the illustrator’s art combined with the writer’s words evoke feelings of both sadness and appreciation for what the Chinese laborers had done to further their legacy. The building of the railroad in Ghost Train becomes the metaphor for immigrants’ struggles – despite the challenges, they went on and persevered. The book presents the early laborers as warriors who died in the battle against the odds and deserved to be sent into eternity with honor and respect. Importantly, the story does not only concern Canadian Chinese workers but also laborers who worked in the US.

Based on the three books, it can be said that the laborers who migrated from China to Canada were severely oppressed despite their attempts to build a better future for themselves. They were trapped in severe conditions and could not even return to their homeland, which meant that they had to stay in Canada and continue working to survive. It is important to note that two of the books, Ghost Train and the Railroad Adventures, are meant for children and thus tried to educate the growing Chinese Canadian generations about the hardships that their ancestors had endured. In The Jade Peony, the work of early laborers serves as a reminder rather than as the central theme of the book. This reminder is very important because of its influence on shaping the Chinese Canadian society and the Chinatown in Vancouver particularly.

Concluding Thoughts and Summary

The analysis of literature depicting early Chinese Canadian laborers showed that the community struggled with numerous challenges. They were not accepted as members of Canadian society and were seen as not worthy to belong to the community of European immigrants. The consistent increases of head tax that was only abolished in 1947 caused many immigrants to seek any work they could find to sustain their livelihood. Despite their intentions to return to China and bring money back to their families, the laborers were unable to do so because of the economic strain and the lack of opportunities.

The building of the railroad represents the key symbol of the oppression of Chinese workers who immigrated to Canada. The poor conditions in which they had to work along with the lowest pay that they were compensated for their labor show the absence of respect to workers. The large number of victims that died during accidents on railroads was disregarded by local governments since Chinese immigrants were seen as not worthy of any attention despite their crucial roles in the railroad’s construction. Ghost Train and The Railroad Adventures are the two books that used the railroad’s construction as the focal context within which all other events took place.

Both stories showed the tough destiny of Chinese workers and educated the future generations about the important work their ancestors did. The legacy of early Chinese laborers should be preserved and respected. Today, Chinese Canadian authors are working on new books to explore their heritage and history. Overall, this paper allowed me to delve deeper into the literary works that explored the hard past of early Chinese laborers in Canada, showing that they managed to persevere despite the hardships and many challenges.

Works Cited

Chan, Anthony. “The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2015. Web.

Choy, Wayson. The Jade Peony. Douglas & McIntyre, 1995.

Chua, June. “Rabble. 2017. Web.

Hern, Frances. Yip Sang: And the First Chinese Canadians. Heritage House, 2011.

Yee, Paul. Ghost Train. Groundwood Books Ltd., 1996.

University of British Columbia. “Work: Railways.” Libracy Ubc. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Early Chinese Laborers: The Canadian Experience'. 8 July.

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