A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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THE ROAD CHOSEN: The Story of Lem Wong
Immigration History
Lem Wong arrived in Vancouver, Canada, in 1897. He was sixteen years old and paid a head tax of fifty dollars. He came on a vessel that was part sailboat, part steamer. The officers were white, the crew Chinese. The trip from Hong Kong took three weeks and Lem Wong travelled deep down in steerage. According to Wong family history, Lem had left China because his father had gambled away the family fortune, leaving his widowed mother destitute.

Lem's emigration to Canada was part of a Chinese tradition that existed at the turn of the century. Seeking new and prosperous opportunities overseas, the Chinese would send money back to support their relatives in China, holding to the hope that they would return home one day, prosperous(1). From the 1880's to the 1920's the Chinese in Canada were involved in the raw work of a fledgling industrial economy. Skilled or semiskilled Chinese laboured in the BC sawmills and salmon canneries. Others grew vegetables, cleared land, or became peddlers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs(2). Unskilled and ambitious, Lem found work in the laundry trade.

Chinese people had been living in Vancouver long before Lem arrived. The first Chinese to settle in Canada were a small group of 50 artisans. They'd been contracted by Captain John Meares in 1788 to set up a trading post of otter pelts on Vancouver Island. It wasn't until 1858 that the next wave of Chinese came to Canada, pulled by the lure of the gold rush in the Fraser River Valley. The first Chinese community in Canada was formed in Barkerville, British Columbia. By 1860 the Chinese population of Vancouver Island and British Columbia was at 6,000(3).

This wave of Chinese immigrants were young peasants, usually from South China. Both rural poverty and political unrest in their homeland moved them to emigrate. In the 1870's and 1880's they were followed by another wave of young peasant migrants who came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies. Up until 1885, 15,000 Chinese labourers completed the British Columbia section of the CPR. Their meager pay of $1 a day was half the wage of white labourers(4), saving the CPR an estimated $3-5 million in construction costs(5).

The loss to Chinese Canadians over those years, however, was immeasurable. Landslides and careless dynamite blasts killed many Chinese labourers who were designated for the most dangerous work. It's said that one Chinese worker died for every mile of the railway. In fact, no records were kept at the time so it's difficult to estimate the exact number of deaths. Recent research puts the number closer to three Chinese workers for every mile(6).

After the railway was completed the Chinese population in Canada was shunned and left to fend for themselves. Despite this, with the trans-Canada railway they helped build now up and running, Chinese communities managed to develop across the entire country(7). In 1897, Lem travelled all the way from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic. When he got to Sydney, Nova Scotia he washed the clothes of steel mill workers, fourteen hours a day. Five years later, in 1902 Lem had saved enough money for a round-trip ticket to China to find a wife. But it was difficult for Lem and his new wife to return, together, to Canada. Laws directed at Asian immigrants imposed harsh head taxes, effectively preventing Chinese women from immigrating. These laws were created to control the size of the Chinese Canadian population(8).

1,2,3,5,8 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

4,6,7 - Struggle and Hope, The Story of Chinese Canadians
by Paul Yee (Umbrella Press, Toronto, 1996).

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