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What was life like for the Chinese community in Saskatchewan a century ago?

What was life like for Chinese in Saskatchewan a century ago?
WATCH: It's Asian Heritage Month, but being Asian wasn't always celebrated in Canada. Saskatchewan's Chinese community faced discrimination for many years.

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, a time to reflect on the contributions of the Asian community.

However, being Asian in Canada wasn’t always celebrated. The Chinese community particularly faced challenges, starting in the 1880s when they first immigrated to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“They were here from 1880 until 1885 and then in 1885, the railway was done and Canada basically said, ‘go home,'” City of Saskatoon archivist Jeff O’Brien said.

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Legislation was put in place as an attempt to keep Chinese immigrants from staying in Canada.

The Chinese Immigration Act required Chinese newcomers to pay a head tax of $500 by 1903. They were the only group in Canada expensed like this, making it nearly impossible for men to bring their families to Canada.

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Without their families here, Chinese men were thought to live a ‘bachelor lifestyle’. A ‘white slavery panic’ began, where there were allegations Asian shop owners would lure white women into a life of prostitution.

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“The Female Employment Act was passed in 1912 and it forbade any white woman from working in, lodging at or frequenting any place of business or amusement run by any Chinese, Japanese or other oriental,” O’Brien said.

Japanese and others would be exempt from the act shortly after it was passed. It was repealed in 1918, but a new law was enacted forbidding white women from working in a Chinese-owned shop, unless it had a special licence.

Kong Lee Grocery Saskatoon
Kong Lee Grocery Delivery, 1934. Saskatoon Public Library, Local History Room Photograph Collection, a-1290

Despite the discrimination, Chinese still managed to have quite successful careers. There were nearly 40 Chinese-owned businesses by 1923, including laundromats, restaurants and grocery stores.

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There was one particularly unique Chinese establishment located around where the Saskatoon airport is today. The Keng Wah School of Aviation operated with non-Chinese instructors.

Chinese man seated in cockpit of biplane.
Chinese man seated in cockpit of biplane. Saskatoon Public Library, Local History Room Photograph Collection, ph-96-80-14

“It was established by the Chinese Nationalist league in 1919 and the goal was to train pilots for the government for the Republic of China, and it lasted about three years. They trained about a dozen pilots here,” O’Brien said.

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The school didn’t cause an uproar in the community, but there were plenty of general complaints against Chinese living here.

The Chinese community mostly lived in the River Landing and Riversdale areas. Businesses and homes were jammed close together and the police chief called it “unsanitary” and a “fire hazard”.

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However, he did defend the community in some ways. The community complained Chinese in these neighborhoods were illegally gambling and had opium dens, but the police chief dismissed these allegations.

Police also complained Chinese criminals were hard to chase down, saying they seemed to disappear.

With the buildings being so close together, there were rumours the basements may have been connected making for a quick escape, but this was never confirmed.

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The City received plenty of complaints from residents in River Landing and Riversdale, often with disturbingly racist language.

A petition was sent to the City Clerks office in 1931 from residents demanding the city not sell lots to a Chinese man because they didn’t want him living on their street. The clerk promised not to sell to him without going through council.

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Discrimination like this would continue for many years.

By 1961, there were only 500 Chinese out of the 100,000 in Saskatoon. Chinese immigration wouldn’t be on the same basis as other countries until 1967. Asian immigration became more common by the 1970s.

Today, there are still many challenges Chinese and other visible minorities face, but things have certainly changed over the years.