In 1911, the ratio of men to women in the Chinese population across Canada was 28 to 1. Over the next decade, it improved to 15 to 1. In 1923, once the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, the imbalance became a sad fact of life for men of Chinese origins living in Canada. Married or single, they were now condemned to a lonely existence here.
Most Chinese and whites considered interracial marriage a taboo or at best, frowned upon it—a fact that would not change for another couple of generations. Still, Chinese men in towns far from Canada’s large Chinatowns did marry or establish common-law relationships with non-Chinese women. Often those women were French-Canadian; perhaps they saw in the Chinese man’s strong work ethic a better future for themselves.
In Ottawa in the early 1940s, there were six known families where Chinese men had married non-Chinese women. Among them, Stanley and Marion (née Bristol) Wong owned the Canton Inn and the Yuen family owned the Green Dragon Gift Shop on Sparks Street. Helen (née Way-Nee) Lee recalled that she was one of four mixed-race students at her Ottawa high school, Lisgar Collegiate Institute. Her father, Ling Nee, came to Canada in 1921. A cook with the Chinese navy, he jumped ship in Montreal and made his way to Ottawa and joined the personal staff of the lumber baron J.R. Booth. He met Helen’s mother, Sarah Randall at the Chinese Mission where she was a volunteer teaching English. The Randall family objected to the couple’s relationship and refused to attend their wedding.
The second generation born to Chinese parents in Ottawa and area reached marriageable age. Because their numbers were few and their choice of mates was limited in their home towns, they broadened their social circles to towns and cities beyond. Mothers, whose own marriages had often been arranged, tried to help make introductions and find suitable matches. In the 1940s, the youth in the city formed the Ottawa Chinese Christian Young People’s Society and met at the Chinese Mission. They organized weekend social activities in the city and excursions to Montreal and Toronto. Some individuals went farther afield to look for a potential mate, to Vancouver and New York. During the war years, the influx of young Chinese to take government jobs in Ottawa enlivened the social scene for Chinese youth here. The ambassador of the Republic of China, from the Nationalist government, hosted many of their parties.
In 1951, the nationwide ratio of men to women of Chinese origins stood at 4 to 1; men still faced poor odds of finding a wife in Canada. In 1955, the federal government permitted Chinese in Canada, either citizens or landed immigrants, to sponsor their overseas fiancé on the proviso that the marriage take place within one month of arrival. Since Canada had not established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (therefore, direct emigration from there to Canada was not possible), Hong Kong became the main marriage market. Such brides were known as “mail order brides” or “COD [cash on delivery] brides”, because the bride price that tradition required of the groom’s family was due upon her arrival in Canada.