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Chinese Families Put Down Roots in the Ottawa Area
With the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885, the Chinese population on Canada’s west coast began a migration ever farther eastward. After 1885, any Chinese labourer entering Canada had to pay the head tax, set at $50 in 1885, raised to $100 in 1902 and raised again to $500 in 1903.
On the west coast Chinese men typically had to rely on Chinese labour contractors to get work. The Chinese living in the west endured growing anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination owing to the greater concentration of Chinese. As a consequence, many who headed east to towns away from west coast Chinatowns sought to go where their number were fewer. They hoped to find work through relations who’d gone before them or by striking out on their own or by partnering with other individuals like themselves to open businesses.
The census of 1891 recorded 97 Chinese persons in Ontario. Of those, 5, all males, resided in the sleepy lumber town of Ottawa. A decade later, the count was 170, still all males. A handful more lived across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec, a working-class town. Most, if not all, would have toiled in hand-laundries, a one- or two-man operation. Later, those with more capital opened cafés.
In 1923, the Canadian government, in order to bar Chinese immigration, replaced the head tax with the Chinese Immigration Act (commonly referred to as the Exclusion Act after the American law of the same name). By then, a handful of men in Ottawa had brought their wives from China. Chinese-owned businesses, whose owners installed their families in apartments above or behind the premises, were now conglomerated in some of the A-frame wood houses along a couple of blocks of Albert Street, three blocks from Parliament Hill. Interspersed among white-owned businesses—a tire shop, a print shop, a paper company, and the first government office building—were a half-dozen Chinese-run businesses: a grocer, a confectionary, a café, a couple of laundries, and clubs where gambling was the pastime.
Between 1923 and 1947 (when the government repealed the Exclusion Act, four years after the United States had repealed its own act), Ottawa’s Chinese population, still overwhelmingly male, hovered at less than 300—against the city’s population of 125,000 in 1931 and 155,000 in 1941. In the Ottawa area, almost all these Chinese pioneers came from Taishan County in China’s Kwangtung province (Guangdong in its Mandarin pronunciation). Nation-wide, exclusion accomplished what it set out to do: reduce the number of Chinese in Canada. During exclusion, some men, barred from bringing wives or family here or, with virtually no prospect of finding wives here, returned to live in China. Moreover, with few women here, birth rates remained low.
In Ottawa, six patriarchs raised families that were the mainstay of a second generation. On drives in the countryside, these pioneer families would stop to visit other families, who would typically run the lone Chinese-owned restaurant in town.
Men with savings or the ability to borrow periodically took trips to China to visit family, marry, or father children. The length of their absence was dictated by Canadian regulations governing head tax certificate holders. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the prelude to the Second World War, halted such travel, and trapped men there who’d been visiting from Canada. In 1945, when Japan surrendered, the Kuomintang and the Communists in China resumed their civil war. In 1949 the Communists took power.
Hin Lew: “More than 5 per cent maybe”
The Second World War brought a hiring boom in Canada’s civil service, attracting young Chinese to Ottawa. In 1947, with the repeal of the Exclusion Act came enfranchisement, and the right—taken away during exclusion—to be naturalized. In 1950, the government moved tentatively to allow renewed immigration of the Chinese. Chinese immigrants in Canada could sponsor wives under age 65 and dependent children aged 18 and under (in 1952 the government raised the ceiling to 21 and under). This restriction would have a perverse effect in that it led to a brisk illegal trade in “paper families.” So-called paper sons and daughters came to Canada (from China via Hong Hong) under fraudulent sponsorship; the real offspring were either still in China or had died. Their “slots” were taken by Chinese with relatives in Canada but who were otherwise ineligible to enter the country. Douglas Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian to be elected to Parliament (from the riding of Vancouver-Centre), was the driving force behind the “Amnesty” program in 1962, which allowed those Chinese who had come under a false identity to normalize their status with the immigration department.
In 1955, the Canadian government permitted Chinese landed immigrants or those holding citizenship to sponsor their overseas fiancées. Because direct emigration from China to Canada was not possible because Canada did not recognize the new People’s Republic of China (and would not do so until 1970), Hong Kong became the main bride market.
Beginning in the early 1950s, the federal government began buying up properties near Parliament Hill. Competition for commercial and office space drove up rents in the downtown core. The Chinese who opened new cafés and restaurants located them along many of the main roads leading to Ottawa’s newest residential areas. Menus which once only offered “Canadian food”, now offered “Canadian and Chinese food.” However, the chop suey, chicken balls and sweet and sour pork on offer was not the ‘real’ cuisine of the Chinese, but rather, adapted to western tastes.
Marion Hum: “A gate needs a key”
In 1967, Canada ended its policy of judging the eligibility of immigrants based on race and country of origin. The resulting influx of Hong Kong immigrants to this city spawned the streetscape on Somerset Street. Newer cafés would offer “authentic” Cantonese cuisine. Much later, as immigrants came from other parts of China, other regional cuisines would make their appearance on the restaurant scene. More Asian business and commerce, including cafés, came with the arrival in the early 1980s of the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees, adding to what is now considered Ottawa’s Chinatown.
Two landmark Chinese restaurants remained downtown on Albert Street: the Canton Inn and the Cathay Restaurant, both of which had opened in the 1940s and were the first in the city to offer Chinese food. The Canton would stay in business until 1976 and the Cathay, which was once advertised as the place where “East meets West” and where families could come to “Give Mother a Break”, until 2010. As of 2012, Ottawa’s longest-established Chinese restaurant was the Golden Palace. It first opened in 1960, in an old house and garage on Carling Avenue. Originally started by six men who had worked together at the Canton Inn, the Golden Palace was then run by a third generation of family members.
Gordon (Tsan) Wong: “I saw the picture in Time magazine”
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong