In a CPR construction site in 1880's British Columbia, a young Chinese worker volunteers to set a dangerous nitroglycerine charge in return for his wife's boat fare to Canada.

"They say that for every mile of railway, one Chinese man died," the old man tells his granddaughters. The story of the Chinese people who came to British Columbia in 1882 to work on the final link of the Canadian Pacific Railway is the subject of the Historica Minute Nitro. The experience of these Chinese immigrants, who risked their lives performing the most dangerous jobs on the railway [for half the wages of white labourers!] is only one chapter in the history of the Chinese in Canada. Leaving the poverty and political chaos of their homeland for the promise of a better life in "Gum San," or Gold Mountain, Chinese immigrants found themselves not entirely welcomed. They had to struggle against government restrictions and racist hostility in order to survive long enough to establish themselves and gain respect within this new country.

Gold Fever
When word reached San Francisco's Chinatown in 1858 that gold had been found on the Fraser River in British Columbia, hundreds of Chinese sailed north to seek their fortune. The first Chinese community in Canada took root in Victoria, the jumping-off point to the gold mines of the interior. Two years later, more Chinese sailed directly from China. The Chinese prospectors from California and the inexperienced newcomers from China followed the surge of other eager gold-seekers north and east into the province.

Like many immigrants who came to Canada, the Chinese were escaping the turmoil of a homeland plagued by war, starvation, and rebellion. Many of them came from Guangdong province on the southeast coast of China, where the first Opium War with Britain (1839-42) had turned the countryside into a wasteland. Commercial life was destroyed, peasants were unable to farm, and labourers could find no work in their principal port city of Guangzhou (Canton). Economic disaster led to lawlessness, culminating in the Taiping Rebellion of 1851. This brutal civil war lasted fourteen years and claimed over 20 million lives. The homeless, jobless, and poor had no choice but to emigrate. If they could scrape together thirty-four dollars they could buy their passage to Canada.

Those who left China for North America were almost entirely men. A few were merchants, but most were peasants and labourers. Some did not survive the hazardous voyage across the Pacific. There were no doctors or medicine aboard the ships during the 60-day journey, and the only food was rice.

As a consequence, many Chinese immigrants arrived in Victoria suffering from scurvy and malnutrition. Yet still they came, and by 1863, four thousand Chinese were mining gold in the Caribou. They kept a safe distance from the white workers, reworking mine sites that others had abandoned. These used claims were easier and cheaper to acquire than new ones, but this strategy was also a protection against the growing hostility towards them.

The Chinese quickly filled other gaps in this new frontier society. They started laundries, restaurants, and vegetable farms to serve the populations of the gold rush. They built roads, drove horse teams through the dangerous canyons, and strung the telegraph wires that connected interior towns to the coast. Later, they worked in newly established fish canneries along the British Columbia coast. On Vancouver Island, the Chinese worked as coal miners.

Roots of Animosity
When the Chinese arrived in Victoria in 1858, they were received with mixed feelings by the English-speaking community. Some regarded the Chinese with curiosity, others with condescension, most with some kind of prejudice. By 1860, the Chinese population was 1,577, almost entirely men. This "bachelor society" was seen by many as an indication that few Chinese immigrants intended to settle in Canada, fuelling the flames of anti-Chinese feelings. But the early Chinese immigrants, who arrived in British Columbia with no knowledge about this new country, saw things differently. Many had borrowed money from relatives to pay for their passage, while others owed a debt to an employment company. On low wages, they worked hard and saved money to pay for room and board, to slowly repay their loans, and to support their families in China. Generally their plan was to bring their wives and children to Canada, but owing to government restrictions this was not easy to accomplish.

As early as 1860 there were calls to impose a $10 tax on every Chinese person in the Vancouver Island colony, but these were ignored because Chinese labour was vital to the growth of the western frontier. Denied citizenship and voting rights, the Chinese were seen only as "living machines." As Matthew Begbie, the first Chief Justice of British Columbia said, "They are generally abused, and yet everybody employs them." Building the Railway
The next major influx of Chinese to Canada began in 1880 with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. The caucasian population was not large enough to supply the labour force needed for this vast undertaking, so chief engineer Andrew Onderdonk turned to the United States and to China for Chinese recruits. Onderdonk favoured the Chinese because he believed them to be "industrious and steady." Besides, he could pay them a dollar a day, one-half the wage paid to European workers. The 15,000 Chinese who came to Canada between 1880 and the completion of the CPR in 1885 saved Onderdonk's company over $3 million.

During the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the rugged landscape of British Columbia, Chinese labourers were assigned some of the most difficult and dangerous work. They cut through hills, filled ravines, and opened tunnels with explosives. Landslides, careless dynamite blasts, and racial "accidents" caused many deaths. Others died from exposure to cold winters, poor nutrition, and inadequate medical care. At least 600 Chinese workers gave their lives to complete the rail-line across Canada.

The completion of the CPR put thousands of Chinese out of work. They drifted to Victoria, where there was an established Chinese community, as well as to Vancouver. Some headed for Alberta and further, following the rail lines eastward. Chinatowns grew up in Calgary, Moose Jaw, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montréal. By 1911 there were about 28,000 Chinese in Canada, most of them working as cooks, grocers, laundry workers, and servants.

The completion of the railway saw the introduction of the first major law attempting to limit Chinese immigration to Canada. For years, they had been accused of threatening white labour because they worked for lower wages. Newspaper articles denounced the "yellow peril" that would take over Canada. The federal Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 made it almost impossible for Chinese men to bring their families to Canada. The Act imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants and stated that no ship could carry more than one Chinese per fifty tons. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903. The head tax was finally abolished in 1923 and was replaced by a new Chinese Immigration Act. July 1, 1923 was named "Humiliation Day" by the Chinese, for this new Act virtually closed the door to immigration.

Ironically, racist attitudes and government exclusion served to tighten the bonds within Chinese communities. As early as 1884, the Chinese Benevolent Association was formed in Victoria to help immigrants in need. These associations sprang up in every community to look after the needy, control fighting within Chinese communities, and to oppose racial outbreaks and discriminatory laws.

After the Second World War, the Chinese began to gain their civil rights. Immigration was liberalized and in 1947 they finally received federal voting rights. Post-war communities grew, but it took many years for Canada's Chinese population to regenerate. It was not until the immigration law changed again in 1967 ? opening the way for an influx of highly educated and professional immigrants ? that the Chinese people received the respect they deserved within a multicultural Canadian society.

  • Cochrane – John Tench
  • Smith – Frank Turner
  • Old Leung – Han Tsai
  • Young Leung – Yee Jee Albert Soo
  • Chinese Worker – Tom Wong
  • Chinese Worker – Jimmy Tai
  • Additional Cast – William Samples