III. THE CHINESE: Early 1900s - 1930s
The presence of Chinese migrants was felt strongly in the interior of British Columbia at the turn of the century. Their large numbers led to the creation of thriving Chinatowns in many towns.
Gint Cawston was one of the original settlers in the Similkameen Valley, next to the Okanagan, and gave his name to the village of Cawston, just outside of Keremeos. He recalled how the Chinese community of Keremeos maintained their customs and way of life.
This part of town was always known as "Chinatown" and here customers could only buy silks and Chinese goods, have their laundry work done with a private mark for each customer, no risk or mix-up or loss. This was done in daytime - night was another matter. Here, after work, they gathered, talked, read Chinese papers, played games, although often rudely interrupted by townsmen and cowboys looking for a feed of Chinese food, excitement or a game of cards, maybe fantan. Here they lived as they had in a homeland far away, dressed in loose blouses with long sleeves, brocaded buttonholes, hair in queue or loose pigtail, light comfortable pantaloons and what always amazed me, a pair of flat slippers which never seemed to fall off. (Cawston, 1967, p. 111)
Chinatowns could also be found in other towns and cities.
Oram (1985, p. 114) estimates that in 1885 there were close to one thousand Chinese in the Vernon area, five hundred in the Kelowna area and several hundred in Armstrong. While a handful of these Chinese were entrepreneurs who came to the Okanagan to operate cafes and laundries, most went to work for farmers, orchardists, and others as low wage labour (Mann, 1982, p. 20). In an article on the history of Osoyoos agriculture, Lacey (1958, p. 26) noted that Chinese were hired in the region's first orchard to pack water using a shoulder balanced pole with a five gallon coal oil can at each end. One recollection and description of the Greata Ranch included the following description of Chinese agricultural labour:
It is interesting to note that Chinese labourers were employed for thinning and picking fruit. A large bunkhouse was built to house men - some 20 to 30 in peak season. Also interesting was to watch the Chinese starting out to work early in the morning, walking one behind the other in a slow, continuous line. (Ruffle, 1976, p. 143)
Adam (1967, p. 46) wrote about a similar observation of Chinese labour in Kelowna at the turn of the century:
Every day the men filed along the street on the way to the fields at the edge of town where they put in a long day's work. As they went, their high sing song voices could be heard for some distance. The queue or pigtail was still worn by a few of them.
Chinese agricultural labour persisted with Chinese labour bosses often being the suppliers of Chinese labour through contracts with local farmers. As Mann (1982, p. 21) explains:
The Chinese in Kelowna obtained employment through enterprising labour bosses who contracted with local farmers and other employers of labor for the services of their men. If an employer needed labor, he would simply make the arrangements with the labor boss and the required Chinese laborers will be supplied. Occasionally, the Chinese laborers found work in canneries, but for the most part, they performed field labor for the orchardists and farmers in the Okanagan Valley.
Chinese migrant labour extended as far south as Osoyoos and as far north as Vernon and included picking, pruning and building water flumes (for irrigation).
Chinese farm workers were also at one point involved in "share-cropping" with land owners. In Kelowna, the Casorso family was involved in this venture, taking responsibility for preparing, ploughing and financing. The share-croppers provided labour against returns from the crops grown (Casorso, 1983, p. 164).
Chinese Immigration to Canada
The migration of Chinese to Canada began in the mid 19th century when many poor peasants living in China were forced to look abroad for new opportunities due to the rapid disintegration of their local economy. A mass emigration from China was sparked by stories of gold first in California and then later in British Columbia. By the 1850s Barkerville had become the largest city in the British Columbia interior. This gold rush town had a population of approximately 12,000 with nearly 5,000 being Chinese. By about 1866 the gold deposits began to diminish (Craig, 1982, p. 18).
In 1880 the Canadian government began construction of the western portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Andrew Onderdonk, a young American engineer, won a contract to build 127 miles of tracks across British Columbia. Unable to secure enough local labour Onderdonk arranged to bring in 15,700 persons from China. In 1885, upon completion of the line, the Chinese expected to be paid and shipped back to China. However, the CPR and the Federal Government failed to honour their pledge of a one-way ticket back to China (Krauter and Davis, 1978, p. 61). Therefore many were left destitute in a foreign land. Some migrated to California and a few managed to return to China, whereas the rest remained in Canada dispersing either east or west. Of those who stayed in Canada many migrated to the coastal cities of Vancouver and Victoria while others went to Alberta. Still others drifted to the interior towns and villages of B.C.
The influx of Chinese specifically, and of Orientals generally, stirred xenophobic fears in the mostly white population of B.C. Roy (1981, p. 657) argued that this hostility was rooted in a fear of Asian economic dominance:
Although many British Columbians' attitudes can be explained in terms of social psychology, and many fears were grossly exaggerated even to the point of irrationality, Asians provided sufficient, effective competition in the fishing grounds, in the fields, in the marketplace, in the classroom and on the battlefield to warrant deep fears about the ability of white British Columbians to maintain their dominant position in the province.
Many attempts were made by the B.C. Provincial and the Canadian Federal Governments to limit the number of Chinese immigrants. In 1885 immediately after the railway was completed, the Federal Government introduced a $50 head tax which had to be paid by each Chinese immigrant on entering Canada. In 1900, the head tax was raised to $100 and in 1903 to $500, which was a very large amount of money at the time (Craig, 1982, p. 23). The Chinese head tax legislation effectively cut off the flow of Chinese immigrants and the ensuing labour shortage resulted in a dramatic increase in wages (Sandborn, 1982, p. 3). It did not take long for farmers and cannery owners to petition the Federal Government to once again allow Chinese immigrants. For example, the Kootenay Fruit Growers Association made such a request in 1906 and 1907. In 1914 Cowichan Valley farmers recommended the temporary admission of Asians as agricultural workers and domestics (Roy, 1981, p. 665).
Delegates at a 1918 convention of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association voted in favor of hiring or bringing in indentured Oriental labor ("Fruit Growers Elect," 1918). Only a week later, the president of the Vernon Board of Trade made "a vigourous speech" in which "he sets forth objections to a movement to bring indentured Orientals to this province" ("Strong Protest," 1918). On February 20, three weeks later, the national secretary of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) brought her ideas for replacing Oriental labor to the Vernon Board of Trade. She planned to place 2,000 or more female workers at the disposal of fruit growers that year ("Will Organize," 1918). Dr. K.C. MacDonald, a member of the Provincial Parliament at the time, "pledged to support a measure of a minimum wage for women and legislation regarding an eight-hour day" ("Will Organize," 1918).
During these years the B. C. Government, with the support of trade unions and organized labour, introduced a number of measures to bar Asians from certain occupations and certain types of work which were deemed as desirable. The measures included barring them from skilled jobs in coal mines, acquiring Crown lands to be farmers, jobs on public works projects, hand logging, law and pharmacy among others (Bolaria & Li, 1985, p. 87). When the original Minimum Wage Act was introduced in 1925, jobs specifically not covered included canners, farm labourer and domestic workers, which were labour market niches most likely to be filled by Chinese labour (Sandborn, 1982, p. 4).
Farm Worker But Not Farm Owner
When a few enterprising Chinese began acquiring land for agriculture a major lobbying effort began, led by the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, to try to halt the practice. Many public meetings were called between 1917 and 1922 to debate this matter.
The 1918 convention of the United Farmers of British Columbia carried a resolution calling on the Provincial Government to consider measures preventing Oriental aliens from acquiring control of agricultural lands ("Convention Elects," 1918).
The 1921 B.C. Fruit Growers' Association convention, held in Nelson, demanded stringent provincial regulations, but only for Oriental growers. As the January 27, 1921 edition of the Vernon News reported:
Delegates endorsed another resolution calling on the provincial government to enact legislation compelling Oriental growers of produce to brand or mark the source of production on every commodity before marketing. ("B.C. Fruit Growers' Association Deal," 1921)A delegate at the convention, W. E. Chapple, described the Chinese as "a pest worse than the codling moth" ("B.C. Fruit Growers' Association Deal," 1921). The codling moth is an insect that feeds inside the apple and destroys its marketing value.
While this debate was occurring the Chinese continued to live physically and socially segregated in their Chinatowns.
Vernon and Kelowna Chinatowns
The Chinatown in Vernon was located downtown and had both stores and restaurants. The Chinese community of 500 built a Clubroom in 1919 and the official opening was reported in the August 21 edition of the Vernon News ("Vernon Chinese", 1919).
In 1906-7 Chinese arrived in the Armstrong area and worked as helpers in gardens growing high quality celery. In 1909 many Chinese were specializing in celery production and by 1914 there were an estimated 400 Chinese in the district growing celery, lettuce and potatoes. After World War I, about 100 acres was devoted to celery production which was one-third of all land cultivated by the Chinese and approximately 1,000 tons of celery were shipped annually (Heal, 1952, p. 123).
The Chinese were also prevalent in Kelowna. By 1905, the year that Kelowna was officially incorporated as a municipality, a Chinatown was well established in the downtown area. It was located between what is presently Harvey Avenue (Highway 97) and Leon Avenue and across from City Park. By 1930, it was estimated that between 400 and 500 Chinese lived in this one square block (Mann, 1982, p. 28).
Mann (1982, p. 21-22) described in detail Chinese farmworkers' living conditions in Kelowna's Chinatown:
These labor bosses owned rooming houses in which they quartered their men; they also grub-staked their men all winter long, causing the men to incur debts which ensured their continued control. Some of the men had small cubicles in the rooming houses and others shared larger rooms. Their furniture needs were small: a chest for belongings, a wooden bed, a straw mattress and a blanket or two. Primitive tables and stools provided focal points for the gambling which was the men's principal diversion when not working. On the main floor of these dwelling houses, usually at the back, the owner provided a communal kitchen where the men individually prepared their meals. Their diet consisted of basic rice, small portions of fish, pork and chicken (rarely beef) and vegetables, preferably green, which they were careful not to overcook.
Penticton's Chinatown - Shanghai Alley
Penticton also had its Chinatown, but it was smaller than the Chinatowns in Kelowna or Vernon since, at its peak, the Chinese population was approximately 60 residents (Thorpe, 1972, p. 125). Writing on "Shanghai Alley" (the colloquial term for Chinatown in Penticton) Daniel W. Thorpe described it as:
... three town houses crammed together on a twenty yard land behind 200 block, Main Street. The Chinese Masonic was located elsewhere. The lots themselves were on Robinson Street but in typical Chinese fashion the vegetable gardens were put in front with the houses at the back facing what was to be known as Shanghai Alley. (1972, p. 125)
As in other Chinatowns, restaurants and rooming houses were common place. Two Chinese men named Sam Kee and Hop Yick operated the two laundries. Activities to be found in Chinatown included gambling, opium smoking and the consumption of Chinese rice wine. Shanghai Alley faded into Penticton's history around 1960. Thorpe (1972, p. 127) wrote:
Laundromats had forced the Chinese laundry out of business and all the old buildings were bought and burned. Perhaps it is fitting that their destruction gave way to that great monument to our modern city - the parking lot.
In the early part of the century the Chinese population was large enough to establish a Chinatown in downtown Keremeos, where one could find a store owned by Ho Chew, a restaurant owned by Charlie Hong and two laundries owned by Low Jin and Hong On (Cawston, 1967, p. 116). The Chinese had diverse occupations as many were workers at the Dominion Cannery between 1919 and 1923 (Shuttleworth, undated), while others were vegetable gardeners or railroad workers (Cawston, 1967, p. 110, 116). In great demand to operate irrigation systems, they had the reputation of being the only ones who could run water uphill (Cawston, 1967, p. 110) Many Chinese were cooks, field hands and irrigators and had names such as Leong Sun, Soo Ping, Lin Loy, Lin Kee, Joy Chew, Quong Yee, Yowng Sing and Leong Duck (Cawston, 1967, p. 115). On the Cawston ranch, the cook, Ah Sing, is entered in a 1911 payroll as receiving $47.50 per month (Cawston, 1949, p. 114).
During World War I tomato canning plants were in operation in Keremeos. One cannery was managed by a Mr. Orser, who brought in 35 Chinese workers for help. An area pioneer, Christopher Tickell, describes this operation:
He built a two-storey building on the cannery lot- the lower storey for dining and the upper for sleeping. Passing the building any hour of the night, you would hear a loud chatter - the boys were gambling. (Dewdney, 1975, p. 85)
No Chinatown in Osoyoos
George J. Fraser, who was born in Ontario in 1872, moved to Osoyoos in 1917 to manage the Leslie Hill Ranch, which was the first commercial orchard in the area ("George J. Fraser Laid To Rest," 1958). In "The Story of Osoyoos" published in 1953, he recollected that the South Okanagan's early settlers feared Oriental competition in vegetable production. He related an event of a "well attended" meeting held in the old log school house in Osoyoos in March, 1921, where the following resolution was passed by unanimous vote:
And whereas, because of the undesirability of assimilation with them they are undesirable as neighbors, be it therefore resolved that we residents of Osoyoos here assembled, declare that we believe the best interests of our district will be served by keeping the Oriental out absolutely and we hereby pledge ourselves to use every legitimate means to that end. (Fraser, 1953, p. 163-164)
Fraser also noted that a similar resolution was passed in Oliver in order to keep the district white and that it was popularly acclaimed.
R.O. Hall, writing on the start of fruit growing in the South Okanagan, noted that the new landowners fear of Oriental competition led them to circulate a pledge on March 4, 1927 which was signed by forty-five landowners. The pledge stated:
Realizing that it would be detrimental to every interest of the Community to allow Orientals to become established in this District, we the undersigned, members of the White Race, being residents, property owners, or in control of property either by way of lease or rental, in the South Okanagan Valley, do hereby each and severally agree and pledge ourselves to use every legal endeavour in our power to exclude all Orientals from the South Okanagan District and in furtherance of this object undertake and agree neither to sell, lease nor rent any lands or buildings, nor to employ in any capacity whatsoever, directly or indirectly, any member of the Oriental Race. (Hall, 1961, p. 120)
The above pledge was put to a test in 1929 as one of the property owners had hired a Chinese at $40 per month to work on his lot. Hall (1961, p. 121) recalls the following resolution to this breach:
This breach of faith by one of their number caused a wave of very high feeling throughout the District, with the result that a secret meeting of hooded men was held in the dark of the night to consider ways and means of dealing with the matter. It is said that one of Oliver's leading citizens of today was made leader....Next morning they with others gathered on the main Highway 97 and proceeded to the offending grower's home for a discussion of the situation. The grower's wife, upon seeing the crowd approaching, phoned the Police. When Constable D.A. Macdonald arrived, he found his services not required as no law had been broken. After a very heated discussion, the grower agreed to send the Chinese away.
The Decline of the Chinese
With the implementation of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act Chinese immigration to Canada was halted and this act was not repealed until 1947 (Krauter & Davis, 1978, p. 62). The act prevented Chinese from bringing their wives to Canada and it allowed no replacements for those who returned to China. Since most of the early Chinese were men the Chinese communities did not grow (Mann, 1982, p. 28).
Further, the decline of local market gardening starting in the 1950s, due to American competition, contributed further to decreases in Chinese populations in the Interior B.C. towns (Norris, 1971, p. 218). This decline was evident in Kelowna, as the number of Chinese dropped from approximately 500 in 1930, to approximately 50 in 1960 (Mann, 1982, p. 28). In Armstrong there were only about 60 Chinese farm owners and workers left by 1947 (Heal, 1952, p. 123).
While there are no more Chinese farm workers in the Okanagan they were fondly remembered by some. As Cawston stated:
Some went back to China, and are no more; many lie buried in places where they worked. Only a few remain here and there. Looking back we salute them from Coast to Valley. To the Boundary Country, the Cariboo, or any other place where they left their mark; for surely they have earned a spot in the history of our land. Even if none receive a medallion we can remember them with respect these unique people we once called 'John Chinaman'. (Cawston, 1967, p. 68)
Another racial group prominent in early agricultural labour were the First Nations People.