In honour of Asian Heritage Month this May, we invite you to learn more about the history of Asian Canadians and celebrate their contributions to the prosperity of our communities. This post highlights only a few key events and people from the vast history of Asian immigrants in Vancouver, but we've introduced some ways to learn more, along with organizations to support this month and year-round. It's especially important to continue to recognize and stand with the Asian community given the reported rise in racism and xenophobia in BC, and around the world.
A brief history of Chinese and Japanese populations in our area
Many Chinese people immigrated to Canada to help work on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Some also came to work on farms, open stores, and take part in logging operations in BC and throughout Canada. Upon completion of the CPR in 1885, the federal government immediately passed the Chinese Immigration Act. This stated that every person of Chinese origin immigrating to Canada had to pay a "head tax" fee of $50. In 1900, the head tax increased to $100, then in 1903 it went up to $500 per person. Approximately 81,000 Chinese immigrants paid the head tax to the government between 1885 and 1923.
The above image shows the welcoming of local Chinese statesman Li Hung Zhang of the Qing Dynasty at the CPR dock in 1896. His visit was requested by the Chinese people in an attempt to negotiate a reduction in the head tax to enter Canada. Despite efforts, the head tax remained and another devastating Act passed in 1923—the Chinese Exclusion Act. This Act banned all Chinese immigration—completely crushing the Chinese community in Canada. In fact, it still remained difficult for Chinese to enter Canada, even up until 1967 when Canada overhauled the immigration system.
Imagine you're one of the 24 Chinese immigrants arriving in Vancouver from Victoria, when an angry mob of 300-400 white people attack your camp. To escape, you jump into the hypothermia-inducing ocean water, or run away from your home to try and find cover. But when the attack doesn't satisfy the mob's quest, the mob continues to set fire to the Chinese owned and occupied buildings along Carrall Street. This is exactly what happened to Chinese immigrants when the mainland Anti-Chinese League heard rumour that hundreds had arrived in the Vancouver area.
Or imagine what it would feel like, forced from your West Vancouver home and thrown into a government camp because you were Japanese and seen as a threat by association. This is what the federal government did, due to fear of being the next in line for attack from the Japanese after Pearl Harbour. More than 8,000 Japanese Canadian citizens were "processed" at Hastings Park and moved to internment camps throughout the interior and the east. The government confiscated over 1,300 of their fishing boats. They also took their businesses and possessions including their homes, cameras, and radios. The government closed down Japanese language schools, suppressed newspapers, and kicked Japanese-born students out of UBC. To add insult, they even turned off the light on the Stanley Park monument recognizing Japanese Canadians who fought during World War I.
Four years after the Second World War ended, Parliament gave Japanese Canadians back the right to vote in federal elections. Today, organizations like The National Association of Japanese Canadians honour the sacrifices of the Issei and Nisei generations by encouraging the youth and community members to vote—keeping their rights safe.
The federal government and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologize for past injustices to Japanese Canadian survivors and their families. 22,000 Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes and sent away to camps during the Second World War.
We cannot change the past. But we must, as a nation, have the courage to face up to these historical facts.The Right Honourable Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1988)
It wasn't until May 2014 that Premier Christy Clark on behalf of the BC legislative assembly delivered a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for the historical wrongs committed by past provincial governments. Legacy initiatives to help British Columbians understand the impacts of the historical wrongs and the achievements of Chinese Canadians are now in place and include the identification of historic and culturally important locations. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the now recognized significant historical sites.
The entire legislative assembly acknowledges the perseverance of Chinese Canadians that was demonstrated with grace and dignity throughout our history while being oppressed by unfair and discriminatory historical laws.Former BC premier Christy Clark (2014)
Asian cultures enrich our economy and communities
- East Asia: China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan
- South East Asia: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor, Vietnam
- South Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka
- Western Asia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, State of Palestine, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
- Central Asia: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan
Asian cultures are threads that are intricately woven into the fabric of our Nation's history. Asian populations should be acknowledged as equal contributors to the development of our communities and economy. There are many Asian-owned businesses in our neighbourhoods, we've only highlighted a few below, from the past and the present.
From cake mix to hammers...
One of the great economical contributions to the area was the Hong Wo General Store, opened in 1895 on cannery row in Steveston. The salmon-canning industry was BC's second most valuable export by 1900. The growth of this industry had grown due in large part because of Chinese labour. The General Store was integral to providing essentials to the cannery workers like fresh produce, meat, hygienic supplies, clothing, and hardware.
Health, education, and funding to support Chinese Canadians
In 1889, the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (CBA) was informally established. They formally registered in 1906 with the British Columbia government. The organization not only supported fundraising efforts on behalf of local Chinese interests, but also provided health services when they opened a hospital in 1910 within the building, and educational services when the Chinese Public School became a tenant in 1917. These organizational initiatives illustrate the positive impact to support and protect fellow immigrants.
The CBA has played a leading role in fund-raising for causes in China and as spokesman for local Chinese interests. It lobbied the government on many political and social matters, such as establishing burial rights for the early Chinese communities in Victoria and Vancouver, opposing the Head Tax, and successfully achieving the relaxation of the Immigration Act in 1956 which permitted Chinese-Canadians to bring their wives from China. Within the Chinatown community, the CBA was recognized for being impartial, which meant speaking on behalf of members regardless of surnames, birthplace, or political allegiances, and as such helped mediate and resolve conflicts among organizations.
Richmond Night Market
The Richmond Night Market, founded in 2000, is the largest of its kind in North America. Originally located at the Continental Centre, the market outgrew its space and moved to Richmond. The market attracts over 1 million visitors from around the world each year. Founder Raymond Cheung incorporates entertainment and themes to the market each year. Previous themes include Return of the Dragon, Magical Candyland, and Pirates.
Though it's reopening is postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can check for the latest updates on their website. In the meantime, take a virtual scroll through images of the past markets and all the delicious and interesting street foods on their Facebook page.
Tojo's restaurant has been serving up a modern, Japanese fine dining tradition for over 30 years. Japanese Canadian Chef Hidekazu Tojo, takes a distinct Pacific Northwest perspective to his dishes and only uses the finest seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. An interesting side note, Chef Tojo is credited for inventing the "California roll" and the "BC roll". Learn more and check out their menu.
In 1970, the Punjabi Market began to develop when Sucha Singh Claire opened Shaan Saaris. It became the first and largest South Asian Market in North America—housing over 300 shops along Main Street between East 48th and East 51st avenues.
Sucha Singh Claire, 82, on the block where he opened Shan Sharees and Drapery in 1970. Photo from The Tyee and taken by Christopher Cheung.
Currently, a team is working to revitalize the market and restore its beauty and history.
How you can participate and support local Asian organizations.
We've included a variety of ways to celebrate and honour Asian Heritage Month with links to videos, books, performances, art, and local organizations to support. Along with these resources, why not try a few local Asian restaurants for take-away this month. We polled our staff and included some of their favourites at the end of the article.
A seat at the table
Watch this insightful video by Professor Henry Yu, a member of the UBC History Department and Principal of St. John's College. Professor Yu presents an overview of the systemic discrimination experienced by Chinese immigrants to Canada. In this video, he mixes his own family's story with the broader history of Vancouver's, BC's and Canada's policies and regulations. Prof. Yu is a co-curator of "A Seat at the Table", an exhibit on Chinese-Canadian immigration which is on view at the Museum of Vancouver and in Chinatown until January 2022.
GEM (by CBC)
In 2020, CBC curated a collection of TV and film that honours the culturally diverse and rich heritage of Canadians of Asian origin with their GEM channel. Why not have an Asian watch party with your household this weekend?
In addition to the above, CBC celebrated the storytellers who have helped weave Asian culture into Canada's diverse tapestry by commissioning 31 portraits, one featured on each day of May.
Firehorse and Shadow
Immerse yourself in this performance May 1-31 by Dreamwalker Dance Company. Firehorse and Shadow "explores family lineage with a focus on the dualistic yin and yang elements expressed within the bodies, lives and choices of three generations of women".
As part of the 2021 explorAsian festival, a virtual celebration for Eid-ul-Fitr marking the end or Ramadhan will be on May 30. The 5th annual Mehfil in May Recital includes writers and performers of Asian heritage.
Vancouver Public Library Picks: Asian Heritage Month
The reading specialists at Vancouver Public Library thoughtfully curated a list of books about Asian history, art, and people that are available as ebooks and downloadable audio. They also offer a personalized reading list feature.
Diversity in Filmmaking Virtual Panel Series (every Saturday in May)
The Vancouver Asian Film Festival has a virtual "Diversity in Filmmaking" panel series that explores how people of colour are impacting various aspects of filmmaking. The series is on Saturdays from May 9 to June 6, 2020.
The Kathara Society includes "artists, community workers, retirees, students, professionals, multi-generational, multi-ethnic, Indigenous & non-Indigenous, first and second generation Filipinos & Canadians dedicated to greater social change, and the promotion of Pilipino Indigenous identity, arts, culture, & history".
Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall
The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall (VJLS-JH), established in 1906, is a non-profit and community-based organization whose goal is to enrich intercultural understanding among not only their students, but also worldwide. They offer educational and event programming to support the understanding of Japanese language and culture and actively uphold the history of Vancouver’s Nikkei community.
In Their Words: The Story of BC Packers
British Columbia Packers Limited (BC Packers) was once the largest fishing and fish processing company in British Columbia. Read stories about the Chinese, Japanese, and Sikh people, along with other heritages, that contributed to the success of the industry.
History of South Asians Timeline
Take a look at the timeline created by the South Asian Studies Institute highlighting historical events all the way from 1885 to 2017.
Artist Sandeep Johal
View not only the colourful aesthetic, but social injustice stories in the artwork of South Asian artist Sandeep Johal. Sandeep lives in Vancouver and has contributed to the many beautiful and powerful murals in our city. Her work often centres around the stories of women's resistance and resilience. Sandeep was gracious enough to allow us to feature her favourite piece in our article and our social media posts. "Raise Your Words, Not Your Voice", was created for ArtSmash on Granville Island in collaboration with Vancouver Mural Festival in 2018.
I painted it during the height of the #metoo movement thinking it was about speaking up and speaking out against violence perpetrated on woman by men but I realized it was also about taking up space—physical space in a world that teaches women to shrink—and what better way to do that than by painting a giant woman on a wall literally taking up space.Sandeep Johal
Powell Street Festival Society (PSFS)
The PSFS helps cultivate Japanese Canadian arts and culture to connect communities and expand the narrative of broader displacement issues. The PSFS produces the Powell Street Festival (PSF) in Vancouver’s historic Japanese Canadian neighbourhood of Paueru Gai every year.
The 45th Annual Powell Street Festival will be July 31 - August 1, 2021.
And let's not forget to support Asian restaurants by eating all the delicious food!
As promised, we polled our staff and here's some of their favourite Asian restaurants, along with their favourite menu items.
- Darren's pick is the Butter Beef from Phnom Penh, offering Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes
- Yegee enjoys the Kickass Rice from Torafuku, Wagyu Nigiri from Takenaka, Lunch Bento from Raisu, and any of the Mazesoba from Kokoro
- Christine loves the Curry Beef Rendeng from Prata-Man Singapore Cuisine, and the BBQ Pork on Rice from HK BBQ Master
- Sid's choices are the Chicken Bahn-mi and any of the Vermicelli based dishes from Pho Q&M
- Foley recommends the Pad Kee Mao from Sawasdee Thai
- Jane likes the Sweet and Spicy Bowl and Satay Noodles from Do Chay, a Saigon Vegetarian restaurant
- The Sticky Rice Cakes from Bao Bei, Panang Curry from Maenam, Miso Black Cod from Toshi Sushi, Beef Roll from Peaceful Restaurant are some of Julie’s favourites
- Meghan is partial to the Tajarin from Kissa Tanto, Liquid Tiramisu from DD Mau, and the CƠM BÒ LÚC LẮC THÊM HỘT GÀ - Filet Beef Luc Lac on Rice with Egg, or chicken wings from Phnom Penh
- Jacqueline thinks the convenient frozen take-home Ramen options from Franklin Food Lab are yum
- Muhammad’s picks are the Chow Mee Fen and Spicy Fried Noodle from Mezze, the Mongolian Beef from Dragon Wok, and the Chicken Seikh Kabab and Lamb Roast from Jamila’s Kitchen and Grill
- Ertac says the Taas, Chicken Momo, and Aalu Achaar from Gurkha Himalayan Kitchen Restaurant are great
- Lawrence’s list of favs includes the Krabby Patty Sando, Green Papaya Salad, and Chicken Wings from Potluck Hawker Eatery, the Pad See-ew Beef from Longtail Kitchen, the #69 Bo La Lot Beef Sausage from Song Huong Restaurant, all the gigantic Dim Sum from Western Lake, and the Spicy Zangi, Onigiri, and Omu-rice from Dosanko Restaurant
Stand with us
Taking the time to learn about the history of the people in our country helps us to expand our understanding of and empathy for each other. All heritages are equal contributors to our Nation's culture and economy. That is what makes our communities both colourful and great. The usual Asian Heritage Month celebrations and street festivals may not be happening this year due to the pandemic, but we invite you to take part in the many other ways we've highlighted—including eating all the delicious food! Our focus is to continue the conversation on our inclusive and anti-racism initiatives. We stand with our colleagues and community members who identify as Asian Canadian.