Anti-Chinese racism is on the rise during the COVID pandemic, but this discrimination is unfortunately not a new phenomenon – it’s deeply rooted in our history and the very creation of Kamloops. The erasure of Chinese-Canadians and their contributions to Kamloops and our Province are symptoms of the deep systemic anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism that infuses many aspects of our society.
Recent Anti-Chinese Racism
Conspiracies that Chinese people created COVID-19 as a weapon to attack our country, that Chinese people are intentionally spreading the virus around the world, and that Chinese communities are disloyal and taking orders from the Chinese government are widespread. This racist rhetoric is being stirred up by Trump and far-right groups to deflect blame for their handling of the COVID pandemic with horrible anti-Chinese hate crimes up significantly as a result. The reason this rhetoric is easily spread is that it relies on a background racist assumption that isn’t new – it goes back to the founding of Canada, BC, and Kamloops.
Chinese Canadians And The Foundation Of British Columbia
Chinese folks first arrived in present-day British Columbia in 1788 to help establish the fur trade. Then in the 1880s Chinese workers were crucial for building the difficult western sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway which brought British Columbia into Confederation. Over the course of construction and by the end of 1882, of the 9,000 railway workers, 6,500 were Chinese Canadians. They were given the most dangerous tasks, such as handling the explosive nitroglycerin used to break up solid rock. Due to the harsh conditions they faced, hundreds of Chinese Canadians working on the railway died from accidents, winter cold, illness, and malnutrition. In fact, for every mile of rail built one Chinese Canadian labourer died.
Many of these workers chose to settle in communities across BC like Kamloops and build up these developing towns and cities. Starting in 1887, Kamloops actually had one of the largest “Chinatowns” or Chinese-Canadian communities in the province for several decades. Unfortunately, as these communities grew the racist backlash and discrimination against Chinese Canadians grew as well. A crucial political strategy was to deprive non-whites of the vote, and the Chinese in British Columbia lost the vote in 1871 as the new legislature passed an act to disenfranchise “Native Indians,” Chinese and other non-whites. Cities and municipalities in British Columbia adopted the same strategies, and Chinese Canadians, now unable to vote in elections, became the scapegoats and targets for political movements that used anti-Chinese discrimination and legislated racism to rally voters. From the 1870s onward, racial discrimination against Chinese Canadians became a mainstay of British Columbia politics, culture and society.
In Nanaimo and Kamloops, for example, civic governments segregated Chinese Canadians, attempting to confine them to the outskirts of town. Even after death, the Chinese were segregated from white people with “whites-only” cemeteries. This led to the Chinese Canadian community in Kamloops establishing their own Chinese Cemetery in the West End, designed according to traditional Chinese geomancy/folk beliefs and was one of the largest Chinese cemeteries in BC.
Systemic Discrimination Against Chinese Canadians
This explicit campaign of discrimination was encouraged and, in many cases, led by the Canadian, British Columbian, and municipal governments for decades in the 1900s. Chinese Canadians were segregated socially, economically, and politically. They were banned from using public swimming pools, employing white women, sitting in “whites-only” sections of movie theatres, and were not allowed to become professionals like lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, or doctors until after 1947. The Federal government during this time enacted the Chinese “head tax” in 1885 to discourage Chinese labourers from coming to Canada and enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 to ban Chinese immigration to Canada until 1947. This legally sanctioned racial discrimination was systemic, sustained, and caused much human suffering for many Chinese Canadians separated from their family members. This was a clear signal from Canada that they didn’t belong in “white society”.
Chinese Canadians Community Service
Despite these attacks, the Chinese Canadian community persevered and grew throughout the 1900s. Examples of community service and deep integration into Canadian and British Columbian life during these times are many, including the story of Frederick Lee and Peter Wing. Frederick was a Chinese Canadian man from Kamloops who volunteered to serve in the First World War and was killed in action during the Battle of Hill 70 in France. Even though his country didn’t allow him to vote and had a lot of prejudice against his community, he still volunteered to fight for our country and made the ultimate sacrifice.
Kamloops also made history in 1958 by electing Peter Wing, the first public official of Chinese descent in North America, to city council. He then went on to serve two terms as mayor of Kamloops from 1965-72 where he worked towards the amalgamation of North Kamloops and Kamloops into the singular municipality it is today. In many ways, Peter Wing exemplified Chinese Canadians full participation in the public life of our community. Born in Kamloops in 1914, Wing was one of six children of a landless Cantonese peasant. He dropped out of school in Grade 9 to work with his father, running a restaurant and then a grocery store. When Wing was 20, he became the youngest member of the Kamloops Board of Trade and pursued an active role in the business life of the community as an orchardist and realtor. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1976 and was a recipient of the Order of British Columbia in 1990 to recognize his historic accomplishments.
How Does The Cycle Of Racism Continue?
Unfortunately, many folks aren’t aware about this history and the long-standing contributions that the Chinese community have made to our country and city. Much of this history is limited in our educational curriculum and the relatively recent systemic discrimination against Chinese Canadians isn’t really talked about. It might make people uncomfortable to consider how only a generation ago our government-enforced legal racial discrimination against Chinese Canadians. This lack of awareness also directly leads to the type of thinking that biases people towards believing that Chinese Canadians are “foreign, and incompatible with Canadian society.” If you didn’t know about these hundreds of years of history, you might think that the Chinese community is a new addition to BC and Kamloops, but that’s wrong. These folks have been an important part of our community since the beginning.
How Can I Help?
You can help by learning about our local Chinese Canadian community and their contributions to Kamloops. Walk through Kamloops’ Chinese Cemetery to learn a little bit about this history and see the longstanding integration of Chinese-Canadians in Kamloops. 850 Lombard Street in the West End by TRU. Click here for more information and directions to this historic site.
For more information contact:
Vice President Equity
 Building the railway. (2017). Province of British Columbia. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/multiculturalism-anti-racism/chinese-legacy-bc/history/building-the-railway
 Anti-Chinese politics. (2017). Province of British Columbia. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/multiculturalism-anti-racism/chinese-legacy-bc/history/anti-chinese-politics
 Chinese cemetery remains a cornerstone of Kamloops history. (2016, March 26). iNFOnews. https://infotel.ca/newsitem/chinese-cemetery-remains-a-cornerstone-of-kamloops-history/it28921
 Discrimination. (2017). Province of British Columbia. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/multiculturalism-anti-racism/chinese-legacy-bc/history/discrimination
 Kamloops Chinese Cultural Association. (2008, January 2). Peasant’s gold: the story of Peter Wing. https://www.heroesofconfederation.com/photo_gallery/PeterWing.htm