Canadian Wrongs: The Historical Context of the Chinese Head Tax

""Free Labour in the United States" (Cartoon from <em>Canadian Illustrated News</em>, 1870)

The above is a cartoon that was published in the Canadian Illustrated News in 1870. This cartoon depicts a Chinese man stealing the boot of a white Canadian, while being attacked by three white men, one of whom is depicted as Uncle Sam. This cartoon provides a concrete example of how the Chinese were stereotyped and viewed as a threat to Canadian wellbeing.

Historical Context

Upon their arrival in British Columbia, Chinese migrants experienced intense racism. Chinese migrants were often the scapegoats for social problems. For instance, Chinese migrants were blamed during economic downturns and for taking away jobs from white Canadians.3 More importantly, the Chinese were viewed as a “backward people who could never learn to live like white Canadians.”3 Chinese migrants were stereotyped as being thieves, and were said to carry immoral habits such as smoking opium that “threatened Canada’s wellbeing.”3 According to Library and Archives Canada, “racism against Chinese and other immigrant groups… as well as against First Nations peoples, were expressions of a powerful belief in white superiority.”3

3 “The Early Chinese Canadians 1858-1947,” Library and Archives Canada, accessed February 17th, 2017, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/chinese-canadians/021022-1400-e.html
"The Heathen Chinese in British Colombia." Cartoon, Canadian Illustrated News, 1879

The above cartoon was published in the Canadian Illustrated News in 1879. According to Library and Archives Canada, the caption of this cartoon read:

-          A.D.C: “You can’t or won’t assimilate with us”

-          Heathen Chinese: “What is dat?”

-          A.D.C: “You won’t drink whiskey and talk politics and vote like us.”

The Law in-Depth

Through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, the Canadian government implemented a head tax on Chinese individuals. Chinese individuals entering Canada were forced to pay a head tax of $50. The Canadian government intended this tax to significantly curtail Chinese immigration, because it was presumed that the Chinese were too poor to pay.3 Upon paying the head tax, the government would track Chinese individuals by registering them in the General Registers of Chinese Immigration.

The head tax only reduced immigration from China for a number of years. By 1903, the Canadian government increased the head tax from $50 to $500 in an effort to decrease immigration further. This increased head tax was also only effective for a number of years, as Chinese immigration to Canada increased in 1908. In 1923, the anti-Chinese attitudes in Canada reached a new plateau, as the Canadian government amended the Chinese Immigration Act to completely halt Chinese immigration outside of a small class of individuals. It was not until 1948 that the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed.

3 “The Early Chinese Canadians 1858-1947,” Library and Archives Canada, accessed February 17th, 2017, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/chinese-canadians/021022-1400-e.html
Head tax certificate for Chong Do Dang.

The above is an image of Chong Do Dang’s head tax certificate. Upon paying the head tax, Chinese migrants would receive a certificate like this. According to the General Registry of Chinese Immigration, Chong Do Dang was 10 years old. 

Chinese Migrant Database search result: Chong Do Dang

The above is a screenshot obtained from the online database of all registered Chinese migrants who paid the head tax. I utilized this search engine to search for Chong Do Dang. The search reveals that he entered Canada on February 2nd 1922.