100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

June 28, 2023 | TPL Staff

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On July 1, 1923, the Canadian government passed a new Chinese Immigration Act — commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act — to restrict Chinese immigration. For its 100th anniversary, let's revisit this important part of Canadian history through precious records in our community-built Chinese Canadian Archive.

Brief history of the Chinese Exclusion Act

In the early 1880s, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway led to an influx of Chinese immigrants to work as labourers. By 1885, the construction was largely done, and Chinese labourers were no longer desired. At the time, Chinese labourers earned only an average of $300 per year. The Parliament of Canada passed a Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, imposing a head tax of $50 on incoming Chinese immigrants. This was raised to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. Despite the discriminatory tax, Chinese immigration continued.

In 1923, the Parliament passed what became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited most Chinese immigration except for people in narrowly-defined categories: diplomats, merchants, Canadian-born children who had left for educational purposes and students attending university or college. It also required any Chinese person in Canada to be registered — even those who were born in Canada. From 1923 until the Act was repealed in 1947, few Chinese immigrants gained entry into Canada.

TPL’s Chinese Canadian Archive holds materials donated by Chinese Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area that document experiences before, during and after the Exclusion Era.

Five government IDs which are very worn are arranged on a table
C.I. (Chinese Immigration) certificates preserved in the Chinese Canadian Archive.

William Wai-Ching Wong and the Exclusion Era

One of the few Chinese immigrants who gained entry during the Exclusion Era (1923 to 1947) was William Wai-Ching Wong.

Wong left China in 1934 to become a student in political science at New York University. In 1937, he came to Toronto as a PhD student at the University of Toronto. Upon his arrival, he had several jobs and other positions in the community. He was a teacher, an insurance sales representative and, most prominently, the Chief Editor of the Shing Wah Daily News, a major Chinese daily newspaper in Toronto first published in 1922. He also served as the president of the Chinese Community Centre of Ontario for more than 20 years. Meanwhile, his family expanded — he got married and raised four children.

Black and white photo of family posing sitting down with children in a wide open park
William Wong's family and friends on a picnic. Date unknown.
Three photos showing inside and outside of newspaper office including the printers
Photos of William Wong working at the Shing Wah Daily News, 1977–1978. View larger image.

He was allowed to enter Canada in 1937 on a temporary basis. In 1948, having lived in Canada for 10 years, the Immigration Authority issued a letter to the consulate of the Republic of China. It stated that Wong was expected to leave the country. However, he managed to become a Canadian citizen in 1957. This deportation letter and other records related to Wong are preserved in our Chinese Canadian Archive. 

Two side by side documents
Left: William Wong's Certificate of Medical Examination for his passage from Hong Kong to San Francisco, August 1934. View on Digital Archive. Right: Deportation letter issued by the Canadian immigration authority, 1948. View on Digital Archive.

Registration and risks for Canadian-born Chinese

The Chinese Exclusion Act required all Chinese, including those who were born in Canada, to register and carry certificates with an identification photo. The Chinese Canadian Archive preserves five of these certificates, including the below C.I. (Chinese Immigration) 45 certificate issued to Canadian-born Ruth Ma. The certificate came in a pocket-size envelope.

Hand holding an archival government identification from Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization and the envelope as well as a photo on the ID of a young girl
Ruth Ma’s C.I. 45 certificate, 1924. View on Digital Archive.

Apart from what was stipulated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, during that time Canadian women could lose their nationality status if they married a Chinese man. Jean Lumb, who was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, lost her status by marrying her husband, Doyle Jenning Lumb, who had come to Canada from China. She later obtained Canadian citizenship in 1950 (three years after the Act was repealed). Jean Lumb was an influential advocate for eliminating discriminatory immigration policies against Chinese immigrants. She was the first Chinese Canadian woman to receive the Order of Canada. In 1995, Lumb became a citizenship judge and swore in new Canadians.

Hand coloured photo of bride and groom and child and two others posing
 Jean and Doyle Jenning Lumb’s wedding portrait, 1939.

Family separation after the Exclusion Era

Due to the Act, many Chinese men in Canada were separated from their families. Although the Act was repealed in 1947, the entry of Chinese immigrants was limited to spouses and children (under the age of 18) of Canadian citizens. This still kept many families apart like Chin Ng's family. Ng paid a head tax of $500 when he came to Canada in 1918. He later became a Canadian citizen in 1950 and applied for his two sons to come over from China. His application was rejected because his sons were over 18. 

Immigration restrictions on Chinese based on their race and national origin continued until 1967.

Government record folded and with a red frame and title reading Certificate of Canadian Citizenship Issued under the Canadian Citizenship Act
Chin Ng’s citizenship certificate, December 27, 1950. View larger image.
Envelope and folded litter from the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Letter to Chin Ng indicting that his application for his sons to come to Canada was declined, April 30th 1950. View on Digital Archive.

Apology and recognition

For a long time, the Chinese Canadian community has referred to Dominion Day (now Canada Day) as "Humiliation Day" because July 1 marked the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Community members fought for redress and apology from the Canadian government. On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for the "grave injustice" of the Head Tax and expressed sorrow for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. It was an important day for Chinese Canadian communities. The below copy of the address held in the Ying Hope fonds in our Chinese Canadian Archive.

Front and back of text heavy letter on official Canadian letterhead with the contents in French  English and a Chinese language and signed by Stephen Harper
Address by Prime Minister Harper (in three languages across two sides) offering a full apology for the Chinese Head Tax in the House of Commons, June 22, 2006. Read on Government of Canada website or view a PDF of the above document.

During Asian Heritage Month in May of 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement to mark 100 years since the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Later on May 30, the Canadian government recognized the exclusion of Chinese Immigrants as of national historic significance.

Commemoration and further reading

Many organizations across Canada continue to shine a light on this history, especially for its 100th anniversary. Here are some of commemorative events and exhibits:

Historical overviews of the Chinese Exclusion Act are available on The Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 or Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

About the Chinese Canadian Archive

Maintained by TPL, the Chinese Canadian Archive collects and preserves materials that reflect the history of Chinese Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area. It is located on the 5th floor of Toronto Reference Library and is available to everyone. Visit us to learn about the history of Chinese immigration.

Blog post by Ruby Yuen, Special Collections Archivist for Chinese Canadian Archive