Chinese Immigrants & The Old East End 

Thousands of Chinese are pouring in upon us.

In 1931 Toronto did not see itself as a multi-cultural society. It saw itself as British and people sincerely believed that white people were superior and that the British Empire was the most civilized society ever. Society was openly racist and imperialist. Restrictive immigration laws were passed to keep Chinese, South Asian and black people out.

Chinese men and women were officially not welcome to come to Canada. How did this specific community find itself the target of such prejudice? And were there Chinese Canadians in the East End?

Around 1855 a few Chinese men came to Canada to work as miners and domestic servants (cooks and cleaners). In 1858 Britain created the Colony of British Columbia.  The same year, the first Chinese gold-miners arrive in British Columbia from San Francisco to work in the Fraser River Gold Rush. They trek north to the Fraser River along with thousands of other prospectors. Most of them are, like the majority of Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, from the Guangdong ( 广东 ) province in southern China. These miners form the first continuous Chinese community in Canada. Later, this community became the jump-off point for many who went further east, including to Toronto and the old villages of Leslieville, Riverside, Norway and East Toronto. Many Canadians, but not all, held deeply prejudicial attitudes towards Chinese people. Most were single men, as women, for the most part, were not allowed into Canada.

Globe November 19, 1860

Globe, July 12, 1859 E B HoltIn 1860 Mrs. Kwong Lee, the first Chinese woman in Canada, landed in Victoria, British Columbia She was the wife of the owner of the Kwong Lee Company.

In 1871 Census takers went out to take Canada’s first annual census. It showed that the total population was 3.6 million. That year the Canadian government agreed to build a transcontinental railroad (the Canadian Pacific Railroad or C.P.R.) from Ontario to the new province of British Columbia. English immigrants were pouring into Canada, forming the largest ethnic group after those born in Canada. English, Irish and Scots constituted most of Toronto’s population. The city was overwhelming Protestant, with a large Irish Catholic minority. An Anglican and Orange-dominated city government saw itself as “British”.

Map of EmpireFrom 1871 to  912 Britain coloured much of the world map pink, as Victorians grabbed, gobbled and coerced peoples around the world into acknowledging Queen Victoria as Empress and their subservient role in a benevolent Empire. The motive was economic, put simply as greed, but Britons rationalized their imperialism as “the White Man’s Burden to “civilize savages” and “bring them to Christ”. The supremacy of Christianity and that tiny segment of humanity that proudly called itself “Anglo-Saxon” was virtually unquestioned.  Chinese culture was very old, very well-organized and structured around its own Emperor, and strongly resisted European intrusion into its territory. Britain, like other European imperialist powers, played “divide and rule” wherever it could establish a foothold, playing local interests, classes, ethnicities and religious groups against each other, using a velvet glove wherever possible. But that velvet glove cloaked an iron fist, professional armies bristling with the latest military technology; a large, effective navy; and ruthless politicians. Britain wanted cheap raw materials, commodities like tea, silk and manufactured goods like china, and the right to flood local markets with British manufactured goods. They did not, however, want their imperial subjects to return the favour by immigrating to England and neither did their largest colonies – Canada and Australia.

In 1872 the Canadian government granted contracts to build the C.P. R. The transcontinental railroad was supposed to bring settlers to the Prairies, transport agricultural products like wheat to the East, and link the newly-born Canada together behind the tariff wall of John A. Macdonald’s National Policy. By the early 1870’s there were a few Chinese merchants and shop owners in Toronto.

Globe, Jan. 7, 1873 Tea merchant Toronto
Globe, Jan. 7, 1873

In 1873 The Dominion Elections Act instituted voting by secret ballot. The Canada of the day was one where only male British subjects 21-years-old or older who had an annual income of at least $400 a year could vote. First Nations men could choose to give up their status as “Indians” in return for the vote. One of the first things that John A.’s government did was to take away the vote from indigenous Canadians — just weeks after Confederation in 1867.

The people of the day had no idea that Chinese people could ever or would ever become Canadians.

In 1875 the Leslieville population was largely British and Orange with a large Catholic minority around what is now the Curzon and Dundas area.

The Illustrated Wasp, Dec. 5, 1877

In 1877 rioters attacked San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinese people in Canada were no safer.

Heathen Chinese

The same year Chinese men established their first Toronto laundries.

Mr. Lee Hong's laundry at 48 Elizabeth St 1912 City of Toronto Archives
Mr. Lee Hong’s laundry at 48 Elizabeth Street, 1912, City of Toronto Archives

On October 31, 1877, The Irish Canadian reported on a funeral:

The Irish Canadian, Oct. 31, 1877 Ah Lung's funeral Toronto1
The Irish Canadian, Oct. 31, 1877 (1 Part)
The Irish Canadian, Oct. 31, 1877 Ah Lung's funeral Toronto2
The Irish Canadian, Oct. 31, 1877 (2 Part)

In British Columbia anti-Chinese opinion prevailed and, in 1878, the provincial government banned Chinese workers from public works. However, from 1880 to 1885 thousands of Chinese men labour to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, (C.P.R.), from Ontario to British Columbia. They did the most dangerous and dirtiest work.  It is said that one Chinese labourer was killed on the job for every mile of track laid.

Chinese camp (CPR), Kamloops, BC, 1886. Edouard Deville, Library and Archives Canada C-021990
Chinese camp (CPR), Kamloops, BC, 1886. Edouard Deville, Library and Archives Canada C-021990

Miscellaneous, Railway Lands. - [between 1977 and 1998]
The Chinese Railway Workers’ Memorial, Toronto, 1880s
They faced danger off the job as well, as Chinese people everywhere in North America were subject to unprovoked racial attacks by individuals and by mobs.

In Globe, April 18, 1881 Chinese man fights back1882 the U.S. Congress passes The Chinese Exclusion Act. It wasn’t just governments that were against the Chinese workers. The union movement in the U.S. and Canada blamed Chinese labourers for taking “white” jobs and undercutting wages. When the Canadian Labour Congress met for the first time, its first president called on delegates to deal with the “Chinese immigration curse.”

In 1884 the federal government set up a Royal Commission to study Chinese immigration.

California The Chinese Agitation in San Francisco, 1880

Through the 1880s there were a number of anti-Chinese riots in the western U.S., including San Francisco and Seattle.

Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration 1885 Title

When the C.P.R. was finished in 1885, the government put in place a $50 head tax on every Chinese immigrant.  They limited the number of Chinese people who could travel on a ship to Canada.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, 1886:

I do not think that it would be to the advantage of Canada or any other country occupied by Aryans for members of the Mongolian race to become permanent inhabitants of the country.

Many Chinese labourers returned to China, but many stayed. Many simply walked east along the railway tracks, settling along the way in the small rail-side towns in the Prairies or trekking all the way to Toronto, and Montreal, hoping to face less prejudice and discrimination and find better jobs.  Just as the first Chinese immigrants had found themselves confined to menial personal service jobs such as servants, the unemployed railway labourers found work as cooks and cleaners where they could.

A Chinatown soon appeared in downtown Toronto.

Globe, July 9, 1887 Description Toronto Chinatown1

Globe, July 9, 1887 Description Toronto Chinatown2

They faced attack again, but there are a number of reports of people in Toronto fighting back.

Globe, Sept. 30, 1887
The magistrate said that some people thought that they could run on Chinamen as they pleased because they had no friends.

Canada extended the vote in 1888 to all adult male British subjects except un-enfranchised “Indians” living on reserves. In Ontario, men had the secret ballot and could now vote without any property qualifications.  These rights were not extended to the so-called “Celestials”.

Chinese tailor, c. 1889, BC, Robert W. Reford, Library and Archives Canada PA-118195
Chinese tailor, c. 1889, BC, Robert W. Reford, Library and Archives Canada PA-118195

The first Chinese businesses appeared in the East End in the late nineteenth century: laundries, tailors and restaurants. Chinese Canadians were few and far between since the Canadian government passed measure after to measure to restrict immigration from China. Most of the Chinese people who came to Toronto in the early days were men, single by choice, necessity or circumstance, as Chinese women were not allowed into the Dominion of Canada.

By 1893 there were at least 24 Chinese laundries in Toronto.

Toronto Star, August 11, 1894
Toronto Star, August 11, 1894

The abuse went on and on.

Toronto Star, July 15, 1895
Toronto Star, July 15, 1895

Globe, March 13, 1899 Baiting a Chinaman

By 1900 Toronto was home to a fledgling Chinese community of some 200 residents, but growth was hampered. Another Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration held hearings. One of the chief concerns government had was that limits on Chinese immigration would negatively impact trade between China and Canada. Not surprisingly, given the prevalent attitudes, they concluded that keeping Chinese immigrants out would not keep Canadian goods out of China.

Bill an act respecting and restricting Chinese immigration, 1900
Bill an act respecting and restricting Chinese immigration, 1900

The fear of the “Yellow Peril”, the idea that Chinese “blood” would swamp the so-called superior “Anglo-Saxon” population, was rampant in the early 20th century. Fearing that the West would be flooded by Chinese and Japanese immigrants unless it was “fully occupied”, Canada developed an immigration policy that lured Eastern Europeans to the Prairies. This was the same year as Ottawa raised the Chinese head tax to $100, to take effect in 1902.

Racism, both official and popular, left Chinese people vulnerable to exploitation and assault. They got the worst, lowest-paying jobs and then they were blamed for undercutting the wages of white labourers and taking “white” jobs. Labour unions and activists were solidly behind excluding Chinese immigrants from all but the worst jobs and from Canada itself. Self-employment in laundries, cafes and groceries was the predominant source of livelihood. Racists frequently assaulted Chinese men on the street and even in their homes and, from time to time, anti-Chinese rioters attacked the whole Chinese community.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and onward, “the brick limits”, City by-laws, only allowed brick buildings, including houses, to be built in certain areas. Wooden structures were banned for reasons of public safety; the risk of fire spreading through large areas of downtown was too much to allow wooden buildings. On real estate ads of the early 20th century you often see “restricted neighbourhood”. This did mean brick houses only, but it was more insidious than that.

People used the brick limits to keep Chinese people out of neighbourhoods.  They would lobby for the brick limits to keep Asian people out. Some places in our neighbourhood were “restricted”; others, obviously, were not. But more subtle discrimination existed and it is not often talked about. These were so-called restrictive covenants written into mortgages. Such restrictive covenants specified that the property could only be sold to representatives of certain groups, namely white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and, correspondingly could not be sold to immigrants, Negroes, Asians, Jews, Catholics or other “undesirables”.

Such racist and discriminatory restrictive covenants were common throughout Ontario and, like a cold silent wall, kept thousands of people in ethnic ghettos. East End resident Harry Wilmot, in an interview for the T.P.L. local history collection, recalled, “When I was a boy, very rarely you met anybody who wasn’t born here or Anglo-Saxon or whatever you call them.”

According to the 1901 Dominion Census, the population of Toronto grows from just over 9,000 in 1834 to over 300,000 in 1901. 90 percent of Toronto’s citizens were of British ancestry. The largest ethnic group was Germans at 3 percent; the next largest, Jews at 1.9 percent. Toronto had 96 Chinese laundries, compared to 66 laundries ran by others. A number of Chinese restaurants and laundries where on Gerrard Street East and Queen Street East. The owners and their families lived above them, but only rarely did were they found living on any East End side streets due to restrictive covenants and outright racial discrimination.

In 1902 as Imperial pride grew, Canada celebrated “Empire Day”, May 24, 1902, for the first time. “Victoria Day” had been renamed.

1903 Globe, Dec. 12, 1903 Chinese Wife
Globe, Dec. 12, 1903

When the first Chinese woman appeared on Toronto’s streets, the Morality Squad or Vice Squad, the specialized team that enforced anti-prostitution and anti-gambling laws, promptly arrested her husband. That year Ottawa raised the head tax to $500, far more than most working people earned in a year.

On May 23, 1904, “Empire Day” became celebrated across the British Empire. This move was to honour the support the Dominions, including Canada, lent to the Mother Country during the Boer War (1899 to 1902).

In 1906 Newfoundland passed legislation requiring all Chinese immigrants to pay a $300 head tax.

In 1907 anti-Asian rioters rampaged through Vancouver’s Chinatown, burning and looting Chinese and Japanese shops and businesses.

Vancouver's Powell Street after race riot of September 7, 1907
Vancouver’s Powell Street after race riot of September 7, 1907

Despite the hardship, some men found the means to raise money to bring their wives and families to Canada.

Canadian Courier, Vol. II, No. 18, September 28, 1907
Canadian Courier, Vol. II, No. 18, September 28, 1907

The police harassed the Chinese community in which gambling was a long tradition. Fan Tan was particularly popular, but other games were played as well.

Toronto Star, March 5, 1907
Toronto Star, March 5, 1907

The predominant view was that Canada was and should be “A White Man’s Country”.

19081209 GL A White Man's Country
Globe, December 9, 1908


Some in Toronto’s East End stood up against the prejudice and supported their Chinese neighbours.

19081029 TS Petition in favor Chinese laundry

Despite the fact that Canada’s Immigration Act of 1909 specifically provided for the prohibition of “any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada”, by 1910 more than a thousand Chinese people lived in Toronto — mostly in “the Ward”. This was a poor area, near Old City Hall, and the nucleus of the first Toronto Chinatown. The parade of 1912 seems to be the first such celebration in Toronto.

Canadian Courier, Vol. XI, No. 8, Jan. 20, 1912
Canadian Courier, Vol. XI, No. 8, Jan. 20, 1912

Canadian Courier, Vol. XI, No. 8, Jan. 20, 1912c

Globe, Jan. 9, 1912 article about parade

Globe, January 9, 1912 Toronto Parade

Only a few weeks later, on January 29, 1912, an article appeared in The Globe, arguing that the country should be kept for whites.

While some women and children slipped in, many Chinese men were unable to bring their loved ones to Canada. The cost was simply prohibitive on their meager incomes and the result was often depression and all too often suicide.

Globe, November 21, 1913 Suicide Kingston Road
Globe, November 21, 1913

They faced grinding prejudice that rarely seemed to abate as more and more restrictions were placed on their ability to make a living.

Toronto Sunday World, April 14, 1914 Chinese restaurants and women
Toronto Sunday World, April 14, 1914

Even relatively progressive men and women turned on the vulnerable. Sam McBride would go to become one of Toronto’s most popular mayors.

Toronto Star, June 15, 1915
Toronto Star, June 15, 1915

McBride’s memory is celebrated on one of Toronto’s beloved ferries.

View of ferry "Sam McBride" pulling into ferry docks
The Sam McBride

Though the Canadian army was desperate for men, Chinese Canadians were not welcome except as labourers. Nonetheless, they formed Home Defense Corps to defend their new country.

The Canadian Courier Vol. XVIII. No. 26 (November 27th, 1915)
The Canadian Courier, Vol. XVIII. No. 26 (November 27th, 1915)

Picture11917 (a) Chinese labourers (b) Coolie compound (c) Chinese labourers (d) Chinese detraining, Camp Petawawa, [Ontario] 1917, Library and Archives Canada

Chinese Labour Battalions in France celebrating the Chinese New Year on Feb, 11, 1917, NARCH
Chinese Labour Battalions in France celebrating the Chinese New Year on Feb, 11, 1917, Library and Archives Canada

From 1917 to 1918  Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia made it illegal for Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries to hire white women.  The Chinese community challenged the law in the courts, but the courts upheld the discriminatory legislation. The common prejudice was that Chinese men would exploit white female workers sexually, perhaps selling them into “the white slave trade”.

Pushed to the brink, men continued to take their own lives and this, perhaps to Toronto’s embarrassment, appeared in papers across the country at a time before the media stopped reporting on suicide.

December 9, 1917, Brandon Daily Sun Suicide in Toronto
Brandon Daily Sun, December 9, 1917

Despite the hardship, most continued to build their businesses and community.

The Canadian Courier Vol. XXIII. No. 13 (March 30, 1918) Dr Mah MacWong
The Canadian Courier, Vol. XXIII. No. 13 (March 30, 1918)
Canadian Courier, Vol. XXIII. No. 13, March 30, 1918
Canadian Courier, Vol. XXIII. No. 13, March 30, 1918

But the ghost of “The Yellow Peril”, which existed only in the minds of the prejudiced, continued to haunt Canada.

Globe, April 10, 1918a

Globe, April 10, 1918b Yellow Peril3 - Copy
Globe, April 10, 1918

In 1919, a Toronto mob attacked Chinatown. Montreal Gazette, Nov. 19, 1919 Mob attacks ChinatownToronto had 2,100 Chinese with 35 families.

The Canadian House of Commons amended The Dominion Elections Act in 1920 to make women eligible to sit in the House of Commons. At the same time, some Chinese veterans who had served in World War One were enfranchised.

By 1921, just before the passing of The Chinese Immigration Act, Toronto’s Chinese community had grown to 2,176 representing 0.4% of Toronto’s population. There were now 374 Chinese laundries in Toronto. Chinese market gardens were springing up in the East End and on the Humber. The Globe, Oct. 27, 1922, reported:

Chinese market gardener
Chinese market gardener

Toronto’s Suburbs Are Favored Section – Growers Voice Protest

Although here in but few numbers yet, the Chinese are steadily establishing themselves in the market garden trade about the fringes of Toronto. Vegetables grown by them are bought by Toronto merchants and are sold on Toronto markets.

This gradual infiltration in many of its aspects much resembles British Columbia’s unfortunate experience. In the Western Province much, if not most, of the desirable market gardening land has been gradually acquired by Chinese; the great trucking trade of the Coast is practically in their hands. First came one Chinaman offering an exceptional sum for land rental. Cupidity closed the bargain. Then there appeared more of these newcomers throughout the neighbourhood. Hemmed in by people whose standard of living was objectionable, and against whose methods of working they could not decently compete, the Canadian gardeners had but one course of action – they sold out to the invaders and moved farther afield, often to poorer land.

Settling About Toronto.

So it is to some extent here about Toronto. One place of about 11 acres the Chinese have rented for one thousand dollars a season. All about the city limits this settlement is going on. The Globe’s representative saw Chinese gardeners at work on the Humber flats by Lambton. Immediately alongside the Lambton Golf Course, three of them are working a small piece of ground, and living in a little scrapboard shack. There are small settlements started at Humber Bay, along the Islington road, Eglinton avenue around Mount Dennis and Weston.

Work on Sundays

“We should not be afraid of their competition as gardeners,” said F.F. Reeves of Humber Bay, a well known grower, “were they compelled to live in a manner befitting Canadian citizens. But this they do not do. They live in hovels for the most part, and observe few of the decencies that Canadian custom demands from others. Sundays are work days for them as much as any other day of the week.”

The owner of the land by the Humber which some of the Chinese have rented said that he had no fault to find. He commended them for their industrious habits and quiet manners. Some of the other land owners in the vicinity, however, were not so enthusiastic.

Open Competitors.

Professor A. McLennan of the Ontario Agricultural College, Vegetable Specialist for the Ontario Government, stated that there was a [illegible] agitation against the Chinese market gardener. “He first started growing crops for his own people, generally special crops which our own growers did not handle. Lately he has begun to compete with these growers and to undersell them on the open market.”

Mr. McLennan had no figures to show the extent of Chinese settlement throughout Ontario, but stated that the majority were to be found about Toronto.

Only a Start.

The general feeling is that the influx has only begun. One grower expressed the opinion that some organization was behind the individual and was providing the money for the big rentals. The movement has started, but is yet small, and should be watched carefully. For it is apparent that the Chinese can establish themselves in the market garden trade in Ontario; and what was shown in British Columbia will prove as sure for us – when the Chinese start to sift in the Canadians begin to leave. We should better preserve our good lands there than we have done in the West. 

Residence of a Chinese Gardener in Lambton, Oct. 10, 1922, Library and Archives Canada
Residence of a Chinese Gardener in Lambton, Oct. 10, 1922, Library and Archives Canada
Globe, Oct. 23, 1923
Globe, Oct. 23, 1923

Violence against Chinese Canadians seemed to escalate as did legal moves to restrict their lives even further. In 1923 the Canadian House of Commons passed the Chinese Immigration Act which basically banned all Chinese immigration. They didn’t repeal it until 1947.

America passed The Immigration Act of 1924 to keep out “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” practically excluding Asians from entry into the U.S. It also stipulated that only white people could be naturalized as U.S. citizens.

Chinese Methodist Mission School Annual Picnic June 21, 1924 TARCH
Chinese Methodist Mission School Annual Picnic June 21, 1924 City of Toronto Archives

Ministers refused to marry inter-racial couples, here and in other places in Canada.

Lethbridge Herald, Feb. 9, 1925 Minister refuses to marry couple
Lethbridge Herald, Feb. 9, 1925

Nonetheless, despite it all, the Chinese community showed remarkable resilience.

Beverly St Baptist Church, Chinese kids Xmas tree. - December 22, 1926
Beverly St Baptist Church – December 22, 1926
Chinese Picnic, father & children on bench. - June 17, 1927
Chinese Picnic, father and children on bench, C.N.E. – June 17, 1927
To Celebrate the Opening of the Canadian Toronto Chinese Christian Youth (YMCA) School, May 30 - June 6, 1926 OARCH
To Celebrate the Opening of the Canadian Toronto Chinese Christian Youth (YMCA) School, May 30 – June 6, 1926, Archives of Ontario

During the 1930’s, Chinese Canadians in Toronto founded the first organization to fight for the abolition of the discriminatory Canadian immigration policies. Leaders in the local Chinese community formed the Committee for the Movement to Abolish the Canadian Restrictive Immigration Policy Towards Chinese in the face of a Toronto that  was frequently referred to as the “Belfast of Canada” due to the British dominance and Orange Lodge which controlled municipal government.

The Dominion Census returns of June 1, 1931 indicated that 72 percent of Ontario’s population of 3.4 million was born in Canada; 10 percent in England; 3.5 percent, Scotland; and 1½ percent, Ireland. 631,201 people lived in the City of Toronto. The overwhelming majority were still British-born or of British descent, but there was now a growing population of Jewish immigrants, and others from eastern and southern Europe. 80.9 percent of Torontonians were of British origin; the Jewish population of 45,305 was the largest non-British group (7.2 percent of the city’s population).

Chinese Picnic, group of 5 children, Exhibition. - June 18, 1926
Chinese Picnic, group of 5 children, Exhibition. – June 18, 1926

Published by Leslieville Historical Society

Welcome to the Leslieville Historical Society's website. Please feel free to join us, to ask questions, to attend walking tours and other events, and to celebrate Leslieville's past while creating our future. Guy Anderson, President, Leslieville Historical Society and Joanne Doucette, local historian and webmaster.

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