Formation of Chinatown

Vancouver’s Chinatown is the second largest historic Chinatown in the world after San Francisco’s Chinatown. The formation of Chinatown was a result of forced discrimination rather than choice settlement as the Chinese were unwelcome in other parts of the city.

Most Chinese labourers were forced to live in the fraught areas of the city due to discrimination enacted by non-Chinese folks. However, the Chinese community was able to create a space of business, home, and camaraderie in this space, creating a home environment away from their home in China. To outsiders, Chinatown became a mysterious exotic den, a place of opium, gambling, and disease. [1]

Chinese people came to Canada in 3 large waves. The first was in the late 1850s for the Gold Rush, the second wave was in the 1880s to labour on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the third was in the late 1940s after Canada lifted the ban on Chinese immigration.

Often, Chinese sojourners would leave their ancestral villages in China in search of ‘Gold Mountain’, referring to overseas opportunities of wealth and a better life that could be found in Canada, the United States or Australia. The name ‘Gold Mountain’ (‘gum shan’) was given by the first wave of Chinese migrants who hopefully sought out the North American gold rushes of the 19th century, and over time has come to reflect migrant dreams of hope in the new world. [2]

The first wave of Chinese migrants arrived in British Columbia in 1858. In 1857 thousands of miners flooded to BC in search of gold, after the first discovery of it was made, including the first group of Chinese immigrants who arrived to Victoria via boat from San Francisco in June 1858. The height of the gold rush quickly came to a close in 1865. Due to labour shortages, the government hired the incoming waves of Chinese immigrant men to labouriously build trails and roads for the gold rush. [3]

The Canadian government enacted a series of racist legislation towards the Chinese community, a reflection of the harsh racism and white supremacy that took form in prejudiced social sentiments and government policies directed towards Chinese Canadians. [4]


[1] http://ccs.library.ubc.ca/en/stories/viewItem/2/2/31/

[2] “Chinatown Walking Tour Orientation & Training Manual” Property of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society and no part or whole shall be reproduced without prior written consent. Copyright 2010 Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. All rights reserved.

[3] http://www.sfu.ca/chinese-canadian-history/chart_en.html

[4] http://ccs.library.ubc.ca/en/stories/viewItem/2/6/52/

Vancouver’s Chinatown: Past, Present, and Future [video]

By 1861 most of the miners in the Fraser Valley were Chinese.

“The Chinese first appeared in large numbers in the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1858 as part of the huge migration to that colony from California during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Most of the Chinese who came to British Columbia in the 1850s and 1860s came directly from California — as the gold rush in California was coming to a close, the rush was just beginning in the north. A second wave of Chinese migration occurred when news of the BC Gold Rush eventually reached China and attracted many for new opportunities in the “Gold Mountain.”

There were two major gold rushes in British Columbia in the mid-1800s. The first was the Fraser Gold Rush in the 1850s while the second occurred in the Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s. While the Fraser Gold Rush drew Chinese north, it was during the Cariboo Gold Rush that the first Chinese community was established in Canada in the gold mining town of Barkerville. At Barkerville, in the Cariboo, over half of the town’s population was estimated to be Chinese, and several other towns including Richfield, Stanley, Van Winkle, Quesnel, Antler, Quesnelle Forks and Lillooet had significant Chinatowns.

Barkerville became a prosperous town during the Gold Rush. At the height of the gold rush in the 1860s, as many as 5,000 Chinese lived in Barkerville. Yet, since Chinese were not allowed to prospect in areas other than on abandoned sites due to racial discrimination, Chinese prospectors did not make the same fortunes as did their white counterparts” [3]

  • All along the river bars and bottom flats in the lower Fraser Valley there were Chinese men panning for gold [2]
  • Many of these men spent their off time in Vancouver and lived in one man rooms that were extremely small and had to share a bath house at a different establishment [2]
  • Most women that came over were the wives of wealthy merchants who had already come over and established themselves in Vancouver [2]




In the end, it was estimated that 1000 Chinese workers died to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. [2]


Architecture: The built environment and community
In 1971 the province of British Columbia designated Vancouver’s Chinatown as a historic district. Chinatown is located near the historic Hastings Mill and Pacific Central Station, two spaces that were often frequented by the early immigrant working class community that lived near Strathcona. In 1979 the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee redesigned the streetscape to include things like the red streetlamps and unique sidewalk crosswalks that are both visible all around Chinatown even today. [2] The only other Chinatown in the world that may have a similar balcony style is Victoria’s Chinatown on Vancouver Island. [2]

Clan formation
Early Chinese migrants would often find support from fellow sojourners by joining a clan association- a community group that would be formed and made up of people who shared the same surname, creating a sense of kinship and shared ties. These clan associations provided support and shared advice and resources amongst its members at a time when the Canadian government may not been as supportive to meet the needs of Chinese migrants.


Details Coming Soon

Changing injustice and inequity
After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Canadian government was clear that the Chinese community that was previously seen as a useful source of labour was no longer of use, but in fact, problematic. And thus began an insidiously racist rhetoric that labeled those of Chinese descent as inferior (which would also impact impressions towards all communities of Asian descent). These discriminatory social sentiments held by those in power were systemically bounded by the creation and acceptance of racist legislation. In order to limit the entry of Chinese migrants, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was the beginning of the imposed tax on Chinese migrants should they wish to enter Canada, set at $50. In 1902 the head tax was increased to $100, and in 1903 finally upped to $500. If that wasn’t enough, after World War I there was a shortage of jobs available for locals, which led to the creation of a bill from the federal government to justify the exclusion of any new immigration from China. Immigrants from China were not welcome to step foot into Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed on July 1st, 1923, known to the Chinese as “Humiliation Day”. Further, the Chinese community, citizens or not, was not granted the ability to vote in city, provincial, or federal elections until 1947. The impacts of such stark government upheld and disseminated racism evidently made life for Chinese migrants in Vancouver and Canada incredibly difficult, and has been since recognized. In 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted. In 2006 there was an official apology from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Chinese Canadian community for the government created head tax policy and subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act (1923) . Unfortunately, no amount of redress money can make up for the barriers Chinese migrants experienced in BC, a place travelled to in search of a better life, a place that was built with the blood, sweat, tears, and hopes of our elders. The historical impacts of government sanctioned racism towards Chinese migrants are still felt today, and we can only hope that recognition of past historical injustices can be learned from to prevent such atrocities from occurring again, in any form.


[1] http://ccs.library.ubc.ca/en/stories/viewItem/2/3/33/#!CHRP_Projects

[2] “Chinatown Walking Tour Orientation & Training Manual” Property of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society and no part or whole shall be reproduced without prior written consent. Copyright 2010 Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. All rights reserved.

[3] http://www.library.ubc.ca/chineseinbc/mining.html