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In this section:
The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection includes extensive records of Canada's Chinese population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Web exhibition, The Early Chinese Canadians, 1858–1947, is intended to aid in the exploration of this material.
The most significant part of the collection is the General Registers of Chinese Immigration. These are the government records of "head tax" payments that Chinese immigrants were obliged to pay upon arrival in Canada, starting in 1885. Despite their bitter origins, these carefully kept records of over 95,000 immigrants are a boon for both family genealogists and historians. LAC is proud to make these records available online with this Web exhibition.
Other components of the LAC collection presented here include photographs and historical documents, selected mainly from among our collection of archival records created by the federal government. From our library collection of published material, we suggest titles from the growing body of literature and research about Chinese Canadians in the period from 1858 to 1947.
The time period of this exhibition was chosen to mark two significant dates. The year 1858 marks the arrival of the first major wave of Chinese migrants to the west coast of what later became Canada. (Their arrival was predated by a small group of sailors who landed in British Columbia's Nootka Sound in 1788 and then disappeared from the historical record). The year 1947 marks the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which had almost completely banned immigration from China, and also marks the start of a new chapter in the history of Chinese Canadians.
A conundrum is created by the primary purpose of this exhibition, which is to help visitors explore the LAC collection. As archivists Émilie Létourneau and Andrew Rodger note in their Research Guide to Early Chinese Canadian History at Library and Archives Canada, almost none of the archival material presented here comes from Canadian Chinese groups or individuals.
Most of LAC's records on this subject represent the viewpoint of either the federal government or other observers with their own agendas and interests. These viewpoints are part of Canada's history and are important to understand. Yet to focus on them exclusively would be to disregard the people who are the subject of this exhibition.
In "The History" section, author Paul Yee seeks to solve the conundrum by providing a historical context for the archival records, and by exploring the experiences and motivations of the early Chinese in Canada.
Yee is the author of many works of history and fiction on this subject (www.paulyee.ca). In this exhibition, he has used both historical and fictional writing to help readers' understanding of different aspects of the subject.
In addition to the main historical text Yee has created a series of "fictional monologues," located in the right-hand margins of the pages in "The History" section. These fictional characters are based on Yee's extensive interviews with earlier generations of Chinese Canadians.
No doubt you will recognize the images—the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the hostile legislation, the laundries and cafés across Canada. However, the text goes beyond those images to tell you of the people who did this work and why, of their times, and the complex network of families, communities, and even nations of which they were part.
It is a rich, interesting, and often sad story, about which we can present here only a broad overview. As well as being a fascinating story in its own right, the experience of early Chinese Canadians also provides a unique window into many Canadian issues, such as our changing national identity and democratic rights, the settlement of the west, and power struggles between federal and provincial governments. It shows us how government policy is first shaped and then in turn shapes the path of its citizens. It tells us what work was like in Canada's early days, and it offers us a new image of a nation's early population.
Library and Archives Canada gratefully acknowledges the contribution of the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose financial assistance through the Canadian Culture Online Program made this work possible.
Many thanks go to author Paul Yee for his work on the exhibition. We are also grateful for the assistance of Dr. Tim Stanley from the University of Ottawa, Dr. Henry Yu and Laura Madokoro of the Department of History at the University of British Columbia, the Chinese Canadian National Council, and the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia for their review of early drafts of the text.
We would like to acknowledge the work of Dr. Henry Yu and Dr. Peter Ward of the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. They initiated the creation of the database of the early immigrants from China, which underpins this Web exhibition.
And finally, we extend thanks to the many members of the Library and Archives Canada staff who contributed to The Early Chinese Canadians, 1858–1947.