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By 1901, Chinese people were living in every province of Canada, and in Newfoundland (which did not join Confederation until 1949). The highest number (15,000) lived in British Columbia. Prince Edward Island had only four Chinese people.
Across Canada, most Chinese did one of two jobs: washing laundry or working in cafés. Only in British Columbia did the Chinese work in many different parts of the economy.
The first Chinese people in many Canadian cities were laundrymen. In Vancouver, the Wah Chong laundry started before the city came into being in 1886.
In an era before automatic washing machines, doing laundry was hard work. Water needed to be boiled, clothes hand-scrubbed and shirts starched in order to be ironed smooth. Anyone who could afford it would send out their laundry to be done. In cities, single men worked in factories, banks and offices. They lived in boarding houses or apartment hotels and they too needed their clothes washed.
Chinese-run laundries were found in cities, small towns and villages throughout the Prairies, Central Canada and the Maritimes. When Fong Choy opened a laundry in St. John's in 1895, it was the first Chinese business in Newfoundland.
Laundries were a good way for a labourer to go into business for himself once he had paid off the debts he owed for getting to Canada. It did not cost much to start a laundry. All one required was a stove to heat water and dry the clothes, and a space large enough to hang laundry to dry in the winter. Of course, the laundryman also needed kettles, washtubs, scrubbing boards and soap.
White men left this job to the Chinese because it was viewed as women's work. Moreover, it was not a popular job. Laundrymen worked long hours six and even seven days a week. They did not earn much because prices were low, due to competition from other washhouses. White men ran steam laundries that handled large orders of wash from hotels and hospitals. A lot of money was needed to start steam laundries.
Chinese immigrants started businesses such as laundries because they were forced out of many other professions by the increasing number of migrants who came from eastern Canada and Europe. Anti-Chinese organizers in British Columbia and California had argued that jobs in mining, logging, manufacturing, and other industries should be reserved for the white workers who were arriving in ever larger numbers on the railroads that the Chinese had helped build.
From the start of the 20th century, the Chinese opened cafés or restaurants in cities, towns and even small villages. They served western food such as roast beef, steaks, apple pie and ice cream. In many small towns and villages, the Chinese café owner would be the only Chinese living there. Often he opened his restaurant close to the railway station or the horse stables, places where he found customers. Later, after the Second World War, these restaurants introduced people to Chinese food.
Chinese-run cafés started in western Canada for the same reason as Chinese-run laundries. A Chinese labourer could borrow start-up money and learn the business from relatives who had already opened laundries or cafés. After many years building up a business, the operator of a laundry or a café could in turn sell it to a younger man just starting out, often lending them money to get established.
The first half of the 20th century saw growth in the economy and the population. More and more railway lines were being laid. Immigrants came to break the soil and start farms. Stores and shops sprang up at central points to provide settlers with goods and services.
In the Prairies, many cafés rented out rooms to travellers or sold groceries to the townspeople. Farmers living far away brought their families to town to do errands. To them, a meal at a Chinese-run café was a special treat. They could chat with townspeople, because shopkeepers and shoppers dropped into the café for coffee and pie, or a meal. From the 1920s on, Chinese-run cafés became a popular hangout for young people.
In cities, Chinese-run cafés were found in the downtown core, where their customers were office workers, department store clerks, shoppers and travellers. Because many cafés competed for business, the prices were very reasonable. Low prices also attracted people who were jobless or otherwise down on their luck.
In some places, the Chinese-run café became very famous. In London, Ontario, Lem Wong brought in a big-band orchestra and ran supper dances. His restaurant had tablecloths and his waiters were trained in New York City. Customers came from the best families of the city and dressed up for the occasion.
Running a café was hard work. The hours were long, from dawn until midnight. Some towns did not have running water. Sometimes customers behaved badly: throwing dishes and furniture around. And, as in all small businesses, sometimes customers left without paying.