Last week, Canada’s first and only museum dedicated to Chinese-Canadian stories opened to the public. The Chinese Canadian Museum is housed in the oldest building in Vancouver’s Chinatown—the Wing Sang Building, built in 1889—and features the hidden history of Chinese communities in Canada, who first started arriving in Vancouver Island in 1788.
The museum’s opening date, July 1, marked the 100th anniversary of 1923’s Chinese Immigration Act, an exclusionary policy that effectively halted all Chinese immigration to Canada until its repeal in 1947. The policy also mandated that Chinese migrants register with the government and carry photo identification, even if they were born in Canada. The museum’s grand opening exhibit, The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, traces the extensive documentation used to administer the policy over its 24 years.
Four years ago, Paper Trail curator Catherine Clement began crowdsourcing Chinese Immigration, or C.I., certificates from across the country; these documents were used to track Chinese Canadians while the act was in effect. Many ripped up their C.I. certificates upon the 1947 repeal, so out of the 97,000 issued, Clement estimates there are at most a few thousand left. “The very things that we hated—these objects of control and surveillance—are the things that help us trace back the story of exclusion,” she says.
Clement spent hundreds of hours poring over Chinese newspapers to trace the experiences of Chinese bachelors in Canada, who numbered in the thousands and lived oceans away from their families between 1923 to 1947. She also came across accounts of institutionalization and suicide deaths among Chinese mechanics that took place around the time of the Immigration Act. “That’s an experience of exclusion, right?” she says. “To lose what little hope you have and to take your life.”
This difficult period of history has long been shrouded in silence. Melissa Karmen Lee, the museum’s CEO, was born and raised in Vancouver, but she wasn’t taught about the Immigration Act in school. Even among those affected by exclusion, stories were not passed down intergenerationally; the paper trail offers a tangible and enduring record of this history for visitors to experience. “I hope that the Chinese Canadian Museum can play a role in changing the impression of the communities that built Canada,” says Lee, “and also what Canadian identity is.”
The Journeys Here, a painted mural by Chinese-Canadian artist Marlene Yuen, uses symbolic imagery to tell a story of Chinese-Canadian identity across the country. Among the symbols are a boat representing the original Chinese migrants to Canada, a picnic table signifying annual Chinese community picnics, and a Musqueam-Chinese farm to honour the long-standing relationship between the Chinese and Musqueam communities. The Musqueam nation began leasing reserve territory to Chinese farmers in 1909, and soon these farmers began living on reserve land, with some marrying into the Musqueam community.
Lee curated this exhibition, which features photographs of various Chinese Canadians, to emphasize the evolving and diverse nature of identity in this diasporic community. “People think most Chinese Canadians come from China or Hong Kong, and they do,” she says. “But major groups of Chinese Canadians come from Vietnam, from Cambodia, from India, from the Philippines, from all around the world.” This exhibition is a work in progress, and Lee hopes to eventually cover the entire wall in portraits of Chinese Canadians with various backgrounds.
The scrolls pictured here, which introduce the Paper Trail exhibit, drop from a 40-foot-tall ceiling. Nearby, four-sided lanterns display over 200 individual C.I. certificates of various types, crowdsourced from across Canada and sorted by date.
For this gallery, which is part of Paper Trail, Clement collected newspaper stories from the Immigration Act years and posted them on a message board. One article, published during the height of the Great Depression, linked a number of deaths among Chinese men to a white woman’s soup kitchen in Vancouver’s Chinatown. When museum visitors read these clippings together, they participate in the act of communal newspaper reading, shown in the background—a common scene in many Chinatowns, since most single men couldn’t afford their own newspapers.
This part of Paper Trail recreates a governmental office, with a map showing the regional distribution of registered Chinese migrants. Clement says that British Columbia had the most registrations, followed by Ontario. Meanwhile, each drawer of these antique desks holds index card–sized stories of individuals, demonstrating how Chinese people were documented and catalogued. One of these stories follows an Alberta man who had to rely on the local Indigenous community to save his life after white doctors refused to treat his illness.
This narrow corridor, which is dedicated to bachelors, highlights how class shaped experiences of exclusion. While some well-off Chinese merchants in Canada were somewhat cushioned from exclusion by their status, others were what Clement calls the “eternal bachelors.” These men, who never returned home to their families, had no children in their lives to remember them.
These posters from the early 1920s offer a sharp contrast to the realities of Chinese exclusion. After the deadline passed to register with the government, only 1,300 Chinese women had come forward, compared to 48,000 Chinese men. This phenomenon originated with the 1885 introduction of a Chinese head tax, which most men couldn’t afford to pay to help their families enter the country. Meanwhile, companies printed advertisements seeking to attract European women to Canada.
Many Chinese Canadians posed for portraits in 1923 and 1924 as they scrambled to comply with the government’s photo ID orders. Since this child had 11 siblings and portraits were expensive, their family sat together for a photo, and a photographer cropped out each child for their papers. This child sat on his mother’s lap, and her hands remain visible in the final shot.
Chinese exclusion represented the first and only time Canadian-born children were issued immigration cards. Clement displayed 140 of these cards on clipboards, presenting them in an intentionally repetitive fashion to underscore the excessive documentation of exclusion. Poppies on some clipboards mark veterans: Chinese men who risked their lives during the Second World War to prove that they were loyal to Canada.