Women’s History Network BC Conference – October 20, 2001

Chinese Pioneer Women in BC

Imogene L. Lim
Malaspina University-College

[Research interests][Demographics][Values][Reading][Bottom]

1870 Frances Street, Vancouver, BC "A picture is worth a thousand words."  When is this not true? Or perhaps, which thousand words are being told.  Without any additional information, the photograph to the left appears to illustrate two families.  Does it depict a case of two wives, or possibly two separate unrelated families?  This family photograph is a reflection of the history of early Chinese women (and their lives) in British Columbia.

How was life as a merchant's wife, or simply a woman in Vancouver's Chinese community?  Imagine what it was like for the children as well.  This was a period when Chinatown and similar settlements, small and big, throughout BC were basically bachelor societies.

Few women were present because immigration policies were such (see Asians in BC) that travel (cost of head tax and sea passage) was prohibitive.  As well, traditional values dictated that a wife remain with her husband's family (patriarchy) if she was not already living with him in Gum Saan ("Gold Mountain").

To the left stands my aunt with her two children; to the right is my grandmother (holding her youngest son) , grandfather, and their children.  The woman directly in front of my grandfather is a relative.  

The story behind the photograph is much more complex than what appears to the eye.  The family stands on the steps of its own home, 1870 Frances Street, in Vancouver's east end, not Chinatown.  My aunt is the only child from my grandfather's first wife.  My grandmother is a second wife, who is two years younger than her step-daughter.  Who is the other adult female in this photograph?  She is a relative, who also happens to be a mui tsai, or domestic servant girl.  In other words, she was a poor relation who was perhaps one daughter too many--an extra mouth.

In a good family, a mui tsai would be another family member who happened to have additional and specific work duties; in a bad situation, one can imagine . . .  The expectation was that the family would care for her and arrange for her proper marriage when the time came; this particular "auntie" married a lawyer, one of the few in Chinatown.

My grandfather was clearly much older than my grandmother.  They eventually had eight children (five daughters, three sons).  With such an age difference, like many a woman who married a Gold Mountain man, my grandmother was left a widow at an early age.  Consider then the possible options for such a widow who had minimal English-language skills.   A family's school age children were often its translators.  Any skills that could be applied to the labour force were directly related to domestic duties, as that was her job.

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Population Demographics

Chinese Population of Major BC Cities, 1911-41

(adapted from Wickberg 1988:303, Table 7)

Year

City

Chinese

Total

% of total

1911

Vancouver

3559

100401

3.54%

  Victoria

3458

31660

10.92%

1921

Vancouver

6484

117217

5.53%

  Victoria

3441

38727

8.89%

1931

Vancouver

13011

246593

5.28%

  Victoria

3702

39082

9.47%

1941

Vancouver

7174

275353

2.61%

  Victoria

3037

44068

6.89%

 

Male/Female Populations and Sex Ratios of Selected BC Communities

(adapted from Wickberg 1988:306-307, Table 10)

Year

Community

Males

Females

M/F Ratio

1921

Vancouver

5790

585

10/1

  Victoria

2938

503

6/1

  Cumberland

802

52

16/1

  Vernon

136

31

4.5/1

  Nanaimo

379

54

7/1

  New Westminster

702

45

17/1

1931

Vancouver

11952

1059

11/1

  Victoria

3192

510

6/1

  New Westminster

561

38

15/1

1941

Vancouver

5973

1201

5/1

  Victoria

2549

488

5/1

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Traditional Chinese Values

On the four virtues (expected of women):

1. A woman should know her place in the universe and behave in compliance with the natural order of things;

2. She should guard her words and not chatter too much or bore others;

3. She must be clean and adorn herself to please men; and

4. She should not shirk form her household duties (Croll quoted by Okihiro 1994:69).

On marriage:

Marriage, since it is instituted in order to acquire daughters-in-law for the husband’s parents and to continue the father-son link, is parentally arranged according to customary rules, including those governing preferred or disfavoured matches (Hsu 1968: 157).

Sexual relations in marriage are for the purpose of providing heirs for the family. When that function has been fulfilled, there is no longer any permissible excuse for the continuation of such relations (Hsu 1968: 168).

On women’s roles:

A new husband’s few words to his wife did not go beyond whatever was necessary to keep the woman in her place. A wife did not ask questions of a husband when obedience was always the answer. . . . A divorced woman disappeared into social oblivion, both in her earthly life and her afterlife (Chong 1994:30).

Even if she’d been told, it would have made little impression, for as a woman, she too saw everything accumulated in marriage as the property of the husband. . . . any sacrifice on the part of the concubine would be considered just and honorable, and expected (Chong 1994:76).

On daughters:

No one is glad when a daughter is born; a girl is "someone else’s," a mouth to feed until she marries and goes to live in another household. Sons, on the other hand, live at home even after they are married (Chong 1994:6).

"Jook-Liang, if you want a place in this world do not be born a girl-child" (Choy 1995:31).

"A girl-child is mo yung—useless" (Choy 1995:32).

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Further Reading

General Background:

Chan, Anthony B. 1983. Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books.

Marlatt, Daphne and Carole Itter (compilers and editors). 1979. Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End. Sound Heritage Series VIII, Nos. 1 and 2. Victoria, BC: Province of British Columbia.

Morton, James. 1974. In the Sea of Sterile Mountains: The Chinese in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: J.J. Douglas Ltd. [1977]

Roy, Patricia E. 1989. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

Ward, W. Peter. 1978. White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia. Montréal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Wickberg, Edgar (editor). 1982. From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.

Yee, Paul. 1988. Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.

Chinese Women:

Chinese Canadian National Council, Women’s Book Committee. 1992. Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women. Toronto, ON: Women’s Press.

Chong, Denise. 1994. The Concubine’s Children: Portrait of a Family Divided. Toronto, ON: Viking.

Choy, Wayson. 1995. The Jade Peony. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre. [novel]

CoolWomen Café.  Coming to Gum San - Chinese in Canada.  
URL: http://www.coolwomen.org/coolwomen/cwsite.nsf/vwWeek/
38769D5EE5F2E3058525653F006D54AD?OpenDocument
  Accessed 09/01/2002.

Hsu, Francis L.K. 1968. The Ancestor’s Shadow: Family and Religion in China. In Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, edited by John Middleton, pp. 156-174. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Lee, SKY. 1990. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre. [novel]

Nipp, Dora (director). 1997. Under the Willow Tree: Pioneer Chinese Women in Canada. Montréal, QC: National Film Board of Canada. [videorecording]

Okihiro, Gary Y. 1994. Recentering women. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture, pp. 64-92. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Woon, Yuen-Fong. 1998. The Excluded Wife. Montréal, QC: McGill-Queen's University Press. [novel]

Yung, Judy. 1986. Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Yung, Judy. 1995. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 

[Research interests][Demographics][Values][Reading][Top]

Created 11/05/01; last updated 01/02/2006
 
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