The Chinese Community in Calgary
Calgary’s Chinese community has been a part of Calgary life since soon after our city began. Calgarians have been reveling in Chinese New Year celebrations, savouring the flavours of Chinese cooking, and relishing the exotic sights and sounds of Chinatown for over 125 years. The Chinese community has also become a significant part of our city’s business and political landscape and contributed greatly to what Calgary is today.
The earliest Chinese immigrants came to Canada to escape famine and war conditions in Guangdong province. Chinese labourers made an invaluable contribution to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, working very hard and sacrificing many lives. Once the railway was completed, many Chinese opted to stay in western Canada and pursue a better life than in Guangdong.
One notable Chinese immigrant, Jimmy Smith, personified the strong work ethic and humble dedication to his adopted land, Canada. He worked in the railroad and later enjoyed success as a chef in various establishments in southern Alberta. When he died of tuberculosis on June 21, 1890, he dedicated $2000 from his estate to go toward the building of Calgary’s first public hospital, the General Hospital, so that others don’t have to suffer like he did. Jimmy Smith was coined the Father of the Calgary General Hospital and is one of Calgary’s early philanthropists.
Calgary’s first Chinatown was established in the early 1890s at the corner of Centre Street South and Ninth Avenue East. It consisted of two restaurants, a hand laundry, two grocery stores and a rooming house. By 1901, there were 63 Chinese residents in Calgary (235 residents in Alberta). As the Chinese population grew, a second Chinatown was formed near 10 Avenue SW, between Centre and 3rd Streets.
By 1910, the second Chinatown was forced to relocate. Eventually, a third Chinatown emerged when a group of Chinese spent $18,000 to buy land on Centre Street and 2nd Ave SE. On this spot was built the Canton Block, a long two-storey brick building that housed a number of businesses, several community rooms and benevolent societies, and rooming facilities. The Canton Block still stands today.
A defining experience for Chinese immigrants in Canada was the Head Tax. From 1885 to 1923, Canadian government policy sought to discourage Chinese immigration. This was because many Canadians of European descent expressed prejudice of the Chinese. They claimed Chinese were driving down wages and living in unsanitary conditions. Many Chinese immigrants were required to pay a head tax of as much as $500 to enter Canada, an exorbitant sum of money that was equivalent to a year’s income for most people. No other immigrant group was required to pay such an amount. The subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act passed in Parliament on July 1, 1923 had Canada’s borders closed to Chinese immigrants almost completely from 1923 to 1947. 2017 marks the 70th anniversary for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Life for Chinese immigrants in Canada improved after the Second World War, largely because China was on the side of the allied forces. Five hundred Canadian-born Chinese fought for Canada in the Pacific conflicts, and the Chinese community in British Columbia bought millions of Canadian Victory Bonds to fund the war effort. But Canadians of Chinese descent continue to face barriers in employment in areas such as law, health services, media etc. Into the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Chinese immigration to Canada grew steadily, and Chinese became more welcomed and appreciated.
A new wave of immigrants primarily from mainland China started to arrive to Canada in the 1990’s. This group of mostly professionals were attracted by jobs in Alberta’s energy sector. More than a century of social and systemic discrimination endured by previous generations of Chinese Canadians paved the way for future members to search for life in a country promised of fairness, freedom and inclusion.
Calgary’s Chinatown today is about more than businesses. It houses dozens of organizations offering everything from food and lodging to cultural centres.
One of the best known organizations is the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. First opened in 1992, the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre has become an iconic, welcoming city landmark. Its pointed blue roof is modelled after the famous Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Each year when Chinese New Year arrives, Calgarians gather at the Cultural Centre to enjoy the annual dragon dance and other festivities associated with the New Year holiday.
For over one hundred years, Chinese Canadians have persevered through difficult circumstances and made a lasting influence on our nation. While Chinese have made gains in business, public service, academics, religion, and many other facets of contemporary Canadian life, research continues to show sustained impacts of systemic discrimination on this longstanding Canadian community. Thanks to the efforts and contributions of those Chinese Canadians who came before us, we are all able to enjoy a better and richer Canada today.