Around the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, British Columbia was in a period of economic explosion. Those who were willing to work hard could find many opportunities. At this time, gold was found in British Columbia and Canada became dependent on workers to finish making the transcontinental railway. Many lumbering, coal mining and fishing business were not experiencing enough growth to match the needs of the society. This portrayed Canada as a place of opportunity and settlement for Asians whose homelands were becoming overcrowded. Sadly, the early pioneer years were extremely difficult for Asian immigrants due to the extensive racism and barriers keeping them from full participation of the Canadian life. It is through these hardships and sacrifices that the birth of many vibrant communities became possible. The Asian-Canadian pioneers are unforgettable and their legacies sculpt an important time in Canadian history.
The first Chinese people came in the mid-1800s to take advantage of the opportunities brought on by the discovery of gold. The majority of the early Chinese settlers were uneducated, unskilled and unmarried men who were farmers or laborers looking for a better life. Many early Chinese settlers of the 19th century originated from Guangdong and Fujian, two coastal provinces of China. Still, most of the Chinese who came to British Columbia in the 1850s and 1860s came straight from California because the gold rush in California was coming close to an end as the rush was just beginning in Canada.
There were two major gold rushes in British Columbia in the mid-1800s that attracted the Chinese. News of the Fraser River gold discovery spread and the first group of Chinese arrived in Canada on July 28, 1858, in Victoria, British Columbia. Most of these first arrivals were temporary workers, called sojourners, rather than settlers. Their historical arrival marked the establishment of a continuous Chinese community in Canada. While the Fraser Gold Rush is the one that drew Chinese north, it was during the Cariboo Gold Rush that the first Chinese community, called The Hong Shun Tang, was established in Canada in the gold mining town of Barkerville.
In the 1860s, Barkerville was a booming town. Thousands of prospectors came to the town, many of them from the U.S. At the peak of the gold rush, there were as many as 5,000 Chinese living in Barkerville. Unfortunately, the Chinese were not allowed to prospect in areas other than abandoned sites. This was due to discrimination towards Asians at that time. On account of this fact, the Chinese did not make the same fortunes as the whites did. Nonetheless, the Chinese still managed to find a way to thrive as a community. They provided many services to as many as 20,000 prospectors that came into the Barkerville region in the 1860s.
Between 1860 and 1870, besides mining, Chinese pioneers also worked on many other projects in British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Some of the jobs included the erection of telegraph poles, the construction of the 607-kilometers Caribou Wagon Road and the digging of canals and reclaiming of wastelands. The Chinese were major contributors to the development of Canadian society, but were never recognized as such.
Even while facing many daily hardships, they did not forget their families in China and continued to send money back faithfully. On the other side of the ocean, the families at home also shared the same dreams as those in Canada. Like most new immigrants, many Chinese dreamed of some day returning to their native land and reuniting with their families. Others dreamed that one-day they would call Canada their home.
Hoping to make Canada their new home, many Chinese stayed once the Gold Rush was over. For a while, life was good. The Chinese started import businesses and worked as merchants and built a strong community in the city. Victoria became the first permanent Chinese settlement in Canada. By the end of the 1860s, there was approximately 7000 Chinese living in British Columbia.
While the gold rush was going on in British Columbia, thousands of Chinese were also working on a transcontinental railway in the U.S. Eventually, the U.S. started closing its doors to the Chinese. As this was happening, Canada encouraged thousands of Chinese