Chinese Canadians in Victoria has a fraught history with laws and restrictions put into effect targeting the community both at a federal and local level.
For Asian Heritage Month, Dr. Grace Wong Sneddon, board chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, sat down with Lucky Budd for the Vital Victoria Podcast to share her family’s story on Vancouver Island, and to talk about Chinese culture.
Wong Sneddon’s dad immigrated to Canada in the late-1800s on his own and he lived and worked in Bamfield from the time he immigrated until he retired at the age of 65.
Once the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, Wong Sneddon’s dad had to wait to bring over her mother and brother.
“He was a bit of a scholar when he was in China, so he knew how to study so he learned to study English on his own, so he could read and write in English,” Wong Sneddon said. “He was reading the papers, the English papers, so he was ready when the Immigration Act ended, as soon as that ended, he brought my mother and my brother to Canada.”
The Chinese Immigration Act, which is referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was federal legislation brought in in 1923 following pressure from the B.C. government, according to the B.C. government’s website.
The act was to prevent Chinese people from immigrating to Canada, and while it was in effect from 1923 to 1947, fewer than 100 Chinese people were permitted to immigrate to Canada.
“Many Chinese Canadians in British Columbia were separated from their family members in China, and some never saw their families again,” the B.C. government’s website says. “For many Chinese Canadians, the Exclusion Act was the clearest signal from Canada that they did not belong.”
After Wong Sneddon’s mother and brother were brought over, her mother got pregnant with her and the family had to move from Bamfield.
“My mom was already an older mom, and I was her only child, my brother is her stepson, so they my dad said, ‘we can’t be here. There’s no hospitals, the nearest hospital is in Port Alberni so you’ve got to go,'” Wong Sneddon said. “So he took my brother and mom and bought a house in Victoria, and left them there and he went back to Banfield.”
One year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was brought into effect, locally the Victoria School District voted to segregate Chinese students from the school system.
In 2022, on the 100 year anniversary, the Greater Victoria School District issued an apology for this, and the Chinese community marched to commemorate the actions of students who walked out in protest of the segregation.
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Wong says this protest showed how important a good education is for the local Chinese community.
“It was the only thing that the Chinese felt that they could not take away from you. They could take the ability for you to swim in the public pools, they could take away the ability for you to play in the tennis courts, they could take the the ability of you being a lawyer or a teacher, but once you had the education, they could not take that away,” Wong Sneddon said.
Now, the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society is working to preserve and share history of Chinese Canadians both of the past and present.
“What we want for the Victoria Chinese Canadian Museum is really just to look at Chinatown as a living museum,” Wong Sneddon said.
“It’s our evolving culture, who I am is not who my mom was, right? And my kids, I’m really lucky my kids care about being Chinese, and they go out there and do their thing, and I’m really happy about that, but they will bring a different phase to who they are and who they will become.”
From 12-5 on Sunday, May 28, an “Awakening Chinatown” celebration will be held in Victoria’s Chinatown with a number of free events.
Listen to the full Vital Victoria Podcast with Dr. Grace Wong Sneddon below: