Almost everyone’s had it. Western Chinese food – lemon chicken, ginger beef, green onion cakes and chop suey, to name a few. Almost every small town rural Alberta has a Chinese restaurant. Growing up in Alberta, you or your family must have grown up at least going to a Chinese restaurant for dinner or ordering take out on a somewhat regular basis.
This month, in lead up to our event on April 23, 2017, we would like to go back to basics and learn what has made the Alberta food community to what it is now. So there’s no better time to introduce how the establishment of Chinese restaurants in the Alberta prairies came to be, than now. Chinese New Year – the Year of the Rooster to be exact – is just around the corner on Saturday, January 28, 2017. Let’s celebrate by taking a mini-history lesson.
Chinese settlement in Alberta can be traced back to the mid-1880’s with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese labourers who had come to British Columbia to work on the railway were searching for new opportunities after the project was finished in 1885, and some crossed the Rockies to settle in Alberta. According to census data, there were 235 Chinese settlers in Alberta in 1901, with distinct Chinese neighbourhoods emerging in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Most of these early settlers found work in the service industries, particularly as cooks or laundrymen.
The turning point for Chinese settlement in Alberta came in the early twentieth century with the province’s economic boom. Hundreds of thousands of new settlers came to Alberta in the early 1900’s, including several thousand Chinese; by 1921, the province’s Chinese population stood at over 3,500. Existing Chinese neighbourhoods in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge grew larger and more complex – in addition to a wide variety of Chinese-owned businesses, the cities were home to clubs and associations that assisted new immigrants and provided social and cultural resources for the Chinese population.
Chinese immigrants also settled in rural Alberta’s rapidly-growing towns and villages, filling a niche as small business owners operating restaurants, laundries and groceries. The population in this period was overwhelmingly (95% in 1921) male, but a small number of Chinese women came to Alberta as well, largely as wives of merchants. These families, though few in number, represented the foundation of Alberta’s multi-generational Chinese population.
Chinese immigrants found many obstacles and challenges as they settled in Alberta. While the provincial government did not impose any laws targeting the Chinese, Alberta’s Chinese population nonetheless faced discriminatory legislation at the federal and local levels. Most famously, the federal government discriminated against Chinese immigrants by imposing a Head Tax on new arrivals from China as of 1885.
The tax was raised $50 in 1885 to $100 in 1901 and finally to $500 in 1903, which was roughly equivalent to two years’ wages for a Chinese worker. Within Alberta, MacLeod (1905,1908) and Lethbridge (1911) passed discriminatory bylaws that targeted Chinese-owned laundries to limit competition for non-Chinese business owners. Mob violence targeted Chinese-owned businesses in Calgary (1892) and Lethbridge (1907), and Chinese settlers often faced racism on a day-to-day basis. Finally, in 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which banned all further Chinese immigration to Canada for nearly twenty-five years.
In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed and in 1967, Canada eliminated race and “place of origin” from its immigration policy. After this, a steady influx of Chinese immigrants, mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Southeast Asia, started to call Canada home.
Now, let’s go back to Chinese restaurants on the prairies. More often than not, you will find a mix of western food on the menu – meat and potatoes and all day breakfast, mixed in with westernized Chinese food – ginger beef, chop suey, stir-fry etc. This mixture of cuisines is significant in the progression of Chinese restaurants on the Alberta prairies and a good example of how these restaurants allowed Chinese immigrants to fill a profitable niche in often hostile conditions of the early twentieth century Canada.
Many Chinese restaurants were symbolic in the community and the interactions they hosted. Not only did they serve food, but they would often serve and room and board for other Chinese immigrant families, as well as their own families. Some served as post offices, bus stops and even offered babysitting services.
Next time, when you enter a Chinese restaurant, whether in Edmonton, Calgary, or in small town rural Alberta, think about the history of the arrival of Chinese immigrants to Canada – specifically Alberta, and the hardships they had to go through. You may appreciate your next bite of sweet and sour pork just a bit more.
Mona King is on the Eat Alberta organizing committee. Being raised as a Chinese-Canadian, she deeply appreciates her Chinese roots by celebrating cultural traditions through food and family.
Con, Harry, et al. From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982.
Dawson, J. Brian. Moon Cakes Over Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains.
Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1991.
Li, Peter. “Chinese Immigrants on the Canadian Prairie, 1910-47,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 19,4 (November 1982), 527-40.
Marshall, Alison R. Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada.
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014.
Palmer, Howard. “Anti-Oriental Sentiment in Alberta, 1880-1920.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 2,2