When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885, British Columbia was hit with a recession, leaving thousands of Chinese labourers unemployed and impoverished. While some had enough money to return to China, others took refuge in British Columbia’s few crowded Chinatowns, still others headed east towards Alberta in search of greater job opportunities. Instead of a better life, however, they were greeted with racial rage and mob attacks.
Since its creation over 100 years ago, Calgary’s Chinatown has survived numerous obstacles, from forced relocation to racist attacks to possible demolition. Despite these threats, Chinese pioneers and their descendants found ways to protect and reinvent Chinatown. Today, the once segregated “ghetto” is more accepted as a part of Calgary.
Arriving in Edmonton around 1918, Dan Mah recalls working 16 hour days, seven days a week in one of the city’s many laundries. In return for his hard work, he received 50 cents a day. “That means I made about $15 a month,” he reflected. Mah’s experience was not uncommon in the years before the Second World War in Alberta. Due to systemic barriers and racial discrimination, most Chinese had virtually no choice but to toil in low-paying service jobs if they were to make a living.
During the early 20th century, Chinese men far outnumbered Chinese women throughout North America as well as in Alberta. The 1931 Census reveals that in the male-to-female ratio was 12:1 in Calgary and 17:1 in Edmonton. Most of these men were so-called “married bachelors” as they had wives and children in China but lived like single men. This was not out of choice. Rather they were prevented from brining their families to Canada due to restrictive immigration polices.
Chinese pioneers were undoubtedly treated as second-class citizens in Alberta. They were subjected to mob violence, schoolboy taunts, and vicious attacks by the local press. They were further oppressed by discriminatory policies that curtailed their life choices and eliminated their right to citizenship, to vote and to enter certain occupations. They were not helpless victims, however. On various occasions, early Chinese Albertans challenged and sometimes triumphed over unfair practices and racist acts of aggression.
Although Chinese women have made invaluable contributions to Alberta over the years, their history has been largely ignored. This is partly because there were so few Chinese women in the province prior to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947. At the beginning of the Second World War, there were only 305 Chinese women in Alberta compared to 2,817 men.  Aside from the sex-ratio disparity, pioneer women were often illiterate and left few writings. Moreover, history books typically focus on the experiences of Chinese men.