A Canadian Legacy of Anti-Asian Discrimination: From the Head Tax to Hate Crimes

Karen Cho’s documentary “In the Shadow of Gold Mountain” depicts 100 years of appalling anti-Asian policies and societal discrimination in Canada.

Last week, only a day before the Atlanta shooting1, Cho hosted a Zoom conference2 to discuss her film and draw parallels between its historical exploration of Asian-hate, with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across Canada and the world this past year.

Quick historical recap:

In 1903, Canada began charging would-be Chinese Immigrants $500 to come to Canada. The fee, which was only charged to Chinese immigrants, was known as “the Chinese Head Tax.”

In 1923, Canada passed the Exclusion Act, which prohibited those of Asian descent from immigrating to Canada. The law was in place for 23 years until it was repealed in 1947, allowing Chinese-Canadian veterans who had fought for Canada in the second world war to be recognized as citizens.

Chinese communities across Canada mounted campaigns and lawsuits against the Canadian government in the 1990s to seek reparations in response to these policies.

Although the Supreme Court of Canada deemed the head tax and the exclusion act legal, the Harper government issued an apology in the House of Commons and assigned reparations to the few remaining survivors who had paid the head tax in 2006.

During her research for the film, Cho was struck by one instance of internalized racism. During a community event for those fighting for reparations, one Chinese man angrily chastised the crowd, saying that his ancestors would have died long ago in a rice patty field if it were not for Canada.

Cho, whose heritage is half Chinese and half Irish, reflected that one could just as easily argue, if her Irish ancestors had not fled the potato famine, they would have died in a potato field.

Yet, the Canadian government gave those of white European descent free land to move to Canada while making it illegal for Chinese immigrants.

“No one in those [white] communities would think they weren’t entitled to these kinds of apologies,” says Cho. 

Cho also referenced a newspaper cartoon from the railway construction era, which described Chinese labour as “cheap, temporary, and expendable.”

Though acknowledging racism, especially the internalized kind, is uncomfortable, it is very much the reality today.

According to the Vancouver Police Department, anti-Asian hate crimes went up 700 percent in 2020.

Cho drew parallels to yesteryears Chinese community members representing the bulk of the railroad construction workforce to current day overrepresentation of Asian community members in hard labour jobs such as factory workers and front-line care-home health care workers. Jobs that made them especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

She also shared two cartoons, one from 2003 and the other 2020, depicting the SARS virus and the COVID virus in Chinese take-away boxes. The first was labelled “Bad Chinese Take-out” and the second, which stylistically depicts a bat flying out of the box, has “No thank you” written on the front. 

Because of COVID-19, the spectres of racism that have long loomed in the shadows have again come to the forefront. While Cho’s film lays bare this history of racism, it also provides an opportunity to educate ourselves, explore our own internalized racism, and, as has been said so many times this year when it comes to racism, take this opportunity to do better.

The film can be watched here: nfb.ca/film/in_the_shadow_of_gold_mountain