Newfoundland’s 1906 Chinese Head Tax

The first attempt to restrict Chinese nationals from immigrating to Newfoundland occurred during the 1904 session of the Newfoundland legislature, when the member for Bay St. George, W.R. Howley, introduced a bill to prohibit their entry. Referring to Chinese labour in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, Howley argued that the introduction of Chinese into these societies had created chaos. To avoid the problems that would inevitably be associated with an influx of cheap Chinese labour into Newfoundland, their numbers must be restricted. Howley’s proposal was defeated. However, two years later, government legislation imposed a $300.00 head tax on each Chinese immigrant entering Newfoundland.

Little is known of the history of the Chinese in Newfoundland before the passage of the “Act Respecting the Immigration of Chinese Persons” in 1906. By 1900 two hand laundries (the Sing Lee Laundry on New Gower St. and the Jim Lee Laundry on Duckworth St.) had been established. For the most part, the Chinese went about their daily business of laundering with a quiet resolution and, except for an occasional taunting by the local ‘urchins’ (who often took great delight in pelting their shop windows with mud), they went relatively unnoticed by the newspapers and the local St. John’s community. Work was a day-to-day drudgery of washing and ironing, with little time or occasion to venture forth into the wider community.

However, following Howley’s 1904 bill, the St. John’s newspapers began to devote more space to the Chinese in the town and to Chinese activities in other parts of the world. Every new arrival, each transgression of the law, each act of violence or of ‘teasings’ on the part of the local populace, and each new laundry became a newsworthy subject. Some in the community concluded that the Chinese were indeed becoming a problem. Commenting on the opening of a fifth Chinese laundry in the city, The Evening Telegram suggested that, “It is time some steps were taken to check this invasion of undesirables.” By February 1905, The Daily News had also taken up the cause and suggested that “the Government should take steps to prevent more of them coming in, else the place will soon be overrun.”

The arrival of seven Chinese on 23 August 1905, shortly after fire destroyed the locally-owned Globe Steam Laundry, sent the papers into a state of excitement. According to The Daily News, the ‘Chinamen’ had telegraphed their friends to come to Newfoundland to take advantage of the misfortune of M.B. Vail (the owner of the Globe). The Telegram was similarly hostile. “Since the burning of the Globe Steam Laundry,” it reported, “Chinamen have been flocking in here and are still coming... We are in cordial agreement with the News, as to the desirability of putting an end to the immigration of Chinese.” By September, the first letters warning of the Chinese danger were being printed in the papers. In the following months, more Chinese and a few ‘Assyrians’ (Lebanese) entered the country. In response, the papers became even more vociferous in their comments: “Six more Chinamen and four Assyrians arrived here by the S.S. Laurentian this morning. The ‘Heathen Chinee’ have now quite a colony established here, and if they continue to come in such large bunches we will boast of a local China town of larger population than in much more pretentious cities. The yellow peril is not greatly appreciated by our workmen, who fear that in a short time they will be branching out in other than the ‘washee-washee’ business.” By the close of 1905, it appeared to many St. John’s residents that they were now faced with a dangerous situation.

In late January 1906, reports began to emphasize the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the Chinese laundries in St. John’s. It was rumoured that some 30 men were apparently huddled together at Kim Lee’s Laundry near the West End Fire Hall. Steps would have to be taken to ascertain the extent of the ‘pestilence’ and the City Council requested that the Health Board conduct an investigation. The following month, the Globe Steam Laundry reopened, and many hoped this would drive the Chinese from town. The Health Inspector’s report on the Chinese laundries to City Council revealed “an appalling state of affairs.” In response, Kim Lee and Tom Lee called at the offices of The Evening Telegram to refute the allegations.

In the middle of April, 1906 a bill restricting Chinese immigration by use of a head tax was brought to the House of Assembly. Canada had passed similar legislation in 1885. Commenting on the Chinese, the Justice Minister, Edward P. Morris, surveyed the fate that had befallen other British colonies: “...they would spread out all over the country and our land would soon be overrun by a most undesirable class of people... They do not come as colonists with their families and children, as men who have made up their minds to settle and build up the country, but merely as laborers and inferior laborers at that... they live in the most unsanitary conditions... they will not add to our prosperity... we must prepare to prevent an influx of coolie labor which may happen at any time in the future.” On 27 April, Morris presented a petition from the Longshoreman’s Protective Union requesting the introduction of legislation to stop the Chinese influx. Three days later, some 50 Chinese nationals arrived by train from Port aux Basques. Once again the newspapers worked themselves into a frenzy.

The House of Assembly quickly passed the bill, but the upper house, the Legislative Council was split. Some Council members thought the bill was nothing more than “cheap oratory”, and one member said that “as far as the Chinamen on the streets was concerned, [their] cleanliness and tidiness of appearance contrasted most favorably with our own people.” Another view was that the Chinese might do much harm as they competed for jobs with native workers, they were incapable of becoming productive workers and, like criminals or paupers, were not the type of immigrant that Newfoundland desired. Mr. John Harvey asserted the Chinese were “an inferior type, lower in the scale of humanity and civilization than were our people... it was undesirable to have a large colony of them here to live. They were a most peculiar people, nowhere did they merge with the people among whom they lived. They kept to themselves, and could never be expected to become what might be termed ‘Newfoundlanders’.”

Eventually the Legislative Council passed the bill, but reduced the head tax from $500.00 to $300.00 on each Chinese immigrant. The Council felt that $500 was excessive. “The present lot in this country,” stated Mr. Edgar Bowring, “only engaged in a little washing and were not in any sense a menace to our people, but it would not do to have an influx of a cheap class of Chinese who might possibly interfere with our laboring population.”

The House of Assembly accepted the amendment, and the Act came into force on 8 August 1906.

©2006, Robert G. Hong


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