When the plan was put in place for the construction of the transcontinental railway, the sheer cost of the venture had many worrying if it would bankrupt the country. One of the biggest costs was of course labour, and the government of Sir John A. Macdonald, as well as the Canadian Pacific Railway, wanted to cut costs as much as possible.
British Columbia’s politicians wanted the federal government to develop a settlement-immigration program for workers from the United Kingdom and Ireland. Macdonald, along with investors in the railroad and other politicians were against this idea as they saw it as being too expensive. The government, instead wanted cheap labour and lots of it.
In 1882, Macdonald would say to Parliament in 1882, quote:
“It is simply a question of alternatives, either you must have this labour, or you can’t have the railway.”
It is estimated that the use of Chinese workers lowered the cost of the railway by $3 to $5 million, or $84 million to $140 million.
Andrew Onderdonk was an American who recruited Chinese workers for the railway projects in America and he would be hired by the Canadian government to build the western section of the CPR. Onderdonk would tell the Canadian government that without Chinese workers, the railway could not be built. At the same time, he stated he would only with reluctance use Chinese or Indigenous workers instead of white workers.
When recruiters for the Canadian Pacific Railway distributed handbills to attract worker, stating they needed 5,000, only 200 white workers showed up.
Recruiting workers from Chinese contractors based in the Guangdong province of China, or in Taiwan, he would hire the workers to complete the most difficult segments of the track in British Columbia. Onderdonk was contracted to build 341 kilometres of the track through the most difficult portion of British Columbia, through the Fraser Canyon on to the Rocky Mountains. After taking on that contract, he would take another contract in 1884 to build 201 kilometres of track from Savona Ferry to Eagle Pass. In total, he was awarded about $10 million in contract to build the railroad.
Through his contracts, 5,000 Chinese workers were sent from China by ship to Canada, while another 7,000 were brought from the United States where they had been working on other railroads. Some numbers put the number of Chinese workers brought in as high as 17,000. Through the construction process, not all workers would stay with the railroad. At any given moment, 3,500 Chinese workers were on hand building through British Columbia, and they represented 75% of the total railway workforce of the province. Some of the Chinese workers would leave camp after awhile and cross into the United States. The Victoria Daily Times reported on Dec. 10, 1884, quote:
It can be difficult to know how it was for the workers themselves because no diaries or accounts exist to this day, written by the workers themselves. One account we do have comes from Wong Hau Hon, who gave an account of his time on the railroad later in life in 1926. Throughout this episode, I will include excerpts from his account.
For the Chinese workers, their hope was to escape the poverty of China. Many referred to the Pacific Coast region of North America as Gold Mountain and many Chinese came over to North America from the 1840s to 1850s to prospect for gold. By 1860, 1,577 Chinese residents lived in Victoria alone.
In the Guangdong Province, farmers made up 60 per cent of the population but only owned six per cent of the land. With limited land and huge numbers of farmers, earnings were poor. The daily income was estimated to be seven cents per day.
A Chinese worker would first sign a contract, providing collateral for the passage cost that was paid by the recruiter. During the contract term, the Chinese worker agreed to pay 2.5 per cent of his earnings to the agent. The cost to send a Chinese worker to Vancouver was about $15 to $20 per head, which was heavily discounted. Even though the distance from Hong Kong to Vancouver was twice the distance from Liverpool to New York, the price of the ticket was the same.
Coming to Canada, the Chinese immigrants were crowded onto three-mast sailing ships that took months to sail from Hong Kong to Victoria. One surveyor wrote, quote:
“The men below decks slept in closed hatches with bad ventilation.”
Food and water was limited and it was not uncommon for Chinese immigrants to die on route to Canada.
Hau-Hon would say, quote:
The workers were paid far less than their white co-workers. While a Chinese worker would make $1 per day, a white worker made $2 to $2.50 per day. The Chinese workers lived in tents that were unsafe in the steep terrain, where they were subject to severe weather and falling rocks. White workers also lived in tents, but in much less dangerous areas of the track. Chinese workers had to pay for all of their provisions, including food and gear, while white workers did not. Even if the Chinese workers could save any of their money, they were deeply in debt to the Chinese recruiters who brought them over, and whom worked with Onderdonk. In a given month, Chinese workers would bring in $25 gross, and would work for nine months of the year. Three months during the winter, no work was done.
A work day consisted of the Chinese workers beginning work at the break of dawn and working until the sun went down. During that time, they would have three breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food they did eat had little in nutritional value, typically consisting of rice, dried salmon and tea. They could not afford vegetables and fruits.
Newspapers at the time were incredibly racist towards the new Chinese arrivals. Stories typically portrayed them as hostile, while also implying that Chinese workers were taking jobs from Canadians because they accepted lower pay.
On April 12, 1884, the Port Moody Gazette would write, quote:
“The Chinese are beginning to encroach upon property in Port Moody, which should be kept free from them. If they obtain a foothold in the central part of the city, that neighbourhood will be rendered uninhabitable for white people and property will decrease in value. Necessity compels us to tolerate a few Mongolians in the community but let them herd themselves and not attempt to mix in with the whites.”
Newspapers would often announce when a steamer arrived carrying Chinese workers. The Victoria Daily Times on Oct. 15, 1884 would state, quote:
“The steamers this morning took up a large number of Chinamen to work on the railroad.”
Throughout Canada, demonstrations were held demanding that the government stop bringing in Chinese immigrants. In Hamilton on Oct. 1, 1884, a huge demonstration was held demanding a stoppage of Chinese immigration and the, quote:
“expulsion of all Chinamen who refuse to accept civilization and citizenships and an immediate recall of the immigration agents in Europe and elsewhere and the expenditure of the money thus saved on public works so as to give Canadians employment in their own country.”
There was often tension between the Chinese workers and the white workers. In one incident, a white foreman was killed by Chinese workers at Camp 23 near Lytton after three Chinese workers were fired for no reason. In another incident, a fight between Chinese and white workers, also near Lytton, in 1883, resulted in nine Chinese beaten unconscious and two dying from their injuries. The Chinese work camp was then burned to the ground. Another situation near Hope occurred when a foreman named Miller failed to warn a group of Chinese workers about an explosion. A rock flew through the air and killed one worker. The other Chinese workers then chased after Miller, who jumped into the river to save himself.
While violence could happen, from white or Chinese workers, the Chinese workers were efficient, well-behaved and hard-working. At times, they were able to nine kilometres a day through tough terrain.
When Sir Donald Smith hammered in the last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia at 9:22 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1885, an iconic photo was taken. Before that photo was taken, Chinese workers were moved out of the frame and cleared from view. Despite their vital role in the completion of the railroad, not a single Chinese worker is in the photo.
It is known that at least 600 Chinese workers killed while working, either from planting explosives, injuries or falling ill. It is very likely the number of Chinese workers killed while working on the railroad is far higher than 600. Accident figures for Chinese workers were excluded from official company reports.
Hau-Hon would state, quote:
“We were ordered to Hope. The work there was very dangerous. On one occasion, a huge rock had to be removed by blasting. More than 300 barrels of explosives were used. When blasting, the workers usually hid away in a safe place but there was one, Leung, who had gone behind another hill where he thought he would be safe. He lit his pipe while waiting for the blasting to proceed. Unexpectedly, a large boulder thrown up by the blast landed on the hillside where Leung was sitting. It rolled down the slope, hitting him in the back. We heard piercing shriek. By the time we reached him, Leung was dead.”
Hau-Hon would relate another, more grisly and gruesome incident, stating quote:
“Another incident occurred west of Yale. Twenty dynamite charges were ignited to blast a rock cave, but only 18 went off. The white foreman thinking all the dynamite went off, ordered the Chinese workers to enter the cave to resume work. Just at that moment, the last two charges exploded. Chinese bodies flew from the cave as if shot from a cannon. Blood and flesh were mixed in a horrible mess. About 10 or 20 workers were killed.”
Even scurvy due to vitamin deficiency killed workers. In 1883 at the Port Moody work camp for example, 200 Chinese died from scurvy. One American Union telegram sent on June 11, 1883 stated, quote:
“Advise government allow no more Chinamen emigrate to British Columba as 2,000 died this past year from exposure, accidents and other causes. If this is inaccurate or misleading it should be corrected, considering effect on other emigrants.”
The Yale Sentinel would write, quote:
“Here in British Columbia along the line of the railway, the Chinese workmen are fast disappearing under the ground. No medical attention is furnished nor apparently much interest felt for these poor creatures.”
On Aug. 15, 1883, the Nanaimo Daily News would report on a near fatal accident, stating quote:
“Several of the cars off ran off the East Wellington track and went down the bank Monday. There is a fire burning alongside the track and a small alder tree fell across the track and caused the accident. Two chinamen were on the cars at the time and went over the bank with them but strange to say were not hurt.”
Some estimates put the number of Chinese who died working the railroad at 4,000, which would be 23 per cent of the workforce.
Hau-Hon would state, quote:
“As there were no coffins, bodies were stuffed into rock crevices or beneath trees to await burial. Some were buried on the spot in boxes made of crude planks. Some were buried wrapped in blankets or grass mats. The sight of these new graves dotting the landscape sent chills up and down my spine.”
Soon after the completion of the railroad, the same year in fact, the Government of Canada would pass the Chinese Immigration Act, which required any Chinese person coming to Canada to pay $50 as a head tax. Chinese immigrants were the only ones who had to pay any sort of tax to enter Canada.
Sir John A. Macdonald, who supported using Chinese workers to build the railroad, would suddenly change his tune stating quote:
Of course, the truth was that most of the Chinese workers never returned to China, and instead worked to bring their families over.
A Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration would state, quote:
“They are so nearly allied to a servile class that they are obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state.”
This Act would remain in place until 1923, when it was replaced by the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese immigration altogether. That Act would remain in effect until 1947.
I did an episode on the Head Tax on my podcast Canadian History Ehx a few months ago.
Several plaques and memorials exist to the Chinese workers who helped connect the country. One of the most prominent is the Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial in Toronto, which depicts a Chinese worker on top of a tall, half-completed railway bridge, and another at the bottom of the bridge helping to lift timber. The memorial was erected in 1989.Three rocks at the base of the monument were transported to Toronto from the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies.
The Cheng CPR Interchange near Kamloops was also named for Cheng Ging Butt, a labourer with the railroad. Cheng had been born in China in 1858 and came over to work on the railroad. Following his work with the railroad, he settled by the tracks near Yale and ran a dry goods store, and would sell to passengers on passing trains.
Information from Government of British Columbia, Coquitlam Heritage, Wikipedia, Asian Heritage Society of New Brunswick, Chinese Canadian Life on the Railway, The Government of Canada, CBC, Atlas Obscura, Heroes of Confederation, Indentured Chinese Rail Workers 1880 – 1885, Victoria Daily Times, Nanaimo Daily News, BC Labour Heritage Centre,