Found family photos provide snapshot of what life was like for early Chinese immigrants to Halifax

·3 min read

When JJ Lee came back to Halifax from Toronto, she was planning on doing nothing more than clearing out her parents’ old house. Yet, she found herself reliving her childhood for the following weeks through hundreds of old photographs and all kinds of antique items she discovered in the house she grew up in.

“it's amazing to come back here and find it. It's also the house that I grew up in. So it's particularly meaningful for me to be here to go through all this stuff, discover it, find hundreds and hundreds of photographs, telling the story,” Lee said in a phone interview.

Lee is an artist and associate professor at OCAD University. She is also a descendant of one of the first Chinese immigrants to come here in the early 1900s.

“My parents didn't tell us too much about our history. And I think it's partly because it was pretty shameful the way Chinese people were treated,” said Lee.

Lee said growing up, her parents always wanted their children to assimilate and the family didn't talk a lot about the discrimination against the Chinese community.

Although Lee’s parents were reticent about the past, the hundreds of photos and items left behind meant that JJ Lee and her cousin, Albert Lee, were able to piece together the life their parents and grandparents had.

Chinese coins before the Cultural Revolution, next to a U.S. penny. - Contributed

Lee’s father Fred came to Halifax about the time when a discriminatory law was implemented in Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act or "Chinese Exclusion Act", passed in 1923, restricted all Chinese immigration by narrowly defining the acceptable categories.

The legislation significantly affected Canada's Chinese community. Wives and children of Chinese men already in Canada were not permitted to immigrate and the lack of Chinese women in Canada limited the opportunity for the community’s natural growth.

Albert Lee, an amateur historian of the Chinese experience in Nova Scotia, said those husbands who were separated from their wives in China were described as “the bachelor men”.

“They(the bachelor men) would have meals together as well as like socializing. They'd be playing mahjong and maybe trading businesses,” he said.

Fred Lee and his friends are in the back room of the laundromat having supper. - Contributed

Most of the findings were related to a laundromat called Charlie Wah Laundry, a family business partly owned by the Lee family. Laundromats were one of the most popular professions among Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century.

In 1931, for instance, 61 per cent of Chinese Canadians were servants, janitors, laundry and restaurant employees and unskilled workers.

Chinese-Canadians were barred from citizenship until 1947, therefore, they were barred from professions that required one to be a citizen. These professions included pharmacy, law, teaching, and politics.

In major cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Chinese immigrants were not allowed to do or own business outside of Chinatown. But Albert Lee said the Maritimes cities didn’t restrict the early Chinese immigrants.

“They had a better opportunity to be locating their businesses on the main thoroughfares,” said Albert Lee in a phone interview.

The Charlie Wah Laundry was located at the corner of Barrington and Kent Streets in Halifax.

Lu Xu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald