On Racism and Taxation: Rethinking the Chinese Head Tax, 1885-1923

Beyond Borders will publish a series of articles related to and in anticipation of “Who Pays
for Canada? Taxes and Fairness,” a conference on taxes and fairness organized by Dr. Elsbeth Heaman
that will take place at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada from February 21-23. Today, we have our third. 

Laura Madokoro

The story of Chinese exclusion among white settler societies beginning in the late 19th century is often told as a federal story. This tendency is a result of federal jurisdiction over immigration questions and the powerful impact of surviving head tax certificates that point to the authority of the federal state over the lives of individuals. Yet, a history of taxation enables us to see how taxes levied by municipal and federal authorities operated together to discourage permanent settlement and exclude Chinese residents from the possibilities of full citizenship. By exploring how taxes at the municipal and federal levels worked in tandem to discourage the permanent settlement of migrants from China, we can see that the challenges to obtaining full citizenship were even greater than might be surmised from an exploration of the federal landscape alone.

30,000 migrants, many of them indentured labourers, migrated from China to the Americas to work on the construction of trans-continental railways in Canada and the United States throughout the 1870s and 1880s, along with thousands of others who sought their fortunes during gold rushes in California, British Columbia and the Klondike. An estimated 15,000 Chinese labourers worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Canada. These labourers were a suspect population as a result of their perceived economic threat (they were offered and worked for lower wages than their Canadian-born and European counterparts) and widespread fears of miscegenation. Indeed, in discussing the proposed Chinese Immigration Act, proponent Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau suggested that the reason for antipathy towards the Chinese community, “and the only reason, or the great reason for it, is the antagonism between the Chinese and other labourers.”[1]

An economic solution was therefore pursued. To discourage continued migration and permanent settlement once construction of the railroad was complete in 1885, the federal government borrowed the idea of a capitation tax from white settlers in New Zealand and South Africa. A “fee on entry” of $50 was charged to individual Chinese migrants, caps were placed on the number of Chinese permitted on any ship and punitive fines were outlined for ship owners who violated these limitations.

In theory, the terms of the capitation tax outlined in the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act, should have greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese migrants moving to Canada. Yet, throughout the operation of the head tax, from 1885 to 1923, the federal government paid catch up to migrant strategies to avoid payment or exploit openings in the immigration system that would have prevented their entry otherwise.[2] Upon payment of the “entry fee”, Chinese migrants received a head tax certificate that showed the amount of money paid. They were also required to affix a photo of themselves to the certificate in one of the earliest forms of identity documents created in Canada.

Chong Do Dang Certificate, 1922 [Source: Library and Archives Canada] 

These head tax certificates were central to the “paper son” schemes that subsequently evolved. “Paper son” schemes used required immigration documents to falsify or invent family relationships so that aspiring migrants could bypass the exclusionary restrictions. For instance, if someone returned to China permanently, a family might then use falsified head tax certificates to obtain admission for a cousin or nephew and ensure continued remittances to support their relatives in China.

The head tax and resulting “paper son” schemes required a complex bureaucracy to monitor the payment of the head taxes and the movement of people. Subjects were required to show their head tax certificates upon their departure and return to Canada. Details of the migrants’ movements were recorded in “General Registers of Chinese Immigration”.

What these registers largely confirm is that federal government efforts to limit migration

Source: General Registers of Chinese Immigration, Library and Archives Canada.

through taxation were largely inadequate. As Chinese migration continued, largely because clan and family associations pooled resources so that migrants could pay the capitation tax and the “paper son” schemes became more and more elaborate, the federal government resorted to increasing the tax incrementally to $100 in 1902 and $500 in 1903 before banning Chinese migration almost entirely in 1923.

The impact of the capitation tax has been widely documented. Activists note that the tax added $23 million to the federal coffers, roughly the cost of building the railway that the same Chinese labourers who paid the tax were largely responsible for constructing.[3] The vast majority of the scholarship however has focused on the head tax as a racialized tax. As proponents for a federal apology (obtained in 2006) noted over the years, the Chinese were the only group racialized through a targeted immigration tax.[4] Most recently, scholars have employed surviving head tax certificates to trace the cultural impact of being so marked by the federal state.[5]

The impact on subsequent generations on handling certificates that marked their elders as undesirable and unwanted is palpable.  In The Year of Finding Memory, writer Judy Fong Bates describes her father’s tragic suicide and the pain and unanswered questions triggered by his sudden death. Pointing to the power of material history, Bates’ recounts how her desperate feelings were further complicated when she discovered her father’s head tax certificate in a box under his bead. Of the head tax certificate, she writes,

For as long as I had known my father, he had been an old man. But here he was, a youth, staring at me across time itself. At that moment it seemed as if we both had our lives ahead of us. If only I could find a way into the past and warn him.”[6]

This idea of “warning” is particularly powerful when one considers that the federal government was not alone in using taxes to discourage the permanent settlement of Chinese migrants to Canada. Municipal authorities also used taxation strategies to dissuade migrants from establishing themselves in cities across Canada. One example is the history of business taxes on Chinese laundries in Montreal and the manner in which municipal authorities attempted to use taxation policy beginning in 1894 to further the exclusionist policies advanced at the federal level.

The figure of the “Chinese laundryman” is ubiquitous in histories of early migration from China to the Americas. Regularly depicted as lonely frontiersmen, in an outpost of racial animosity, the owners and workers of Chinese laundries seemed to embody the discrimination that confronted early migrants to Canada and the United States.[7] Montreal’s Chinese laundries contribute to this historical narrative. Jos Song Long opened the first Chinese laundry in 1877 on Craig Street, serving local non-Chinese residents. His immediate neighbour, Mr. Lazarus sold second-hand goods and nearby was Mr. Kieffer, a shoemaker.[8] Between 1877 and 1892, approximately forty new laundries opened in the city though many of them closed in their second year. Still, by 1923 there were hundreds of Chinese-owned laundries across the city, employing over two thousand people, many of whom were immigrant men.[9]

Despite their relatively small numbers, the Chinese in Montreal encountered racist, hostile reception that attended their counterparts in other parts of the country.[10] In 1890, the licensing fee for a Chinese laundry in Montreal was $50. This was the same licensing fee as a high-class restaurant and amounted to about four-months’ worth of wages for a Chinese launderer.[11] It was an expensive fee and it came on top of the estimated $500 it cost to set up a laundry establishment including the cost of rent, equipment, fuel and other supplies.[12] Despite these costs, the majority of Chinese in Montreal relied on Chinese laundries for income or employment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The laundry was central to the community’s economic and social survival. Yet, in keeping with federal approaches, municipal authorities sought to discourage the growth of Chinese neighbourhoods in their communities by introducing punitive by-laws. In 1894, Montreal’s City Council proposed a by-law to target Chinese moneylenders with an eye to curbing the growth of independent financial institutions in the community.[13] The more targeted persecution, however, came with the introduction of almost perennial legislation aimed at discouraging the establishment and growth of Chinese laundries.

DVR_BXOWAAYlQOq.jpg-largeIn 1895, City Council proposed a $100 tax on laundry properties, largely with the intention of discouraging Chinese entrepreneurship in this area. This tax aggravated the precarious financial position in which Chinese launderers found themselves as a result of the federal capitation tax and the cost of migration. Only twenty-five people paid the tax in 1895, of an estimated one hundred Chinese laundries in the city.[14] Instead, the Chinese community petitioned City Council and the tax was ultimately reduced to $50 in 1896 (By-Law 236) though not without highlighting the foreign character of the Chinese community with observers describing their signatures, in Chinese characters, on the petition as “hieroglyphs”.[15] Despite this victory, fifty dollars still represented a significant imposition and the community petitioned City Council repeatedly over the course of the following two years, in an effort to convince city councillors to withdraw the by-law completely.[16] Such an annulment did not occur.

By exploring how taxes at the municipal and federal levels operated in tandem to discourage the permanent settlement of migrants from China, we can see that the challenges to obtaining full citizenship were even greater than might be surmised from an exploration of the federal landscape alone. The material traces of the Chinese head tax make the story of federal exclusion all the more immediate, but the history of laundry taxes in Montreal is a reminder that efforts to exclude operated at multiple levels and in multiple ways.


Laura Madokoro is a historian and Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. McGill University is located on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations.


[1] House of Commons Debates, 2 July 1885, p. 3008.

[2] See details of migrant strategies in Lisa Rose Mar, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1943 (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[3] http://www.roadtojustice.ca/laws/chinese-head-tax, accessed 16 February 2018.

[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/pm-offers-apology-symbolic-payments-for-chinese-head-tax/article711245/, accessed 16 February 2018.

[5] Lily Cho, “Redress revisited: Citizenship and the Chinese Canadian head tax,” in Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress edited by Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c2013). Cho’s newly launched website documents the history of Chinese Head Tax certificates as identity documents, https://masscapture.ca, accessed 16 February 2018.

[6] Judy Fong Bates, The Year of Finding Memory (Toronto: Vintage Canada), 6.

[7] Ban Seng Hoe, Enduring Hardship: The Chinese Laundry in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2004).

[8] Denise Helly, Les Chinois à Montréal: 1877-1951 (Québec: Institut québecois de recherche sur la culture; Ville Saint-Laurent, Québec, Diffusion Prologue, 1987), 63. Kwok B. Chan, Smoke and Fire: The Chinese in Montreal (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1991), 156.

[9] Smoke and Fire, 156; Les Chinois à Montréal, 77.

[10] Patricia Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants 1858-1914 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989).

[11] Les Chinois à Montréal, 67.

[12] Smoke and Fire, 158.

[13] This plan was also a strategy for City Council to extricate itself from difficult financial circumstances. “Empty Treasury,” The Evening Star, 11 August 1894, 1.

[14] Les Chinois à Montréal, 67.

[15] “À la Chambre,” L’Électeur, 11 décembre 1895, 2.

[16] City Council records note that in 1896 “citizens” asked for a reconsideration of the proposed tax, but the racial origins of the petitioners are not specified. VM-10-152-1896, Archives de Montréal.

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