Social & Cultural Life: Family and Chinatown

Lee Association of Canada

Lee Association of Canada

Everyone in Chinatown seemed to know everyone else. You only had to say your surname, mention any Kwangtung county-Sam yup, Sze yup, Chungshan, Heungshan— even mention Canton, Hong Kong, speak of any of the city or village dialects—and smiling strangers would link you to a chain of kinfolk. In a hostile country like Canada , anyone having the same last name was enough: we Chinese together.

from All That Matters , p. 112, by Wayson Choy


Because the Exclusion Era had effectively barred Chinese immigration to Canada, with only eight new immigrants officially emigrating Canada between 1923 and 1947, the remaining Chinese population in Canada developed a Chinese Canadian identity and lifestyle with its own unique loyalties, culture, economy and politics. Because of this lack of new blood, the indigenous Chinese settlers in Canada began carving out a place of their own within a Canadian context.

Clan associations had many of the same welfare functions that district associations had in China. They provided lodging facilities, assistance in obtaining work, recreating facilities, relief when needed, and financial aid towards burial. Despite the term, members were not necessarily related to one another. Chinese believed that all Chinese of the same surname must be related, however distantly, in some way. As a result, a common surname became a useful basis for forming welfare associations.

The Chinese in Canada retained customs and mores from their provinces of origin. Since many Chinese could not physically leave Canada nor communicate with their families in China due to Civil and World Wars, the customs and lifestyles of the Chinese had in many ways been frozen in time in Canada.

The Confucian patriarchal system of relationships, especially in marriages, retained its dominance in Chinese Canada. Many marriages were based on the union of two families with political implications sometimes being the deciding factors.
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