The Chinese Immigrant in the City: Reflections on Race, Class and Gender in the Public Spaces of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1895-1949

by Miriam Wright

I first became interested in Chinese immigrants and public spaces through a public history project on the Chinese in Newfoundland my partner, Bob Hong, and I were part of a few years ago. In doing the research for the project, we were struck by the disjuncture between the historical presence and impact of the Chinese immigrants, and their near absence in both the academic literature and the popular images of Newfoundland and St. John’s.[1] Rather than being an invisible minority, Chinese immigrants were relatively numerous and had a highly visible presence in the city, with over 500 individuals (almost all men) arriving in the first half of the 20th century. Considering the population of St. John’s was about 20-30,000 in this period, those numbers are significant. Chinese immigrants also opened dozens of businesses including laundries, cafés, and restaurants throughout the commercial and downtown residential areas of St. John’s.


Hop Wah Laundry, St. John’s, 1922. From City of St. John’s Archives.

The more recent literature on Chinese immigrants in North America emphasizes that the Chinese were never isolated but were part of diverse urban neighbourhoods.  In exploring the ways Chinese immigrants interacted with their neighbours, this research provides a richer view of urban life and the social and economic relationships that shaped it. Patrick Dunae et al. in their study of race and space in Victoria’s Chinatown, draw on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre who said space is “not only supported by social relations but is also producing and produced by social relations.”[2] This allows us to think about how the dynamics of race, class and gender get played out in public spaces in the city. I would argue that taking this approach, and looking at the encounters and relationships between people – Chinese immigrants, non-Chinese men, women and youth – in the streets and commercial establishments of St. John’s should help us start to think about the history of this city differently.

One of the key places that Chinese and non-Chinese residents encountered each other was the streets of the downtown, working class, residential neighbourhoods. Chinese immigrants had opened laundries throughout the downtown, and frequently came face-to-face with the boys and young men who spent a lot of time on the streets. As Craig Heron argues boys and young men expressed their masculinity and identity in the streets and public spaces in the early twentieth-century cities in highly performative and at times aggressive ways.[3] Various memoirs as well as historical newspaper reports from St. John’s provide glimpses into this behaviour, suggesting the “corner boys,” saw in the Chinese immigrants a visible object of both curiosity and derision. Older youth and men seem to have instigated more serious attacks against Chinese men and their laundries. Chinese men occasionally fought back, but more often chose other spaces – the courtroom and the newspaper (letters to the editor), to do that. We see hints of other types of street interactions too, such as non-Chinese people walking with funeral processions of Chinese men, suggesting not all encounters were hostile.

Chinese and non-Chinese also met and interacted in the many Chinese immigrant-owned cafes and restaurants in the city, but the gender and social contexts differed. Restaurants were relatively new in St. John’s (there were very few before the end of WWI), but they offered a particular attraction for women, who could visit them on their own or with friends (there were still relatively few such places in the city). For women, spending time in the cafes also provided opportunities to get to know the Chinese immigrants, and we know that some of those encounters led to marriages and relationships. As Elise Chenier has noted, marriages and relationships between Chinese men and non-Chinese women in North America were more common than is often assumed,[4] and this was certainly the case in St. John’s. While restaurants gave women more freedom, they also brought them under greater surveillance from authorities, who feared they would attract sex trade workers. Police began watching the Chinese immigrant-owned restaurants in St. John’s from at least the 1920s, but stepped up surveillance during World War II when the city was flooded with military personnel from U.S. and Canada (in fact, U.S. military attempted to ban its personnel from entering many of the Chinese immigrant-owned restaurants).

As these examples suggest, the history of St. John’s in the first half of the twentieth century is more complex, and more diverse than is widely assumed. We can explore the story of Chinese immigrants in St. John’s, but we also have to think about how their presence had an impact on the city and the people who lived there. And by looking at these interactions between Chinese and non-Chinese people in public spaces, we can also gain richer insights into the gender, class and racial dynamics that shaped the history of St. John’s.

Miriam Wright is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Windsor.


[1] For a couple of examples of work done on the Chinese in Newfoundland, see Robert Hong, “’To Take Action without Delay’: Newfoundland’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1906,” Honours Essay, Department of History (St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1987) and a short film, Memorial University of Newfoundland, School of Continuing Studies and Extension, The Last Chinese Laundry (St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1987). This film is now available on Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative site.

[2] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1991), 21, quoted in Patrick Dunae, John S. Lutz, Donald J. Lafreniere, and Jason Gilliland, “Making the Inscrutable Scrutable: Race and Space in Vancouver’s Chinatown,” BC Studies 169 (Spring 2011): 51-80.

[3] Craig Heron, “Boys Will Be Boys: Working-Class Masculinity in the Age of Mass Production,” International Labor and Working Class History 69 (Spring 2006): 6-34.

[4] Elise Chenier, “Sex, Intimacy, and Desire among Men of Chinese Heritage and Women of Non-Chinese Heritage in Toronto, 1910-1950,” Urban History Review 17, 2 (Spring 2014): 29-43.


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