Local history: Halifax’s Chinese community during the Second World War

Photo: Albert Lee

Next month, it will be 76 years since V-J Day, marking the Allied victory over Imperial Japan and the end of the Second World War.

One of the most remarkable local records of the occasion is this striking photo, taken downtown on Aug. 15, 1945. There are many stories behind a photo taken in downtown Halifax on Victory Day over Japan, 1945. In a post on his website, photographer Albert Lee analyzed what the image tells us about the history of Halifax’s Chinese community. CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Albert Lee has died. He is in fact alive and well. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

China had been in the war far longer than Canada, ever since the Japanese invasion in 1937. Chinese Canadians were excited to celebrate their homeland’s liberation, gathering at the Chinese Benevolent Association and Hum Mow’s restaurant on Grafton Street.

Just three Chinese women appear in the photo, testifying to the efficiency of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.

That coldhearted policy was a reaction to the thousands of Chinese men came to Canada to work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, usually leaving their families behind.

“These men were instrumental in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where 15,000 temporary Chinese workers toiled and at least 600 died,” Lee wrote, adding that white Canadian government officials and business leaders saw their growing numbers as a threat to wage rates, hence the ban.

This racist Canadian policy barred most Chinese people from immigrating to Canada, only allowing—with a few exceptions—students, merchants, and diplomats. Those categories ensured the few who did get in were men almost exclusively and made it impossible for those already here to reunite with their families.

The other women in the photograph are likely Acadians who moved to Halifax from rural Nova Scotia, working as servers in Chinese restaurants.

Today few people recall this link between Chinese and Acadian communities in Halifax. Lee recounts that when this photograph was on display in a 1997 exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, he received several requests for copies from the children of men pictured—many had never seen their fathers before.

The Canadian government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 and the families of those men began to arrive. Often, they left their Acadian girlfriends to fend for themselves. While some Acadian women kept their children, Lee recalls his father, an elder in the community, taking some of those Acadian-Chinese children to orphanages. “It’s a sad and relatively unknown part of Halifax’s history,” he recalled.

With the repeal, Halifax’s Chinese population grew. While some cities confined Chinese people to certain areas—the racist forerunners of today’s quaint Chinatowns—Halifax had Chinese businesses like laundries and restaurants scattered throughout the city. One of the most popular in Halifax was Hum Mow’s on Grafton, the building behind the group in the photograph.

The main floor contained a small room where men would smoke and play games. Upstairs was a large boardroom for Chinese Benevolent Association meetings. It hosted a Chinese school for a few summers in the 1960s.

“Downstairs in the basement was the famous Hum Mows,” Lee said. “Big black Cadillacs would pull up to the restaurant in the evenings with men in tuxedoes and women in fur coats coming from the dance halls after they closed for the night. Reporters and editors … would arrive after the newspapers went to press. Local politicians and staff from the American consulate also came for food and drink. Hum Mow’s restaurant was well known for its ‘special tea’— scotch and rum served in Chinese teapots.”

That subterfuge was a dodge around Nova Scotia’s then-archaic liquor laws, which forbid serving alcohol to men and women together. Local police stayed blind, likely by choice, to the lawbreaking.

“The building on Grafton Street and this photograph is only one of the few reminders left of the rich history of Chinese settlement in Halifax,” Lee concludes.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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