Black History Month: Yee Clun and the White Women’s Labour Law

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is herePart 2 is here, and a follow-up can be found here. Part 3 can be read here.

Regina is the capital city of the province of Saskatchewan, with a present-day population of nearly 200,000 people, nearly 2% (or around 3300) of whom identify as having Chinese ancestry. As Saskatchewan contends with a resource-sector boom and an economic renaissance, it is highly likely that the prospect of decent wages and the opportunity to build a family will attract a larger number of immigrants, Chinese immigrants among them, to Regina’s… I was going to say ‘shores’ there.

Regina in 1921 had a much smaller Chinese population – ~250 individuals in an overall population of over 34,000 (0.7%). This was hardly mere happenstance – Canada at the time had extremely and overtly racist immigration and migration policies that specifically limited Chinese people (almost exclusively men, for purposes of manual labour) from entering Canada, and further limited their movement once they were here. Many of the Chinese men living in Regina had moved east from British Columbia, perhaps hoping to find respite from the even-more-racist laws governing where and how Chinese people were allowed to live and work*.

Unabashed anti-Chinese racism was no stranger to Regina, if the excerpts that Backhouse quotes from periodicals from the time are any evidence. Perhaps the most stark example of the prevailing attitude towards Chinese Reginans took the form of a law called An Act to Prevent the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities or, more colloquially, the White Women’s Labour Law. From the text of the law:

No person shall employ in any capacity any white woman or girl or permit  any white woman or girl to reside or lodge in or to work in or, save as a bona fide customer in a public apartment thereof only, to frequent any restaurant, laundry or other place of business or amusement owed, kept or managed by any Japanese, Chinese or other Oriental person.

The framers of the law lauded it as the first of its kind in Canada, and it was swiftly adopted by other provinces. Backhouse notes that, thanks to Canada’s strict immigration/migration laws, and a prevailing racist/sexist attitude against women of colour, there were no non-white women to employ in Regina. Nor were there an abundance of men of colour, to be sure. Backhouse also notes the evidence suggesting the level of antipathy that white Canadians had toward having their food prepared and especially served by anyone other than a white person.

Although it is convenient to think of this as a simple example of racist bigotry writ large, it is also necessary to understand the non-racial reasons supporting this law. Chinese labourers, noted for their diligence and their willingness to work harder than whites in poorer conditions for less money, were highly feared by labour unions. As a result, Chinese immigrants were forced into the types of work that didn’t require unionized labour: primarily the very businesses mentioned in the text of the law. Short of actually running Chinese (and other “Orientals”) out of town, Regina was trying to make it impossible for them to survive there.

Religion also played a role in the anti-Chinese hysteria that fueled this law. Evangelical groups intentionally stoked anti-Chinese sentiment to raise funds for their foreign missions. Being able to paint Chinese society as savage and in desperate need of the civilizing influence of Christianity opened up pocketbooks in order to send priests with Bibles printed on paper invented by the Chinese more than 2000 years previously. Religious women’s groups were also highly active in supporting the law, religion being an avenue by which women could exercise collective power in an era when they did not yet have the power to vote.

It’s also important to take gender into account in understanding this law. You’ll note that white women are specifically singled out, rather than white people. Labour at this time was severely stratified, and the only people immigrant business-owners could afford to hire were women. Much of the support for the law was expressed in highly gendered terms – with ‘sly’ Chinese men supposedly likely to prey on virgin white women, often through the use of drugs. Emily Murphy, famous Canadian feminist, in a 1922 book condemning the narcotics trade, peppered her writing with the use of extremely vivid anti-Chinese racism and general white supremacy**.

The law – and similar copycat laws passed across the country – had been challenged through the concerted effort of Chinese Canadians, in some cases on the grounds that ‘Chinese’ was too general a term to be rigorously applied (people from China? people in China? people who had been to China?). Backhouse goes on to highlight a case in which a Japanese businessman challenged the law on the grounds that his employees were Russian and German immigrants, and not “white” women, prompting a flurry of attempts to define ‘whiteness’ into being (to save you the suspense, it turns out that Russians and Germans are, according to the magistrate applying his ‘own opinion’, white. So there that is). In response to some of these challenges, Regina amended the language of the law to remove the racial references, but assured the forces behind the law that it was a change in language only.

Yee Clun was a well-regarded Regina restauranteur who had applied for a license, under the amended law, to employ white women. Because of his standing in the community, his application was backed by the chief of the police and a city alderman, both white. Despite his standing and his backing and the assurances of his supporters that he was ‘one of the good ones’, his license was denied. Religious women’s groups joined women’s labor groups to prevail upon city hall that allowing any white woman to work for any Chinese man would spark a flood of ‘undesirable’ women into Regina, to the detriment of the community at large.

When the decision was referred to provincial court, the judge noted the complete lack of evidence supporting the claim that white women were uniquely threatened by Chinese men (and not by white men). The judge also noted that the city had written the racist language out of the statute, so it was clearly not the city’s intent to re-introduce racial discrimination because they had obviously removed it***. As a result, the judge found no reason to support the city’s denial of Yee’s application, and required them to approve his request.

While it was a positive outcome for Yee (at least in that case – the city would harass him for years to come), the children of the White Women’s Labour Law would not be repealed until the last one was struck from the books in 1969. It was Saskatchewan’s.

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*Recall that from the perspective of black history, British Columbia is cited as one of the more ‘enlightened’ provinces. The reasons for this disparity is an interesting topic to ponder.

**Many predominantly white movements struggle to understand why people of colour, who are often disproportionately affected by the issue under protest, nonetheless do not participate in even proportional numbers. Feminism is no stranger to this phenomenon, and it is no surprise when you reflect that this particular anecdote is far from exceptional in the history of the feminist movement.

***Backhouse notes the legal errata requiring the judge to interpret only the language of the statute, precluding him from taking the “in language only” statements of the city council into account. She suggests that the judge might have been trolling the city a bit with this particular part of his decision.


  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says
    In the Court of King’s Bench Judge Phillip Mackenzie heard the arguments of the municipality —which he called “fallacious” and “absurd”—and despite public sentiment, forced council to issue the license. It was a short-lived victory, however, as legislators passed a statute allowing municipalities to ignore the court ruling. It is not known if Regina revoked Yee’s license, but his case marked a milestone in Canadian legal history and legally empowered racism. The offensive law was finally repealed in 1969, because it was seen to be unfair to women.

    The judge in question:

  2. smrnda says

    It’s wort noting, to me, that current attitudes towards Mexicans in the US is so very similar to attitudes towards Chinese in the past. I also find it kind of depressing that the immigrant Other is getting portrayed as a threat to organized labor and not just another exploited group who needs to be brought inside the movement. Regrettable but not surprising.

    Thanks for pointing out examples of anti-Asian racism in the past, particularly since Asians these days (depending on where they are from) are usually groups held up as ‘model minorities’ and it’s good for people to know that this was definitely not always the case.

  3. says

    Well there’s a compelling narrative to suggest that the “model minority” thing is a product of the racism that Chinese migrants faced in North America. By forcing groups to be insular and self-sustaining, and in the lack of a specific policy to undermine them (as was done in black communities), North American white supremacy created a “model” group. I bought the book that fleshes this argument out, but I haven’t had time to read it yet. Hopefully after Black History Month is done.

  4. smrnda says

    I wanted to post again since I have just seen the film “The House I Live In” (documentary on the drug war) where an historian commented that that the first anti-drug laws in the US were passed to outlaw smoking opium, since it was a way to selectively target the Chinese population. So it seems that, there was at a time a specific policy to undermine the Chinese, though perhaps people later forgot about the Chinese as white people were too busy oppressing other ethnic groups.

    Just thought I wanted to post that since I found it an interesting historical fact. I’ll definitely check out the books you linked to.

  5. says

    I have to confess that I didn’t realize how deep and wide the anti-Chinese discrimination was in this part of the world. I am definitely gaining an appreciation for it now though, especially after 4 years at Waterloo and 3 years (and counting) in Vancouver. The wording’s different, but the feelings are the same.

  6. thunk, acolyte of metatextuality says

    Yeah, this is fascinating. I’m definitely not up on my Canadian history.

    One thing: “restaurateur”, no “n”.

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