Head Tax

In 1885, the Federal Government, under pressure from the B.C. Government, imposed a head tax of $50 on every Chinese immigrant. Only six classes of person were exempt: diplomats, clergymen, merchants, students, tourists and men of science. In those days, the average Chinese labourer could earn only $225 a year. After deducting food, clothing, rent, medicine and other expenses, he could save only $43 a year. The intention of the head tax was to discourage Chinese labourers from coming to Canada by imposing a heavy financial burden on them. The tax was increased to $100 in 1901 and again to $500 in 1903. Despite the heavy tax, Chinese labourers continued to come as they were unemployed or could earn only $2 a month in China whereas they could earn from 10 to 20 times more in Canada. In those days, there was no immigration office in Hong Kong where nearly all Chinese came from. When a ship, usually carrying a hundred or more Chinese passengers, arrived in Victoria, they were lined up on the wharf and escorted to the prison-like immigration office. They were subjected to medical examination and then checked to determine whether they could pay the head tax, and if not they had to wait for relatives or friends to come to pay their taxes. This process could take several days or even weeks, and during this time, the Chinese immigrants were confined to rooms where all openings were covered with iron screens and bars to prevent their escape. They carved or wrote Chinese verses on the walls to express their anger and bitter feelings. One poem reads “Having amassed several hundred dollars, I left my native home for a foreign land. To my surprise, I was kept inside a prison cell! I can see neither the world outside nor my dear parents. When I think of them, tears begin to stream down. To whom can I confide my mournful sorrow.”