A common mythology grew among descendants of Chinese migrants to North America that their ancestors had fled war and famine in China. Although this was true at specific moments of war and conflict during the 19th and 20th century, in fact the regular movement of migrants decade after decade, back and forth across the Pacific involved an organized infrastructure. To travel across the world following others required sizeable loans from those who had gone before. This is why almost all of the Chinese who migrated to North America before the 1950s came from a limited number of villages in only eight counties in Guangdong. These villages were not the poorest nor the hardest hit by war and famine. Indeed, they became more and more wealthy as generation after generation of migrants sent remittances home to build schools and hospitals and invest in land and regional economies, including loans to ambitious young men wanting to travel to "Gold Mountain" to make their own fortune.

There were, however, particular waves of migrants who were fleeing conflict and seeking refuge abroad. Before and after the 1911 Revolution that ended the Qing Empire, overseas migration provided an escape from political persecution. The 1949 Communist Revolution also created a wave of political refugees who joined the large number of "Displaced Persons" who fled Europe after World War II. The creation of the formal category of "Refugees" distinct from general immigration helped spread the popularity of a mythic story of Chinese immigration as one of many streams of refugees to the United States and Canada.

In the 1960s and 1970s many ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America came to Canada to escape political turmoil, and in the 1980s Canada accepted a large number of ethnic Chinese "Boat People" fleeing Vietnam. In the decade before the 1997 Reversion of Hong Kong from the British to China, large numbers of well-educated and entrepreneurial Hong Kong Chinese fearful of the imminent political change were encouraged by the Canadian government to migrate. Sometimes coming through new "Business Migrant" programs used by the Canadian government to recruit entrepreneurs and those with wealth, "refuge" in Canada has come to encompass not only political but economic refuge away from turmoil.