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The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association

Early headquarters of the Chinese across Canada

Sign board of the CCBA

The first of its kind in Canada, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) was formed in Victoria by 31 local groups in 1884 to protect the rights and safety of Chinese immigrants.

A number of discriminatory laws were passed in British Columbia in the 1870s and 1880s, leading up to the formation of the CCBA. Chinese and First Nations residents were disenfranchised at the provincial level and in Victoria in the 1870s, meaning that governments did not have to take their interests into account. The city and province also excluded Chinese workers from employment on public works projects. In February 1884, the provincial government passed legislation intending to stop Chinese immigration, tax Chinese residents yearly, and prevent them from purchasing land. In addition, acts of violence were carried out by white residents against Chinese residents, with little or no consequence.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building on 554-560 Fisgard Street was designed by John Teague, and completed in August 1885. Like other association buildings in Chinatown, the ground floor was rented out for commercial use. The association had its office on the second floor, and there was a temple with a shrine in the third floor. Behind the association building, on Herald Street, was a Taipingfang (Peaceful Room) where sick, poor, and elderly Chinese men could find shelter and care. (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, D-05246)

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building on 554-560 Fisgard Street was designed by John Teague, and completed in August 1885. Like other association buildings in Chinatown, the ground floor was rented out for commercial use. The association had its office on the second floor, and there was a temple with a shrine in the third floor. Behind the association building, on Herald Street, was a Taipingfang (Peaceful Room) where sick, poor, and elderly Chinese men could find shelter and care. (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, D-05246)

Chinatown had a number of small clan and county associations concerned with social welfare but no overall organization that would protect the interests of Chinese residents. In the spring of 1884, merchants in Victoria’s Chinatown received approval from the Chinese consul-general of San Francisco to set up an umbrella organization that would act as a Chinese consulate in Canada. It was named Zhonghua Huiguan or the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

The CCBA sent requests to Chinese communities for donations from all Chinese residents, and published a constitution in July 1884. The objectives of the association were to inform Chinese residents about Canadian laws, protect them from discrimination through legal means, deal internally with crimes in Chinatown through arbitration between members, and assist the weak and the sick. By 1885, the CCBA had raised sufficient funds to construct a three-storey association building.

Palace of the Saints inside the meeting hall of the Chinese Public School building (Photo by Charles Yang).

Palace of the Saints inside the meeting hall of the Chinese Public School building (Photo by Charles Yang).

Originally headed by wealthy merchants, the CCBA developed a more democratic and diverse leadership in the early twentieth century. New political, clan and county organizations in the late 1890s and early 1900s started to compete with the CCBA for authority within Chinatown and the loyalty of residents. Representatives of these organizations joined the board of the CCBA and sometimes factions developed. Small business owners started to join the ranks of the leadership of the CCBA but they had fewer funds available to donate for expenses such as taxes and building maintenance. With the increasing importance of Vancouver as a port in the early twentieth century, a new Chinese Benevolent Association was formed in that city which looked less to the Victoria CCBA for leadership. Over time, the authority of the CCBA was limited to Vancouver Island and Chinese residents in smaller communities across Canada.

In the twentieth century, the CCBA continued to pursue its mandate of protecting the interests of Chinese residents, resolving disputes within the community, and providing welfare services. As a defender of the rights of Chinese Canadians, the CCBA lobbied against discriminatory legislation such as the head tax, segregated schooling, and laws that prohibited Chinese business owners from hiring white women. As a welfare institution, the CCBA raised funds for a school, hospital and cemetery, and provided legal aid for Chinese residents.

During the Second World War, there was increasing cooperation between Chinese and Anglo-European Canadians, who were allies in this conflict. For example, the CCBA raised donations for the Canadian Red Cross, while the Committee for Medical Aid for China in Victoria purchased wheat and sent it to China. After the war, some of the intense racism in Canadian society toward Chinese Canadians started to fade. Chinese residents could become Canadian citizens in 1947, and more Chinese Canadians started to settle outside of Chinatown. The gradual integration of Chinese citizens into Canadian society made the CCBA less necessary as an intermediary. To increase community participation, the CCBA formed clubs for youth and invited the involvement of women on the board for the first time in 1959.

Chinatown was in decline in the 1960s. Some buildings were no longer being maintained, or only the ground floor served as a shop while the upper floors were vacant. In 1962, the City of Victoria purchased buildings from Cormorant Street, tore them down, and created Centennial Square in their place. Dr. David Chuenyan Lai surveyed Chinatown in 1971 and found that it had decreased to two city blocks and housed mostly elderly men and low-income young families. Just a decade later, Chinatown underwent a successful revitalization. The CCBA was a driving force behind a project headed by Dr. Lai to rehabilitate the heritage buildings of Chinatown and install the Gate of Harmonious Interest. The CCBA closed the Chinese Hospital and created a committee to build a five-storey apartment building for subsidized housing on Fisgard Street, called the Chung Wah Mansion.

Over time, the authority of the CCBA has become more symbolic as it faces the challenges of relating to a diversifying Chinese population in Victoria. Nevertheless, the CCBA continues to support charitable causes and the preservation of Chinese culture and language in Victoria.

Palace of the Saints, located in the third floor assembly room of the Chinese Public School. (Courtesy of Robert Amos).

Palace of the Saints, located in the third floor assembly room of the Chinese Public School. (Courtesy of Robert Amos).

The CCBA Moves the Palace of the Saints into the Chinese Public School

In the 1950s, strong prejudice against Chinese Canadians was starting to fade and the federal government began to relax immigration restrictions. Ironically, at a time when more Chinese immigrants were moving to Victoria, membership in the CCBA and attendance at the Chinese Public School were declining since new immigrants chose to live outside of Chinatown and to educate their children primarily in English. In 1965, the Dart Coon Club moved out of the old CCBA building and the temple shrine, or Palace of the Saints in the top floor, was unprotected. The next year, the CCBA moved the temple shrine to the hall of the Chinese Public School, in a ceremony directed by CCBA president Jack Lee.

Palace of the Saints inside the original CCBA building, date unknown (City of Victoria Archives, M 05580).

Palace of the Saints inside the original CCBA building, date unknown (City of Victoria Archives, M 05580).

Palace of the Saints: Headquarters of Popular Religions in Victoria's Chinatown

The Palace of the Saints (or Sages) is a shrine and altar, made in South China from pieces that fit together without nails or screws, and brought to Canada in 1885. It contains statuettes of historical and legendary figures respected for their acts and wisdom: Confucius (China’s most famous philosopher), Tian Hou (the Queen of Heaven), Zhao Yuan Tan (the God of Wealth), Kwan Yu (the God of the Military), and Hua Tuo (the God of Medicine). The shrine was first installed in the third floor of the CCBA building. Chinese residents and travellers would pay their respects at the shrine and school children assembled there before their classes began. In 1966, the CCBA moved the Palace of the Saints to the assembly room of the Chinese Public School.

Zhao Yuan Tan (Zhao Gong Ming) gained immortality as the Lord of Wealth sometime during the Qin Dynasty (255-206 BC). He had businesses in mining, salt extraction, and transportation. He led a virtuous life and as an immortal, protected people from illness and granted profits (Photo by Robert Amos).

Zhao Yuan Tan (Zhao Gong Ming) gained immortality as the Lord of Wealth sometime during the Qin Dynasty (255-206 BC). He had businesses in mining, salt extraction, and transportation. He led a virtuous life and as an immortal, protected people from illness and granted profits (Photo by Robert Amos).

Kwan Yu (Kwan Kung), a general and scholar who lived in the third century AD, known for his bravery and loyalty (Photo by Robert Amos).

Kwan Yu (Kwan Kung), a general and scholar who lived in the third century AD, known for his bravery and loyalty (Photo by Robert Amos).

Confucius (551-479 BC), China’s greatest philosopher. His writings were studied for centuries. Before 1912, students at the Chinese Free School still read his texts at the elementary and secondary levels (Photo by Robert Amos).

Confucius (551-479 BC), China’s greatest philosopher. His writings were studied for centuries. Before 1912, students at the Chinese Free School still read his texts at the elementary and secondary levels (Photo by Robert Amos).

Hua Tuo (144-221 AD), the God of Medicine. This physician was very knowledgeable about surgical cures, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs. After his death, he became the patron saint of doctors and the sick (Photo by Robert Amos).

Hua Tuo (144-221 AD), the God of Medicine. This physician was very knowledgeable about surgical cures, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs. After his death, he became the patron saint of doctors and the sick (Photo by Robert Amos).

Tian Hou (960-987 AD) was a protector of travellers at sea. As a young girl, she sent her spirit across the water to rescue her brothers in a storm at sea. After her death, she was seen flying across the sea in a red dress to save sailors from danger (Photo by Robert Amos).

Tian Hou (960-987 AD) was a protector of travellers at sea. As a young girl, she sent her spirit across the water to rescue her brothers in a storm at sea. After her death, she was seen flying across the sea in a red dress to save sailors from danger (Photo by Robert Amos).

A gilded wood carving on the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

A gilded wood carving on the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

A gilded wood carving on the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

A gilded wood carving on the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

A gilded wood carving on the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

These gilded wood carvings on the front of the altar table in the Palace of the Saints illustrate traditional Chinese stories (Photos by Kileasa Wong, 1997).

The CCBA has been a leader in Chinese participation in mainstream society. Here, the CCBA has won first prize for its float in the Victoria Day parade, ca. 1950 (Victoria Chinese Public School Archives).

The CCBA has been a leader in Chinese participation in mainstream society. Here, the CCBA has won first prize for its float in the Victoria Day parade, ca. 1950 (Victoria Chinese Public School Archives).

Founding of the first Chinese Community Organization in Canada

Constitution of the CCBA, 1884 (University of Victoria Archives).

Constitution of the CCBA, 1884 (University of Victoria Archives).

This document explains the role, purpose and organization of the CCBA. The CCBA’s objectives were “to promote inter-relationships among the Chinese communities, to carry out relief aids and social welfare, to solve disputes, to assist the sick and poor, to eliminate internal troubles, and to fight against foreign [or external] oppression.” The CCBA raised funds by requiring Chinese residents to pay a two-dollar fee. In return, the CCBA would provide legal assistance and welfare to Chinese residents who suffered from violent assaults, illness, or poverty. The services offered by the CCBA are spelled out in detail in response to various situations that Chinese residents might encounter.

Leadership in Local and Nationwide Chinese Affairs

This is a list of the merchants and other community leaders who were elected as the first directors, vice-directors, councillors and contributing councillors of the CCBA (University of Victoria Archives).

This is a list of the merchants and other community leaders who were elected as the first directors, vice-directors, councillors and contributing councillors of the CCBA (University of Victoria Archives).

These eleven documents relate to the CCBA’s struggle against the head tax. The CCBA appealed to various authorities to protest against the imposition of an increasing head tax on Chinese immigrants to Canada. These documents include letters from the CCBA to the Chinese ambassador to England, the Chinese Foreign Minister, and the Chinese government, and responses from the Chinese consul-general in San Francisco and the ambassador to England (University of Victoria Archives).

These eleven documents relate to the CCBA’s struggle against the head tax. The CCBA appealed to various authorities to protest against the imposition of an increasing head tax on Chinese immigrants to Canada. These documents include letters from the CCBA to the Chinese ambassador to England, the Chinese Foreign Minister, and the Chinese government, and responses from the Chinese consul-general in San Francisco and the ambassador to England (University of Victoria Archives).

Mouthpiece of Chinese Protest Against Racism

Letter from the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver regarding the BC Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act, 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

Letter from the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver regarding the BC Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act, 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

These four documents respond to the racist fears surrounding the employment of white women by Chinese businesses. The first “white women’s labour laws” in Canada, barring Chinese businessmen from employing white women, were passed in Saskatchewan in 1912. The BC government amended the Municipal Act in 1919 so that businesses owned or managed by a Chinese person in this province could not employ white women either. In 1923, the BC Legislature passed the Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act – this barred Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries from hiring white and Indigenous women.

The documents here refer to legal action taken by the CCBA to protest this act in 1923. One letter, from Guan Song Nian, explains how he had resisted this kind of legislation in Quebec by advising his white female employees that if the police came to check the premises and threaten their jobs, the women should ask the police to find them employment elsewhere.

Letter from Guan Song Nian regarding the BC Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act (University of Victoria Archives).

Letter from Guan Song Nian regarding the BC Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act (University of Victoria Archives).

Record of legal action taken on behalf of the CCBA, 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

Record of legal action taken on behalf of the CCBA, 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

Announcement of a meeting held by the CCBA, December 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

Announcement of a meeting held by the CCBA, December 1923 (University of Victoria Archives).

Transformation of CCBA in the Early 20th Century

By-Laws of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1932 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

By-Laws of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1932 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

This document explains how the CCBA was organized in 1932 and how the meetings would be run. The Association was then headed by a president, vice-president, auditor and Committee of Management, whose signatures appear at the end of the by-laws.

New purposes of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1978 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

New purposes of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1978 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

In 1978, the CCBA re-wrote its official purposes to reflect the changing status of Chinese citizens in Canadian society. The CCBA no longer had to protect members from legal discrimination or violence. The organization continued its traditional responsibilities of maintaining the Chinese Public School, Hospital, and Cemetery. Likewise, it still served as a gateway to Canada for Chinese newcomers by assisting with housing and employment. It raised funds for charitable institutions, and sought to promote inter-cultural understanding by offering Chinese language and art classes to the general public.

Restoration of the CCBA as a society in July 1987 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

Restoration of the CCBA as a society in July 1987 (BC Registry Services, Society files S642).

This document, a certificate showing that the CCBA was restored as a society in July 1987, also demonstrated that the CCBA was dissolved and restored three times since its incorporation in 1884. The first time it was dissolved was in 1925, two years after the Chinese Immigration Act (Exclusion Act) ended further immigration from China (reinstated in 1932). The second time it was dissolved was in March 1947, the year that Chinese Canadians received the right to vote and the Immigration Act was repealed (the CCBA was reinstated 1949), and the society was dissolved for a third time in 1987 before being reinstated in the same year.


Further Research

The Chinese-Canadian Collection at the McPherson Library of the University of Victoria contains documents from the fonds of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association:

http://library.uvic.ca/dig/Chinese-Canadian.html

More information about the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association collection can be found here:

http://library.uvic.ca/admin/donors/ccba.html


Sources

Amos, Robert and Kileasa Wong. Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World. Victoria, BC: Touchwood Editions, 2009.

Kerwin, Scott. “The Janet Smith Bill of 1924 and the Language of Race and Nation in British Columbia.” BC Studies, no. 121 (Spring 1999): 83-114.

Lai, David Chuenyan. Chinese Community Leadership: Case Study of Victoria in Canada. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2010.

Lai, David Chuenyan. The Forbidden City within Victoria: Myth, Symbol and Streetscape of Canada’s Earliest Chinatown. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers, 1991.

McMaster, Lindsay. Working Girls in the West: Representations of Wage-Earning Women. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.