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Inside Chinese "Tongs"

Beyond Racist Bias

Historically, in the English news media, the term “tong” had negative connotations linking it with Chinese gangs and violent rivalries. In fact, the Chinese character “tong” simply means “hall,” or a place where meetings are held. “Tongs” can refer to a variety of Chinese organizations, based on clan, county, dialect, religious or political affiliations, or recreational interests. Like voluntary societies in the English-speaking community before the rise of the welfare state, these associations provided social services such as medical assistance or burials. Since early Chinese immigrants to British Columbia were excluded from the dominant linguistic or cultural group, and they did not have basic citizen rights until 1947, Chinese organizations helped these immigrants to learn about the host society and provided support and solidarity in the face of discrimination and exclusion. After anti-Chinese racism gradually declined in Canada from the mid-twentieth century, these organizations have continued to provide social services for their members, and they further played varied roles as voluntary associations in the larger society.

Because Victoria’s Chinatown was the first and once the largest Chinese settlement in Canada, it also produced the earliest clan, county, and dialect organizations for immigrants from China, such as the Lee Association, the Lung Kong Association, the Hoy Sun Association, and the Yue Shan Society. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) in Victoria was also the first of its kind in Canada. The CCBA, together with other aforementioned associations and the major friendship associations among these immigrants, the Chinese Freemasons and Dart Coon Club, all served as the headquarters of their branches or members across Canada by the early twentieth century. The Chinese Empire Reform Association, including the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association, first appeared in Victoria and later spread to the other Chinese communities in the world.

By Zhongping Chen and Jenny Clayton


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