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Kang Youwei (1858-1927)

A Radical Chinese Reformer in Victoria

Kang Youwei, ca. 1904 (David Lee fonds, University of Victoria Archives).

Kang Youwei, ca. 1904 (David Lee fonds, University of Victoria Archives).

Kang Youwei was a well-known Chinese scholar and a major leader of the short-lived reforms presided over by Emperor Guangxu in 1898. He made four trips to Canada between 1899 and 1909, where he promoted the political and commercial organization of overseas Chinese. In cooperation with local leaders in Victoria and Vancouver, Kang established the Chinese Empire Reform Association as the first global Chinese organization.

In 1898, Kang and other reformers convinced the young Guangxu Emperor to introduce constitutional government, and to modernize the military, the education system, and other institutions in order to better defend China from Western imperialism. These changes were too dramatic for Guangxu’s conservative aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who suppressed the reform and had the Emperor placed under house arrest. Most of the reformers who had advised the Emperor were arrested and executed (including Kang’s younger brother), but Kang and his former student Liang Qichao managed to flee the country.

Facing assassination threats from the conservative faction of the Qing government, Kang escaped from China to Japan, then to Canada in April 1899. He hoped to gain support from Britain and the United States to bring the Guangxu Emperor back to power, but the American-imposed Chinese Exclusion Act did not allow him to enter the United States. Immediately upon arriving in Victoria on 7 April, Kang gave interviews to English-language media such as the Daily Colonist, requesting British involvement in Chinese politics. He was deeply interested in how provincial and local institutions operated in Canada, visiting the mayor, the legislature, and the lieutenant governor.

Kang’s impressions of political and economic structures in Victoria may have influenced his new reform program for China, which he announced to the Vancouver Province on 13 April 1899. Reforms would include representative parliamentary government, free education, national banks, state ownership of railways and mines, and technical and military schools. On his visit to Canada, Kang started to become interested in reforming the overseas Chinese population and addressing their concerns. He argued that by acting in unity, Chinese people could defend their interests in foreign lands.

While Kang was unable to enter the United States, he travelled to Ottawa, met with Prime Minister Laurier and attended a ball at the invitation of the governor general. He sailed to England, but was not able to raise much support for his cause there. Kang returned to Canada in June 1899, and it was on this second visit that he worked with local Chinese leaders to establish the Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA) in Victoria on July 20, 1899. Kang intended that the CERA would not only help restore the Emperor Guangxu and save the Chinese nation, but also serve the broader interests of overseas Chinese.

When he was not meeting with Chinese leaders in Victoria and Vancouver, Kang stayed on Coal Island (Wen Island) near Sidney for his own protection and was escorted by a Canadian policeman during the day and two Chinese bodyguards at night. Living in a simple wood frame house on the island, Kang studied English, read Chinese books, and planned political strategies. Chinese Canadians travelled to American cities on Kang’s behalf to give speeches and establish new chapters of the CERA. Kang raised funds and support for a military “rescue” of the Guangxu Emperor China, and he returned to Asia in October 1899, but this military campaign failed in late 1900.

Civic officials in British Columbia pointed to the crowded and unsanitary conditions of labourers’ residences in Chinatowns as part of their argument for restricting Chinese immigration. Undoubtedly these conditions were a result of their low wages. On Kang’s third visit to Canada in 1904-1905, he encouraged Chinese residents of Victoria to “follow the customs of the people of this country, particularly their methods of living, to pay heed to the laws of sanitation and cleanliness.” In response, chapters of the CERA in Victoria and Vancouver planned to establish public baths for Chinese residents. On Coal Island, Kang wrote a longer essay arguing that China should follow the West in developing its material resources by investing in modern industries and new technology. Kang returned to Coal Island one last time in 1909, by which time the CERA in Canada was in decline due to internal conflicts. Soon, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary ideas would appeal broadly to Chinese residents of Canada. Kang Youwei’s visits to Canada from 1899 to 1909 created important transpacific links between the endangered reform movement in China and the potential of overseas Chinese to influence their home country. Although Kang was not successful in lobbying the British and American governments to help restore the Guangxu emperor, he found refuge in Canada and the space to develop his reform ideas. Engaging with Chinese communities in Victoria and Vancouver, he encouraged the establishment of the CERA and promoted the success and dignity of overseas Chinese at a time when they had few rights in North America and a weakened China could not protect them.

Adapted from Zhongping Chen, “Kang Youwei’s Activities in Canada and the Reformist Movement among the Global Chinese Diaspora, 1899-1909.” Forthcoming in Twentieth-Century China, 2014.

Additional Sources:

Chen, Zhongping. “City Played Key Role in Chinese Reform Movement;” “Victoria as a Political Centre for Globalized Chinese Reforms,” and “Victoria as a Starting Point of Chinese Feminist Politics,” Times Colonist, 24 June 2012.

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

Mackerras, Colin. China in Transformation, 1900-1949. Harlow, Essex: Addison, Wesley, Longman Limited, 1998.

Larson, Jane Leung. “An Association to Save China, the Baohuang Hui: A Documentary Account.” China Heritage Quarterly 27, September 2011.

Roy, Patricia E. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989.

Wickberg, Edgar, ed. From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 69, 73-74, 101.