An excerpt from the Winter 2022 edition of British Columbia History magazine
By Catherine Clement and June Chow
The 1885 Chinese Immigration Act introduced the first Chinese head tax; with it, an elaborate new system of documentation and surveillance was born.
Over the next six decades, a dizzying array of Chinese Immigration (or C.I.) records was created by the government to thwart Chinese in Canada at every turn. Each type of record was assigned a number; those that were designed as identification certificates were colour coded for easy reference. Altogether, some 60 different types of C.I. records were created and in use between 1885 and 1953.
Some C.I.s were innocent enough—simply forms that needed to be completed. For example, the C.I.9 permitted Chinese living in Canada to temporarily leave the country, allowing Chinese men to travel home to China to see their wives and have children.
Conversely, the C.I.18 and C.I.18a was a two-part questionnaire designed to authenticate the relationship between a father already living in Canada and the child he wished to sponsor, ostensibly for an education. School-aged children sponsored by their fathers would be the last allowable category under which Chinese could enter the country prior to the passing of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. As such, many boys entering Canada did so as “paper sons.” The C.I.18 and C.I.18a questionnaire was designed to catch those engaging in such fraudulent relationships; it often felt like an interrogation to those answering the questions.
Posed separately to father and child, the questions reveal heartbreak, reflecting the long years of family separation, and they foreshadow often strained father-son relationships between strangers being reunited:
“Where does your father live at present?”
“What business is your father engaged in?”
“How long has he been in Canada?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did you last see your father?”
“Three or four years ago.”
“How often has he been back to China since first
coming to Canada?”
“Once only, I know. Three or four years ago.” 
The most common and coveted of the C.I. records were the certificates issued to a migrant once they were approved for entry to Canada. The C.I.5 and the C.I.30 were the two main entry certificates. A C.I.5, which by 1912 was a green certificate that included a photo, was issued to labourers and others required to pay the head tax. The brown-coloured C.I.30 was issued to those belonging to a class exempt from its payment, mainly merchants, diplomats, teachers, or clergy, and their family members. The bluish-green C.I.28 certificate and the orange C.I.36 certificate were both replacement certificates. And the C.I.45 was created exclusively to implement the registration requirement of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Regardless of when or where a C.I. was issued, only one original was produced. As valuable as gold, C.I. certificates had real monetary value, given the associated head tax. They could be used as collateral for loans or bought and sold so that another person could come to Gold Mountain. The papers had to be safeguarded. Chinese had to show their papers on demand; many carried their C.I. certificate with them at all times, especially transient labourers. Over the years, some certificates became worn, dog-eared, ripped, and taped back together—a testament to the hard lives of their owners.
These fragile pieces of paper also served as a constant reminder of the unwanted and second-class status of the Chinese in Canada. Not surprisingly, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947 and Chinese residents were finally allowed to become Canadian citizens, one of the first casualties was the C.I. certificate. Tens of thousands of these documents were destroyed—torn up, burned, or thrown in the garbage—as part of an effort to expunge the memories and humiliation associated with these papers.
Some 600 surviving C.I. certificates and records contributed by families across Canada for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act will form the largest and most comprehensive collection of such documents available for research, study and public history. The collection will be available at UBC Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, starting July 1, 2023.
- Excerpted from C.I.18a of thirteen-year-old Quon Moon Man, Port of Vancouver, BC, May 30, 1923, regarding his father, Quon Loy
June Chow is completing her Master of Archival Studies at the School of Information at the University of British Columbia. Her practice is dedicated to advancing archival preservation, access, and equity issues across Chinese Canadian communities. She is the archivist for “The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act,” https://1923-chinese-exclusion.ca/.
Catherine Clement is a community historian, curator, and author based in Vancouver. Her work has focussed on the lesser-known, personal stories of Chinese Canadian history. She is curating
a national exhibition called “The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act” which will open July 1, 2023, in Vancouver. Learn more at 1923-chinese-exclusion.ca.