On August 15th, 1945, the Halifax Chinese community gathered on Grafton Street for a group photograph, marking Victory Day over Japan during the Second World War. The group is pictured in front of what was, at the time, the Chinese Benevolent Association and Hum Mow’s restaurant on Grafton Street. This photograph offers a rare glimpse into Halifax’s Chinese history.
There are far more men than women amongst the group in the photograph. Two Chinese women are seated in the front row and a young Chinese girl is seated in the second. Three Chinese women among all those Chinese men bears witness to the effectiveness of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which prevented Chinese from entering Canada. Thousands of Chinese men came to Canada for work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often leaving wives and children behind. These men were instrumental in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where 15,000 temporary Chinese workers toiled and at least 600 died. Chinese labourers were typically paid low wages compared to non-Chinese workers. Following the completion of the railway, their growing numbers were seen as a threat to wage rates, thus Chinese were effectively shut out of Canada. As a result, many of the Chinese men in Canada, including those in this photograph, were unable to bring their wives and children over from China as planned. These Chinese men were known as “bachelor” men.
The other women in the photograph are Acadian. They moved to Halifax from rural areas of Nova Scotia and found work as waitresses in Chinese restaurants. This photograph is rare evidence of the link between the Chinese and Acadian communities in Halifax. When this photograph was on display in my 1997 exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, “Growing Up Chinese in Halifax,” I received several requests for copies. These requests were from the children of men in the photo, many of whom had never laid eyes on their father.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, and the wives and children of Chinese men began to enter Canada. Some Acadian women had children by Chinese men in Halifax and were left to fend for themselves once the wives arrived. Although some Acadian women kept their children, my father, Shew Chuck Lee (1907-1990), an elder in the Chinese community, said he took some of the Acadian-Chinese children to orphanages. As a result, this photograph taken on Victory Day over Japan was the first photo some of these children, now grown, had ever seen of their father. A few of them cried when I gave them the copy. It’s a sad and relatively unknown part of Halifax history.
Upon the arrival of the Chinese wives, Halifax's Chinese population began to grow. Halifax, like Saint John and Charlottetown, had Chinese restaurants and laundries along the main thoroughfares to the waterfront and the main train stations. This was in contrast to cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, where the Chinese were restricted by law to areas that came to be called “Chinatown.”
In 1952, there were 44 Chinese-owned restaurants and cafes plus between 15 and 20 hand laundries in Halifax and Dartmouth. Restaurants served mainly western food – hot chicken sandwiches, grilled pork chops, and complete dinner plates. One of the best-known restaurants was Hum Mow’s on Grafton, which was in the building behind the group in the photograph. The main floor contained a small room where men would smoke and play mah-jong. Upstairs was a large boardroom for Chinese Benevolent Association meetings. A Chinese school was held there for a few summers in the 1960s. An old Chinese man lived in a small corner room with a window overlooking Grafton Street. Downstairs in the basement was the famous Hum Mow’s. Big black Cadillacs would pull up to the restaurant in the evenings with men in tuxedoes and women in fur coats coming from the dance halls after they closed for the night. Reporters and editors from the Chronicle Herald and the Mail Star would arrive after the newspapers went to press. Local politicians and staff from the American consulate also came for food and drink. Hum Mow’s was well known for its “special tea” – scotch and rum served in Chinese teapots. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was illegal for women to be served alcohol with men but the “special tea” got around that restriction. Hum Mow’s had a laid-back atmosphere. It was never raided by the police and the liquor laws were conveniently ignored.
The building on Grafton Street and this photograph are only a few reminders left of the rich history of Chinese settlement in Halifax.