In China, villages were historically established by single families sharing the same lineage and surname. A majority of Canada’s early settlers came from the same handful of villages in the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong.
Faced with poverty and civil war in the late 19th century, many early Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada through word of mouth encouragement and the promise of money. As numbers grew, they began to form associations by family/village as a means of social support and community.
Early Chinese migration was marked by racism, discrimination and tragedy. In the late 1800s, nearly 15,000 Chinese labourers had helped to complete the railway. Many came from rural communities in China, so they were willing to work for $1 a day (3x less than what was paid to white/black/native workers), and didn’t complain about the deplorable working conditions. More than 600 people would die from illness or planting explosives.
Once the railroad was complete, a head tax was issued to reduce the number of settlers arriving from Asia. Those wishing to come to Canada for work were charged $50 for entry, and eventually, $500. This extravagant fee prohibited men from bringing their wives and children, ultimately forming a large community of bachelors. From 1923 to 1947, the Chinese were only ethnic group to be banned from immigrating to Canada altogether.
Family associations became a vital resource for Chinese dealing with legal, financial, and immigration troubles during the 1920s. Many would become registered non-profits, and ultimately property owners in Chinatown. These buildings (tongs) were safe spaces that also provided enormous social support for Chinese to adjust to the cultural differences of moving to a foreign and urban environment. Many tongs emerged as the Chinese community expanded along East Pender Street, including the Wong Kung Har Tong established in 1922.
The Mon Keang School was formed on the third floor of the Wong’s Benevolent Association building in 1925, to continue teaching Chinese language and customs to the handful of children born to overseas Chinese in Canada. The Hon Hsing Athletic Club was later formed in 1939 to fundraise during the second world war through lion dancing performances. This club continues to be operational and thriving today.
The Wong’s Benevolent Association was officially formed in 1970 through the merging of the Wong Kung Har Tong and the Wong Wun Sun Society. The Wong Association Building main building (located at 123A East Pender) and the Hon Hsing building (located at 27 East Pender) were given Heritage Designation in 2003.