The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923–Part 2

by setohj

In my March 14, 2014 post, I discuss possible Chinese translations of the title “The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923”. This is an official title of the law passed by the Canadian Parliament in order to restrict Chinese immigration into Canada. In some of the present-day Chinese publications on the history of the early Chinese in Canada, the Chinese word “Act” is translated as “法案”,but this compound word has the dictionary meaning of a bill or a proposed act. In that earlier post, I suggest that we ought to investigate how the early Chinese might have translated the title “The Chinese Immigration Act.”

I have looked into two Chinese language sources: the newspaper The Chinese Times and the book History of Chinese in Canada.

The Chinese Times is a daily newspaper published in the Chinese language from 1915 – 1992. It covers the news of the time when the bill to exclude Chinese immigration to Canada was being reviewed and after its enactment by Parliament. It certainly is one of the best primary sources for researching Chinese Canadian history. A while ago, I had already looked through some of the microfilm archives of this newspaper and later searched through its digital version at (During the preparation for this blog article, I have discovered that many of the digitized files of The Chinese Times are still unavailable due to glitches in their database.)

In the May 16, 1923 issue, under the heading of Canadian News (加屬新聞), the reporter refers to the new immigration laws against the Chinese simply as 苛例 or “harsh regulations.” He also uses the term 移民苛例 or “harsh immigration regulations.” In the same issue, the Overseas Chinese Refutation of Regulations Office, an organization established by the Chinese community in Canada to oppose the proposed Chinese exclusion legislation, publishes an article that also uses the term “harsh immigration regulations” (移民苛例).

In addition to the use of “harsh regulations” (苛例), the May 17 issue also uses 移民條例 or “immigration regulations.” This has a less belligerent sense to it and a more neutral tone.

The term “harsh regulations” (苛例) appears to be the most widely used term in The Chinese Times that refers to the proposed Chinese Immigration Act. (See for example May 19, 30, and June 13, 23 issues). The more precise term “harsh immigration regulations” appears second most often when the newspaper reports or comments this immigration act.

The Chinese term closest in meaning to the original English is found in the June 29 issue: “中國移民例” or literally “China Immigration Regulations.” It can be appropriately translated “Chinese Immigration Regulations.” This is perhaps the most accurate of the translations used in The Chinese Times newspaper, but yet the only place where I found this Chinese wording is in this June 29 issue. Slight variants of the wording can be found in the May 8, June 30 and July 3 issues as “中國移民苛例”,or Harsh Chinese Immigration Regulations. There remains though in this variant translation the bias of the word “harsh” not in the original English title of the enacted legislation.

David T.H. Lee (李東海) (1915-1988) wrote a comprehensive historical book entitled History of Chinese in Canada (加拿大華僑史). It was published in 1967, but as at least some of the early Chinese were still alive during the writing of this book, Mr. Lee would have had access to firsthand accounts of the events that occurred in 1923. He used a phrase that matches closely with the previously mentioned “Chinese Immigration Regulations.” On page 362 of his book, he wrote: “中國移民新例” or “New Chinese Immigration Regulations.” This phrase appears only once in the section of the book on restrictions to Chinese immigration. More often than not he used a variant of “harsh regulations.” In describing the Chinese exclusion law in Canada, he either coined or adopted the phrase 『四三』苛例 or the “Forty-three Harsh Regulations.” The Chinese Immigration Act in fact has 43 sections in it.

It appears that the early Chinese in 1923 did not consistently use a precise translation of the title “The Chinese Immigration Act.” Most often they used the simple phrase “harsh regulations” in their writings when discussing this exclusionary law. A more accurate translation that could have been used would be “1923年華人移民法”for “The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923” in which just the single character “法”is used to mean “Act.” Only when the discussion revolves around the act as draft legislation then the compound word “法案” is more accurate.

I propose that “1923年華人移民法” be used in current writing of Chinese Canadian history to translate “The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923” for two reasons. First, hua ren (華人) more accurately refers to all Chinese. This would include both the people of the Chinese race and heritage, but who are not of Chinese nationality, as well as those who are the citizens of mainland China. The older term zhongguo ren (中國人) strictly speaking would apply only to those people who are citizens of mainland China. Second, in contrast to the BC Liberals brochure “Legislation Affecting British Columbians of Chinese Descent,” the word “Act” should be translated using the single character “法”, not “法案”unless the discussion makes reference in the context of the Act as a piece of draft legislation. This would be consistent with other BC government publications describing present-day acts of the BC Legislature. To date, I have not yet checked if other jurisdictions in Canada also use the single character “法”to translate the word “Act.” In any event, the main point is that the compound word “法案”should not be used in the translation of the title “The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923” unless in the context of draft legislation.