Early Calgary’s Chinese Community and Chinese Freemasons
As part of our ongoing research for the new permanent gallery and visitor experience Lougheed House Re-Imagined, Lougheed House is exploring the role that settler colonialism played in Calgary’s early development, in order to unpack how its legacy persists in the histories of both Lougheed House and Calgary. The well-documented roles of James and Isabella (Hardisty) Lougheed as important Calgary settlers allow us a glimpse into how city founders established Calgary as a prominent prairie city. Members of their staff, sometimes of different social standing and cultural backgrounds, also reflect early Calgary settlement experiences. Calgary has always been mythologized as a place where you can ‘make it’. As contemporary Canadians wrestle with Truth and Reconciliation and equity, what requires further consideration is how social and community organizations played a role in supporting early settlers of diverse cultures.
In this post, Kay Burns, our Lougheed House Re-Imagined Exhibit Coordinator, looks at the Chinese Freemasons, one of the many social organizations that supported Chinese settlers to Calgary in its early years. This is the first in a series of four blogs in the next few months that will explore the diversity of experience of early Calgary settlers.
As always, we welcome your feedback. If you or your forebears have connections to the Chinese Freemasons or other early Chinese groups or associations, we’d love to hear your stories.
-Kirstin Evenden, Executive Director
Written by Kay Burns
Around the turn of the twentieth century, newcomers in the emergent city of Calgary sought to establish connections and community to form beneficial social and business structures. In Calgary’s early days, as the dominant group of British and eastern Canadian colonial settlers were establishing themselves, their imported culture, and local governance systems, other cultural groups were also initiating communities within the growing city. The beginning of associations and social groups within various immigrant and settler communities provided opportunities for members to belong within a unified cause, to strive to support other members of their community, and existed as a place of comfort for their own cultural practices.
Chinese immigrants have been present in this country long before it became known as Canada. A group of fifty Chinese artisans accompanied Captain John Meares (explorer and fur trader) to help build a trading post in British Columbia in 1788. In 1858, Chinese immigrants arrived in the Fraser River Valley as gold prospectors from California, and Barkerville, British Columbia became the first Chinese community in Canada.
“Other occupations that attracted migrant labour from China included lumber camp work, coal mining, fishery employment, and such businesses as laundry and domestic service, and of course, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The building of the CPR in 1880-84 alone brought in 17,000 Chinese.”
As a British colony, Canada evolved with the dominance of white settlers, and racialized immigrants encountered challenges within the regions they settled in. The thousands of Chinese workers who had been brought in to build the railway were instrumental in its construction, working in some of the most dangerous conditions. But after the railway was complete, they were not welcomed within the communities along the rail line that their labour had made possible. Chinese people have been present in Calgary at least as early as 1883.  That is as long, or longer, than many of the early white settlers. Many migrated from British Columbia after the cross-country railways were complete.
Racial prejudice against the Chinese is clearly seen in federal government policies: “In 1885, a head tax of $50 was levied on Chinese seeking to enter Canada. No other immigrant group was required to pay such a tax. This was raised in 1900 to $100 and then raised once again to $500 per head in 1903.” The head tax remained in place until 1923, but was followed by the discriminatory Chinese Immigration Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act) which banned the entry of all Chinese immigrants from 1923 to 1947. Even though immigration policies did entail certain restrictions on migration into Canada, Chinese people were the only ones refused solely based on race. 
The smallpox outbreak in 1892 fueled riots and racism and led to violence against the Chinese community in Calgary:
“A mob of over three hundred men smashed the doors and windows of the Chinese laundries, trying to drive the Chinese out of town. For three weeks, the North West Mounted Police had to protect Chinatown and its residents against further attack by the local Whites. This hostility discouraged many Chinese from coming to the city.”
This was the social climate in Calgary as the city was forming, making it extremely difficult for Chinese residents to become part of the broader growing community. The Chinese formed their own associations and their own supportive community within Calgary’s Chinatown.
Calgary’s first Chinatown emerged in 1888 in the area just east of the train station on Atlantic Avenue, where the Calgary Municipal Building now stands. A second Chinatown surfaced in 1901 in the Beltline around the Chinese Mission constructed at 2nd Street and 10 Ave SW, a few blocks from the Lougheed home. These two Chinatowns existed in Calgary concurrently. As the city continued to grow, the value of properties within the two Chinatowns escalated, and landlords began to evict the residents to sell the now-valuable properties.
“This made the Chinese realize that if they owned their properties, they would have a say in Chinatown. In September 1910, several wealthy Chinese merchants purchased a site at the intersection of 2nd Avenue South and Centre Street East, where they planned to establish a new Chinatown…. By the late 1910s, all the remaining Chinese residents and businesses in the First and Second Chinatowns had moved out and left for the Third Chinatown.”
Concurrent with the evolution, challenges, and relocations of the Chinatowns in Calgary, Chinese citizens were forming associations and groups within their community, most of which became active between 1910 and 1920, including the Cheekkungtong, the Chinese National League, the Chinese Public School, the Chinese YMCA, and family clan associations (groups with a common ancestor). Some Chinese associations evolved from origins as secret societies centuries ago in China; early brotherhoods in China were the precursors of the emerging Chinese Freemasons called Cheekkungtong (also known as Hongmen). In 1876, the first headquarters for the Cheekkungtong in Canada was established in Victoria, British Columbia, and later, local chapters surfaced in cities across Canada including Edmonton, Calgary, and Lethbridge. It was during the early twentieth century that the secret societies began to refer to their groups as branches of the Chinese Masonic Order and became known as the Chinese Freemasons (not connected to what is commonly associated with the British/European freemason groups). The Chinese Freemasons group had its antecedents in China, but these were adapted to the new country as a way to help other Chinese immigrants and to support their growing community.
“Chinese Freemasons of Canada… helped many Chinese settlers that fell upon hardship during the gold rush and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800’s.”
The building at 107 2 Ave SE was the first headquarters of the Calgary branch of the Chinese Freemasons, founded in 1911. The organization provided aid, social space, and activities for members, as well as support for local arts groups and community projects. The Chinese Masonic Hall is one of the early buildings constructed by Chinese immigrant owners to establish Calgary’s current Chinatown.
The building of the Chinese masonic hall had been made possible through subscriptions from the Chinese masons of Calgary. According to Calgary Herald records of 1913, there were approximately a thousand Chinese men in Calgary, of which five hundred were identified as masons. The upstairs of the building was the hall used for lodge meetings, initiations, and lectures. The main floor held a small fruit store at the front, and the back had a large room for “secret meetings and partly as a social club room where the Masons may bring their friends.” It was this same room that was subject to a police raid with charges brought against the building janitor, Hung Gee, for running a gambling establishment, along with the forty-two men who were present charged as “frequenters.” In spite of the defense lawyer’s statement that the Chinese should be “assured of the same treatment as white men and granted the privilege to manage their own affairs on their own premises and conduct a club just as white men may,” and numerous witness statements indicating that there was no profit gain from the games and it was for members and their guests only, Hong Gee was found guilty and required to pay a fine. The magistrate’s ruling described in the Calgary Herald report was full of slurs and stereotypes demonstrating racist attitudes and their pervasive presence within the justice system of early Calgary.
The Chinese Freemasons remained active throughout the following decades. Several newspaper articles in 1947 spoke of a National Convention of Chinese Freemasons in Calgary, which raised funds for the Canadian Aid to China Fund and for local charities. A banquet was held with special guests from across Canada. Other convention activities included a Chinese Opera performed by the Chinese Dramatic Club of Vancouver at Calgary’s Grand Theatre, acrobatics and a “Chinese Lion Dance” by members of the Masonic Athletic Club of Vancouver held at Calgary’s Victoria Pavilion, and a parade.
The Chinese Freemasons were also involved in celebrations of the 35th anniversary of Chinese independence. The Herald article that referenced this event in 1945 mentioned the president of the lodge, Woo Wing. In the context of research for Lougheed House Re-Imagined, this was an interesting reference. Could this be the same person as the Lougheed family cook, Wuo Wing? The 1906 census document lists Wuo Wing as living in the Lougheed home as a cook, aged 20, from China. Perhaps this is the same person of a different spelling? Census documents are commonly subject to inconsistent spellings of names, as are newspapers. The age seems right — if it is the same person, he would be around 59 years old, a reasonable age for a lodge president. He might even be present within the National Convention group photo of 1947. While the answer may never be known, encountering these kinds of possible connections within Lougheed House history and the communities of Calgary provides a fascinating research journey as different communities and their respective associations are explored.
 The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Chinese Canadians”
 “Historic Study of the Society Buildings in Chinatown”, Report of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society Contractor to the City of Vancouver, July 2005
 Government of British Columbia, “Building the Railway”
 Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, “The Evolution of Calgary Chinatown”
 “The Calgary Chinatown” by Paul K.P. Wong
 For information about the Chinese Immigration Act, see The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Chinese Immigration Act”
 Calgary Chinatowns, 1885-2015, David Chuenyan Lai and Lloyd Sciban, Simon Fraser University
 Lee Association of Calgary 100th Anniversary Yearbook, Chapter 3: History of Benevolent Associations
 Chinese Freemasons of Canada Regina, “History of the Chinese Freemasons of Canada”
 Heritage Calgary, Heritage Calgary Walking Tours: Chinatown
 Calgary Herald, “Are Chinese Breaking the law when they gamble in their own Lodgeroom?”, February 25, 1913, p. 11
 Calgary Herald, “Hung Gee found guilty of running a gambling house”, February 28, 1913, p. 1 and 15
 Calgary Herald, “Musical Mystery”, April 14, 1947, p. 9
 Calgary Herald, “Chinese Mark Independence”, October 11, 1945, p. 14
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As Chinese New Year’s celebrations begin the Kay Burg article is very timely, interesting and informative. There is a shocking element in this article is the fact that, in addition to the Chinese Head Taxes, the Chinese Immigration Act, banning entry to Canada of Chinese immigrants, did not end until 1947. James Lougheed was part of government during the head tax years and also in office in 1923 when the Chinese Immigration Act became law. As well, he held paternalistic views towards Aboriginal peoples, despite the fact that his children were themselves 25% aboriginal. He also opposed women voting.Viewed through today’s historical lens Lougheed’s political legacy is not one to applaud or celebrate.
Hi Mary Anne,
Thank you for your comment. These facts are indeed shocking to many people, and we wish that more Canadians were aware of the racist policies and discrimination that Chinese people have historically faced, particularly considering the ongoing racism towards people of Asian descent. It is also true that James Lougheed was an active member of a government that enacted many of these policies. Through Lougheed House Re-Imagined, we are hoping to bring new perspectives and stories to light that help us better understand the truth of our shared history, which is not always something to be celebrated.
Super interesting, I am encouraged and excited to read future blogs along the lines of The Lougheed House Reimagined. I will share this as well. There is so much here that may be lost unless institutions like the Lougheed House and other historical bodies and all persons ask the questions and look at what has been and what is now.
Thank you for your support and interest in Kay’s blog post! We have written a few blog posts in our development of Lougheed House Reimagined, and we will continue to post more as the research continues. We greatly value processes of inquiry and asking questions to broaden perspectives – our goal for LHRI is to bring these otherwise relatively unknown stories to light.