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Yee, Clun

In 1912 the Saskatchewan Government enacted the anti-Asian Act to Prevent the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities. This Act, sometimes called the “white women’s labour law,” barred Asian men from employing White women in businesses such as restaurants, rooming houses, and laundries. The Act was supported by Protestant moral reformers and various women’s groups, who embellished racial stereotypes and created an atmosphere of fear. The Act strangled the Asian business community, who could ill afford the higher wages demanded by White men, and had few other labour resources. The next year the Act was amended so that it only applied to Chinese, and in 1919 a further amendment deleted all reference to race. The right to employ women was referred to municipalities, which, upon application, could license businesses on an individual basis.

Long-time Regina resident, activist, and Chinese entrepreneur Clun Yee tested this race-neutral amendment in 1924, applying to Regina City Council for a special permit to hire White women workers. His application set off a storm of protest and debate at council and in the Newspapers about race, discrimination, and the moral standing of the Chinese Community. Both racial and gender stereotypes were hurled about, with frequent reference to narcotic use and gambling among Chinese, as well as women’s essential weaknesses and need for “protection.” Under the influence of both leading women’s activists and business leaders, the application was rejected.

Clun Yee then decided to appeal to the courts. In the Court of King’s Bench Judge Phillip Mackenzie heard the arguments of the municipality —which he called “fallacious” and “absurd”—and despite public sentiment, forced council to issue the license. It was a short-lived victory, however, as legislators passed a statute allowing municipalities to ignore the court ruling. It is not known if Regina revoked Yee’s license, but his case marked a milestone in Canadian legal history and legally empowered racism. The offensive law was finally repealed in 1969, because it was seen to be unfair to women.

As it was customary for many Chinese to address themselves by surname first, and given name second, Clun Yee was commonly known as Yee Clun.

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Further Reading

Backhouse, C. 1994. “White Female Help and Chinese-Canadian Employees: Race, Class, Gender and Law in the Case of Yee Clun, 1924,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 26 (3): 34–40; ——. 1999. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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