The Chinese people who first came to Newfoundland were part of a larger migration of Chinese men to North America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The majority came from the largely agricultural areas in Guangdong province in southeast China. In these years, this region was plagued by economic problems, political instability, and a growing population that put strains on the available farm land. At the same time, the North American economy was heating up, with the industrial revolution and the railway-building boom. Seeking more prosperous futures, thousands of Chinese men journeyed across the Pacific to the United States and Canada. Few Chinese women came in these years, as the expense, and later, immigration restrictions made coming to North America difficult. Chinese immigrants initially found work in gold mining and railway construction. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the gold rushes and railway booms were over. Chinese men looked for other work, but faced increasing hostility from the wider population. Stereotypes about Chinese people being strange and devious persisted in North America, and non-Chinese workers saw them as competitors for jobs. Facing discrimination in the workforce that kept them out of higher-paying occupations, Chinese immigrants began looking for other ways to earn a living. Some became servants or cooks in wealthy households. Most, however, turned to self employment, becoming vegetable sellers, merchants, or café and laundry owners.

The first Chinese immigrants to Newfoundland arrived in St. John's in the 1890s. Like many of their counterparts in Canada and the United States, they occupied themselves in the hand laundry business. Although a few early Chinese immigrants found work in the Bell Island mine and in the fishery, the majority became laundrymen. Fong Choy, the owner of the first known Chinese laundry in Newfoundland, had come to the island by way of Quebec and Halifax. As there were no other commercial laundries in St. John's at the time, he saw an opportunity to operate a successful business in the seaport city. Other Chinese men soon followed, setting up laundries and later cafés and restaurants in St. John’s and other Newfoundland communities. Over the next five decades, over four hundred Chinese men would arrive, providing the foundation of the Chinese community in Newfoundland.

St. John’s Fire Insurance map, 1914