They couldn't vote. They were barred from the ranks of most professions and the civil service. Even gaining admission to local public swimming pools was dicey.
"It was like the deep South," pioneer descendant Robert Yip said of the plight faced by members of Vancouver's ethnic Chinese community in the 1920s and 1930s.
But on the playing field, particularly the soccer pitch, the same rules applied to everyone, regardless of race, and there, a small, group of skillful young Chinese Canadians excelled.
In 1933, when the Chinese Students Soccer team won the top trophy in the province with a thrilling 4-3 victory over a heavily favoured team from the University of B.C., Chinatown erupted in an outburst of firecrackers, parades and celebration, the likes of which were never seen before or since.
In the teeth of the Depression, with anti-Chinese feeling an ever-present fact of daily life, the second-class citizens of Chinatown finally had something to cheer about.
"At that time, it was dangerous for Chinese people just to poke their head out in the rest of the city," historian Paul Yee said. "Those players became heroes, when Chinatown sorely needed heroes. People went absolutely wild."
On Monday, that legendary, trail-blazing team of long ago, the only one of its kind in Canada and perhaps North America, was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, along with the likes of Vancouver Canucks star Trevor Linden and five B.C. members of Canada's gold medal team at the 2010 Olympics.
There for the announcement was 91-year old Molly Yip, a still-vigorous wisp of a woman and the widow of captain Art Yip.
"He would be very proud," Ms. Yip said of her late husband, cradling a framed picture of the team in her arms. "I am very proud, too."
None of the players on the 1933 cup-winning squad survive, but sons and daughters echoed Ms. Yip's pride.
"I think it's a great honour," said Linda Moree, daughter of goalkeeper Shupon "Spoon" Wong. "It's something that's long overdue, and I know my father is up there somewhere, looking down on us with a big smile on his face."
The Chinese Students was a high school unit in 1919, but a mistake by their sponsor, a Chinatown bank, put it in the city's adult league, which sharpened the players' skills. The team won many trophies, none so big as the 1933 Mainland Cup.
Robert Yip's father, Quene Yip, was the star of the team.
"He was born here, but my father had none of the rights of other Canadians. Soccer was one of the only opportunities he had to compete as an equal," Mr. Yip said.
"Those players won more than a trophy. They broke down barriers, they won respect for their community and they left a legacy that continues to this day."
The success of the Chinese Students is all the more remarkable considering the small pool of manpower available.
Families were not plentiful in Chinatown, heavily populated in those years by lonely men, deterred from bringing wives and children to Canada by the $500 head tax and the subsequent Exclusion Act.
Four players were sons of Chinatown's early settler, Yip Sang, who had 23 children by his four wives, including 19 boys. Two other brother combinations were also on the team, Charlie and Jackson Louie, and Frank and "Spoon" Wong.
How did they manage to prevail against their stronger, heavier opponents? Mostly, with speed and agility.
"My father told me they used to run rings around the other teams," recalled Benny Wong, youngest of "Spoon" Wong's five sons.
There was one other tactic. "To really get the other guys psyched out, they would only speak Chinese," said Mr. Wong.
Robert Yip said the team's achievement resonated among the Chinese community in a way difficult to understand today.
Chinatown would virtually empty for their games. Banks, merchants and gamblers alike donated money.
"The Chinese community was isolated, not part of larger society, and they had to suffer in silence," Mr. Yip said.
"So when they won the Mainland Cup, it was bigger than the Stanley Cup. It became a celebration for the entire community, and we are all the better for it."
With few young Chinese-Canadian men to take over as the original players aged, however, and the team folded in 1937.
But its members continued to make history.
Dock Yip was the first Chinese called to the Canadian bar, Ghim Yip, although not on the 1933 team, the first Canadian-trained Chinese doctor, and William Lore, the first Chinese-Canadian naval officer. Years later, Mr. Lore accepted the Japanese surrender of Hong Kong at the end of the Second World War.