The migration of Chinese to Canada began in 1858 as a result of the Fraser River Gold Rush in British Columbia. Most of the 19th-century migrants, including those contracted for CPR labour from 1882 to 1885, came from Kwangtung (Canton) Province, some via the USA. These immigrants were men, mostly of peasant background, many of whom had left families behind: their primary goal in Canada was to make their fortunes and return to China. In contrast, the later arrivals, particularly after 1960, have been highly trained, women as well as men, representing all areas of China and Hong Kong. In the 20th century most of the over 414,000 (1986 census) Chinese Canadians have lived in and around the large cities of Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. (In British Columbia in 1904 the Chinese-Canadian residents of Victoria presented the city with a 2000-pound bell cast in 1627 in China. The bell hangs in Beacon Park.)

Recorded evidence of music among the first Chinese Canadians is scarce for many reasons. What little is known has been gathered piecemeal from a variety of sources. Canadian Chinese music is predominantly Cantonese and may be classified in four genres: folk-street-work songs; Cantonese operas; Cantonese ensemble music; and traditional music other than Cantonese. That in the first two categories was perhaps the earliest heard in Canada. Presumably the Chinese, though possessing and patronizing an endless variety of music, perpetuated their folksongs and other traditional music in Canada to entertain and comfort themselves in a new land. Popular arias from Cantonese opera, a deeply rooted folk - rather than high-art - tradition, also were widely sung among the people. By the 1870s there were three Cantonese operatic clubs established in Victoria, BC: Yuen-t'ien-lo, Yao-t'ien-lo, and Tan-feng-shang. These and similar organizations filled a great need for social contact and entertainment and were encouraged by the merchant class in the rising 'Chinatowns'. Opera clubs from San Francisco, and in at least one instance from Hong Kong, also were invited to perform. In Toronto, professional troupes from Hong Kong were frequently invited to perform Cantonese opera until the 1980s, when the expansion of the Chinese community provided the necessary personnel for locally produced Cantonese opera, often featuring artists from abroad. Local companies such as the United Dramatic Society in Toronto, the Wah Shing Music Group in Ottawa, and the Yuet Sing Chinese Musical Club in Montreal provide training and experience forCanadian performers.

The production of Cantonese opera required about six instrumentalists, and this led to the founding of music clubs apart from opera clubs. The music associations, as exemplified by the Ching Won Musical Society (founded in Vancouver in 1936), engaged in such activities as the celebration of traditional Chinese festivals, banquets, and Chinese chess. The musical instruments typically found in the Cantonese ensemble for both opera and pure instrumental music are yang-ch'in (dulcimer), yueh-hu and ban-hu (two-string violins), and yueh-ch'in, ch'in-ch'in, and p'i-p'a (plucked lutes), as well as percussive instruments. It is not unusual, however, for Cantonese ensembles to include western instruments such as the violin, the guitar, the clarinet, the saxophone, or the double-bass.

In 1991 there were Chinese choirs in many Ontario communities: Guelph, Mississauga, and Hamilton all had Mandarin choirs, Ottawa had its Chinese Cantabile Chorus, the Chinese Canadian Choir of Toronto performed with the Toronto Chinese Chamber Orchestra (founded in 1977), and women's choirs whose name translates as The Chinese Melody flourished in Guelph and Toronto.

With the arrival in Canada of substantial numbers of immigrants originating from Chinese provinces other than Canton and from Hong Kong, many with broader education, Chinese musical fare in Canada has expanded to include the traditional, non-Cantonese repertoire. However, as Chinese-Canadians adopt Canadian living patterns, language, professions, and education, there is a decrease in the practice of traditional Chinese music. In fact, it has become common for Chinese-Canadian youngsters to study western musical instruments, and many have achieved a high level of proficiency.

Chinese-born musicians or musicians of Chinese extraction in Canada include Ada Bronstein (of European parents), composer An-lun Huang (b Guangzhou, Canton, China, first moved to Canada in 1980; a pupil of Lothar Klein), Ka Nin Chan, Ming Lee (a Montreal based jazz singer, born in Malaysia of Chinese parents), Ming-Yueh Liang (a teacher ca 1973-81 at the University of British Columbia), Hope Lee, pianist Patrick Li (a teacher at the RCMT), Alexina Louie, the pianist Thomas Wong (who was a pupil of Garth Beckett in Winnipeg), and He Shu Ying (a virtuoso and teacher of the p'i-p'a). Chinese-Canadian pianist Kum-Sing Lee (b Singapore 1935) settled in Vancouver in 1971 and later became head of the piano department of the Vancouver Academy of Music; his pupils have included Jamie and Jon Kimura Parker. He visited China for the first time in 1985 to give recitals and master classes. Several other musicians, later active in Canada, spent periods in China. They include Andreas Barban, Ida Halpern, Otto and Walter Joachim, Rudolf Komorous, Erwin Marcus, and Herbert Ruff. Toronto-born Jo-Anne Chong was a child star in 1947 on CBC radio's 'Microphone Moppets'.

Prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and Canada in 1970 formal cultural exchanges did not take place, although the Peking Opera toured Canada in 1960. However, in 1973 Ida Haendel toured in China with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1976 the Men of the Deeps choir from Cape Breton visited China, followed in 1977 by Canadian Brass, and in 1978 by the TS under Andrew Davis, with Maureen Forrester and the pianist Louis Lortie as soloists. The CBC TV special 'Music East, Music West,' produced by Norman Campbell, documented the tour. Singers Maureen Forrester and Claude Corbeil in 1982, Bruno Laplante and Brigitte Toulon in 1985, and Sandra Graham and Ingemar Korjus in 1988 gave recitals in China. 'Singing: a Joy in any Language', a CBC-TV documentary about the tour by Forrester and Corbeil was broadcast in 1983. A seven-member chamber ensemble consisting of Robert Aitken, James Campbell, Steven Dann, Moshe Hammer, Anton Kuerti, Joel Quarrington, and Sophie Rolland toured three cities in China in 1984. In 1985 Canadian harpsichord maker Edward Turner presented the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing with a harpsichord, possibly the first in the country, and spent three months lecturing and giving workshops at the Beijing, Xi'ian, and Shanghai conservatories of music. Also in 1985 pianist Charles Reiner accepted an invitation to teach at the Shanghai Cons for five weeks, and in 1987 Victor Feldbrill was invited to give conducting classes and to conduct in Beijing and Shenyang, as possibly the first Canadian guest conductor in China. Peter McCoppin visited China to conduct orchestras there in 1989. Paul Brodie performed and gave master classes in China in 1990. Canadian Brass, the MSO, the NACO, Répercussion, and Tafelmusik all appeared in Hong Kong between 1983 and 1990, and the RCMT set up an examination centre there in 1985. The TS visited Taiwan as part of its Pacific Rim Tour in 1990.

In turn, Canada was host for performances by the Shanghai Ballet in 1977, the Peking Opera in 1979, the Yellow River Cantata Choir in 1983, 11 young singers and instrumentalist from the Shanghai Cons in 1984, the Jaingsu Beijing Opera Company in 1987, Yip's Children's Choir from Hong Kong in 1987 and 1991, and other organizations. Chinese performers of western music who have appeared repeatedly in Canada include the pianist Fou Ts'ong, the violinist Cho-Liang Lin, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Tak-Ng Lai, conductor of the Toronto Chinese Chamber Orchestra, conducted the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 15 Jun 1979 in a program of post-1950 Chinese music that featured as soloists Adrian Chiu, a violinist with the Vancouver SO, and the pianist Vance Hoy, a teacher at the University of Calgary. In 1989 the Chinese Canadian Music Society of Ontario staged its Chinese Music Festival, with a concert including the Canadian premiere of Zi Huang's cantata The Eternal Lament, the premiere of Xiao-Gong Ye's The Ruin of the Himalaya and a performance of Sibelius' Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 47 played by violinist Si-Qing Lu and the Toronto Chinese Chamber Orchestra under Lai. In 1990 the same society produced a week of contemporary and traditional music of Chinese origin as part of the 33rd International Congress of Asian and North African Studies. Many pop singers from Hong Kong perform regularly in Toronto.