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Chilliwack's Chinatown North

posted by: The Royal Hotel Chilliwack on: June 11, 2019 02:42:17 PM
Many Chilliwack residents are unaware that not only did Chilliwack have a Chinatown; there actually were two such communities – Chinatown North and South. In this post I will be focusing on the first Chinatown, located in the northern portion of Chilliwack, in the general area around Young and Bole.

Chinese immigrants first arrived in Victoria in 1858 via San Francisco; as word of a gold strike in B.C. spread. They joined the thousands of miners who headed north from California in search of prosperity.

Chilliwack's Yip On Family
image credit: Chilliwack Museum & Archives

But what factors impacted their decision to leave China and eventually settle in Canada? Library and Archives Canada express these as “push and pull” factors.

Push factors include a shortage of fertile farmland in China coupled with poor living conditions and limited employment opportunities in that country. And the main “pull” drawing Chinese to Canada was the discovery of gold along B.C’s Fraser River along with the increased need for labor to build infrastructure in the Wild West that was B.C.  Physical labour typically performed by the Chinese included road and railway construction, coal mining, fishing and farming.

In 2011 Dr. Chad Reimer chronicled the history of the Chinese community that had settled in Chilliwack in his book, “Chilliwack’s Chinatowns, a History” (Gold Mountain Stories - published by the Chinese Historical Society of B.C.).

According to the 1881 Census that Reimer accessed during his research, around 600 Chinese were still living in the Fraser Valley after the 1850’s Gold Fever had waned. They established communities throughout B.C. and many became entrepreneurs; running grocery stores, boarding houses, and laundry businesses.

A retail grocery store was the first Chinese business to open in Chilliwack in the late 1880’s – located near five corners; owned by Yeun Shun.  His business lasted until the mid 1890’s; one of the many Chinese businesses in Chinatown North that author Reimer’s book also references.

Other Chinese businesses that were located in Chinatown North include:
  • Gee Yuen & Co. a general merchant and laundry founded in 1888, located on the North side of Yale Road, 1-1/2 blocks west of five corners.
  • On Lee & Co. operated a combination grocery, laundry and boarding house – situated on the north side of Yale Road, about half a block from Five Corners; at 61 Yale Road East. Later it would be called On Lee’s Fruits & Vegetables and sold Chilliwack residents their produce until after WW2.

Chilliwack Progress, July 31, 1901

On the east corner of Young at Cleveland Avenue, Kwong Tuck Yuen ran a general merchant and butcher shop in 1892 - and was the first business established in Chinatown North.
  • Wing Wo Lung was a general store and boarding house on Young, later renamed Wing Wa Lung Co.
  • The Wo Hing Lung Company was a retail grocery store located on the west side of Young, next door to the Wing Wo Lung Co.

Running a laundry business was a very popular occupation - with Chinese laundries scattered around the downtown.
  • Kwong Lang Sing’s laundry on Mill Street and Chong Shing Lai’s premises on Yale Road, a half block east of Five Corners were just a few examples.

Rear of Chinese Laundry - on Yale Road East
(note The Paramount Theatre on the left)

image credit: Chilliwack Museum & Archives

As well as becoming the economic centre of Chinatown North, these businesses also provided a meeting & socializing place for Chilliwack’s Chinese.

By 1901 the number of Chinese living in B.C. was the highest in Canada, with around 15,000 Chinese residents calling the western province home.

Chilliwack Progress, March 20, 1912

Tragically on Monday, November 21, 1921 fire ripped through the wooden buildings in Chilliwack’s Chinatown North - killing three men and injuring several others. Arson was suspected and a few days later a man was arrested but later acquitted of the arson charge. By the late 1920’s all evidence of a once vibrant Chinatown had been erased.
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