Cumberland's Chinatown

Cumberland's Chinatown

Remembering Cumberland’s Chinatown

May Gee and Norm Leung offer a history lesson

  • Jul. 15, 2015 5:00 a.m.

Strolling to the end of Hai Gai (lower street) at Coal Creek Historic Park, May Gee stops at a photo easel that displays the Sun On Wo General Store and the Joy Lin Low Restaurant.

Her grandfather, Low Hock Shun, owned the building that stood in Cumberland Chinatown from 1918 to 1960. Her mother, Annie, used to live in the building.

Years later, long after Chinatown became a ghost of Cumberland’s past, Gee’s brother, John Leung, created 15 photo easels that display various landmarks of the once thriving community. These include the Larayama building, the Wah Sang Bakery, the Chow Lee Company building, the Mission Church and the original location of Jumbo’s cabin.

Gee’s father, Leung Gang, had a produce farm in Chinatown before moving to Minto Road. He then purchased a building in 1929 that became the Leung Gang company store and later evolved into Leung’s Grocery in Cumberland.

“In the ’50s he branched out and opened another store in Courtenay,” Gee said. “His family was old enough to run the store. Norm (her older brother) was running the Courtenay store and John was running the Cumberland store.”

Each week or so, Gee sweeps and cleans the Cumberland Chinatown picnic pavilion, which was a pet project of John, who now lives in Vancouver. Through T-shirt sales, the siblings and other members of the Coal Creek Historic Park Advisory Committee raised about $18,000 to build the shelter.

Gee and her family also donated a hawthorn tree to honour their parents and grandparents. The committee planted the red hawthorn — a favourite of her grandfather — near the park entrance off Comox Lake Road.

According to the history books, Cumberland Chinatown took shape around 1888 when Chinese mine workers built a community to sustain their culture. Farms along Lake and Minto roads supplied vegetables to the community, and to the hospital and Cumberland residents. Children would attend public school during the day, and Chinese school in evenings and on weekends. Kay Finch — known as Aunty Kay — and George Apps were their Sunday school teachers.

“She said she packed me down here when I was a kid,” Gee said. “I don’t remember that. That’s how long ago it was.”

Norm Leung, 85, fondly remembers Aunty Kay as a teacher of many things, and as a pianist for a men’s choir.

“She was a very dedicated lady,” he said, recalling Finch walking from her home behind the Cumberland Hospital to Chinatown. “She helped Chinese people quite a lot. She taught the girls how to crochet and how to basket weave, and give them piano lessons … Every Sunday we would go there for church. Eventually, she managed to get some of us baptized. That was her goal. I think it made us better people, to understand the religions, the good that she’s trying to do. You don’t realize it then, but I know now that she’s tried very hard to make us better citizens. She never got any money for it.”

Another memorable character was Hor Sue Mah, also known as Jumbo, who worked on the railroad.

“He’s one of those guys who went to work with a tin bucket with his rice in there, and pump those rail cars from one end to the other to fix the ties and the rails,” Norm said.

“That was his job. He lived to a good, ripe age.”

“He lived in Vancouver for quite a few years before he passed away,” May said, recalling the origins of Jumbo’s nickname. “He wasn’t really that big, but he was bigger compared to the other Chinese.”

“Jumbo according to us,” Norm said with a laugh.

Chinese workers brought in by the Dunsmuir family helped build the Wellington Colliery Railway to transport coal to Union Bay. The site of the #2 mine containing houses, businesses and market gardens became one of Canada’s largest Chinese communities by the end of the Second World War. Estimates peg the population of Cumberland Chinatown at nearly 3,000 residents, though Gee questions this figure.

Over the course of the town’s existence, an estimated 100 Chinese miners died in coal mining disasters. Others suffered losses from flood and fires, including one in 1943 that destroyed 43 buildings.

The B.C. government banned Chinese from voting in 1872. Subsequent legislation banned them from working on projects such as road building. Chinese were also barred from working in pulp and paper mills in 1922, and prohibited from working underground by the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. (Last year, government delivered a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for historical wrongs committed by past provincial governments.)

Chinese miners earned half as much Europeans. A sign at Coal Creek says white workers at #3 mine that operated from 1888-1893 earned $2.50 to $4 a day. Chinese workers earned $1 to $1.25.

A head tax initiated in 1884 didn’t make things any easier.

“It started at $50, went up to $100 then went to $500,” Norm said. “My father had to pay the $500. In those days you could buy a house, and buy land. You could buy everything for $500.”

The Depression marked the end of mining jobs for Chinese workers. The population continued to decline into the 1960s. Throughout the decade, bottle diggers and collectors ransacked what was left of the site. By 1968 most of the buildings had been levelled. The exception was Jumbo’s cabin, which was moved up the hill to Comox Lake Road where it continues to stand.

Former Chinatown residents and descendants have reunited each year in Vancouver since 1972. More than 100 people attended the 2010 reunion.

The Cumberland Museum and Archives is working on a project to index its Chinese Canadian artifacts and archives. A computerized database will contain coins, photographs and other items that will be available to the public and researchers.