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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A West Vancouver developer has applied to the City of Courtenay to construct a 39-unit strata development at 2650 Copperfield Rd. Scott Stanfield photo Scott Stanfield photo
Courtenay council gives second reading to contentious development proposal

A West Vancouver developer has applied to the City of Courtenay to construct a 39-unit strata development at 2650 Copperfield Rd. Scott Stanfield photo Scott Stanfield photo

Following a one-year pause due to the pandemic, the Snowbirds were back in the skies over the Comox Valley Wednesday (May 5) morning. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Video: Snowbirds hold first training session in Comox Valley in more than 2 years

The team will conduct their training from May 4 to 26 in the area

Some of the affidavits filed come from family members of Casa Loma and Comox Valley Seniors Village residents in Courtenay. Record file photo
Courtenay seniors’ homes included in class action suit

Plaintiffs in early stage of applying for class certification on suit

Untreated gypsy moth populations can cause significant damage to forests, farms, orchards and urban trees. File photo
Aerial gypsy moth control spraying scheduled for Courtenay

The aerial-spray treatments to prevent gypsy moth infestations are scheduled for the… Continue reading

MARS can now offer private spaces for its orphaned fawns. Photo by Pearl MacKenzie.
Housing natural enemies a challenge for Merville’s Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society

Jane Sproull Thomson Special to Black Press If you’ve ever had a… Continue reading

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The following is a list of restaurants offering take-out and patio dining. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
List of Comox Valley restaurants offering take-out, patio dining options

Restaurants in the Comox Valley continue to adapt to government-imposed restrictions in… Continue reading

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
Clash between loggers, activists halts forestry operations over Fairy Creek

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The courthouse in Nanaimo, B.C. (News Bulletin file)
Island man sentenced in Nanaimo after causing a dog unnecessary pain and suffering

Kiefer Tyson Giroux, 26, of Nanoose Bay, given six-month sentence

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

Most Read