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Portraits of hidden parts of B.C.’s Chinese immigration history

January 4th, 2017 · No Comments

Through a young friend, I was alerted to the interesting photo project being done by Gu Xiong, a professor of art history at UBC. He has been shooting pictures of some little-known sites that were important to early Chinese immigrants to the province.

Even though I thought I knew a lot about that history, I had no idea that an island near Sidney had been designated as a leper colony for some Chinese residents in Victoria or that families stored the bones of their dead relatives here while waiting to ship them back to their home villages in China.

I was familiar with the Cumberland Chinatown because, through pure chance, we camped near Cumberland this summer and I discovered the odd memorial to the Chinatown, which is now nothing but forest after the settlement was burned down in the 1960s.

Here are some of the photos that Gu has shot, along with a bit of background from me.

After publication, I got a note from a local historian who added this information.

Cumberland’s Chinatown population is incorrect. The 3000 number is a ‘folk’ myth which I grew up hearing (I’m a descendant of Cumberland’s Chinatown). In its heyday, the 1920s, the Chinatown had perhaps 1500. Prior to Vancouver becoming the terminus of the CPR, Victoria, New Westminster, and Nanaimo had the largest Chinese populations.
Additional commentary about Cumberland is problematic. The photograph of ‘Jumbo’s cabin’ has no explanation to say that it was moved to its current location by the roadside, which is adjacent to the entrance to what was Chinatown. The false front buildings of Chinatown businesses in ‘downtown’ are replicas, so were not moved into town! As well, the statement “people made a new, independent home completely separate from the Caucasian settlement” seems to suggest that choice was involved. The Chinese lived where the mining company permitted them to, specifically, the poorest land (swampy) available.
For additional info on Cumberland’s Chinatown, go to:

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