the fall & the fire

 

a continuation of Part 1 and Part 2

On the evening of April 24, 1978, a devastating fire broke out on the corner of 27th Avenue and 33rd street, destroying the final vestiges of Vernon’s Chinatown.

By the 1970s, Chinatown had already started to fade; the Chinese community in Vernon certainly hadn’t disappeared, but had instead been assimilated into the larger Vernon population. Some sources claim that this was due to a decrease in racism that had forced Chinese individuals to gather in distinct urban Chinatowns. Whether or not this is the truth, poverty and modernity certainly had a role to play.

Many former Chinese business owners were forced to sell as the years went on due to dwindling finances, while several landmark buildings were demolished to make way for more modern structures. The Kwong’s Hing Lung & Co. grocery store, for example, was sold in 1945 and renamed the P and M store by owners John Pawlyshyn and James Mykiuk. In 1975, it was replaced by a new building that housed the Brandle Realty Offices.

 

 

The final block of Chinatown up in flames on the night of April 24, 1978

 

On the night of April 24, 1978, a fire started at 8 pm and burned until after midnight, destroying five buildings that represented the last remaining block of Vernon’s Chinatown. The first to go up in flames was the former headquarters of the Dart Coon Club. Firefighters were quick to the scene but were unable to prevent the fire from spreading. They evacuated three from the burning buildings, including a 67-year-old woman, Chung Yee Wong, who was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation.

Foul play was suspected to have caused the blaze.

Members of the Chinese Community were quick to acknowledge this loss of history: Dart Coon Club official Water Joe said that although the buildings that burned were in need of serious repairs, “it’s sad in a way that [they’re] gone because that block was the last of old Chinatown.”

Not all traces of Vernon’s Chinatown have disappeared, however. The Gateway Shelter at 2800 33 Street is located in one of the last remaining Chinese buildings, formerly the home of the Freemasons Society. Plaques installed in 2014 tell the community’s story. Moreover, Vernon is still home to a significant Chinese population of more than 500 individuals who speak a variety of languages, from Cantonese, to Mandarin, to Shanghainese. Finally, if one thing is certain, it’s that many Vernonites, both Chinese and not, have clear memories of this colourful community, and their stories allow it to live on.

Gwyn Evans