August 14, 2020
“We were in Chinatown. On each side of the street were unpainted, boxlike, two-story buildings. They were dimly lit. In the background, the unfamiliar tones of a stringed instrument were heard and there was the drone of sing-song voices in the air. Seated on a porch were a couple of men with lighted punks in hand sucking on their gurgling water pipes. Noise coming from one building told us that a gambling game was under way. Everything was serene” – Vernon’s Chinatown as it was described in a passage of the 1983 Okanagan Historical Society report.
Since few visual traces of it remain, it comes as a surprise to some Vernonites to learn that their city was once home to a thriving Chinatown, and the largest Chinese population in the B.C. Interior. A community that was once so full of vigor has been silenced by the passing of time.
Vernon Chinatown, 1907
The first group of Chinese immigrants came to B.C. in the mid-19th century in the pursuit of gold. Back home, these men were known as “Gold Mountain Sojourners,” and like most hopeful prospectors, only hoped to stay long enough to make a fortune before returning to their families. Unfortunately, most never did strike it rich and were instead forced to stay in B.C. for longer than expected.
Many Chinese labourers were also employed in the construction of the western portion of the CPR; in fact, over half of the crew that worked on the Shuswap & Okanagan spur line were Chinese. They were lead to believe that they would be paid well for the back-breaking work, and given a ticket back to China once the job was finished. Unfourtunately, the Canadian Government and the CPR did not honour this pledge, and many of the immigrants were left destitute, unable to return to their families.
About 1000 settled in the Okanagan; while some were entrepreneurs who opened cafes and laundries, most worked as low-wage labourers on farms and orchards. Some also worked as kitchen help for pioneering families like the O’Keefes and Ellisons.
Since their early days as hopeful prospectors, Chinese immigrants had faced prejudice and discrimination, and had formed tight community groups, modeled off of traditional Chinese societies and clan associations, to combat to this ostracism. It was for this reason that distinctive Chinese communities would begin to crop up in the middle of interior towns, including in Vernon. One of the first administrative buildings in Vernon’s Chinatown was a hall for the local chapter of the Chinese National League, opened in 1919 on the corner of 28th Avenue and 33rd Street.