August 25, 2020
“They used to have the like of Sing Le Lung, Mr. Lee, Mr. Kwong, Mr. Loo Jim who were the head ‘boss.’ If anybody had any problems they would go to see him and he would say ‘now let’s think this thing out. What seems to be the problem?’ And then he would say ‘well, I think you’re wrong. You should just pour a cup of tea—offer your friend a cup of tea and an apology, and the case will be all settled.” – Walter Joe (born Chow), talking about the resolving of interpersonal conflicts within Vernon’s close-knit Chinese community.
Chinatown was one of the most culturally rich and lively parts of our city’s downtown. Despite the fact that they were immersed in a larger settler community that, throughout the years, regarded them with alternating detached curiosity and out-right intolerance, Vernon’s Chinese population was unabashed in their traditions and lifestyle.
McCulloch’s Aerated Waters Coca-Cola ‘Cooler’ float, used for a parade in 1934
In fact, they were known for their hospitality, and particularly so on Chinese New Year. According to the Vernon News of 1905, “during this special season of rejoicing, the Chinese are peculiar in the open-hearted manner in which they welcome stranger as well as friend and acquaintance to share their best and join with them in the festivities of the occasion.” Shops and dwellings throughout Chinatown were elaborately decorated, and cigars, wine, sweet-meats, and fruit were handed out to visitors to the light of fire crackers. Other cultural practices enrichened life in Vernon over the years, from the Dance of the Dragon, to the flying of kites, to the secretive rituals of the Chinese Freemasons.
A variety of businesses and residences formed the physical bounds of Chinatown, including several restaurants that were frequented by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The smorgasbord at Goon Hong, which opened in 1950, was particularly popular; a heaping plate of fried prawns, egg rolls, roast pork, chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice cost only $4 in 1976. Other businesses included laundromats, cobblers, groceries, stables, a boarding house, and a church.
One such business was a dry goods and grocery store run by Eng Shu Kwong. Kwong immigrated to Canada from a village near Canton, China. After failing to strike it rich in the Cherry Creek gold rush, he moved himself and his family to Vernon, and opened a business. The two-storey building, which housed the family on the top floor, had a facade with the store name printed in block letters — KWONG HING LUNG & CO. DRY GOODS & GROCERIES. “Hing Lung” translates roughly to “abundant prosperity,” and this is indeed what the Kwong family brought about for themselves. The second youngest of Kwong’s 15 children, Larry, would go on to become the NHL’s first player of Asian descent.
How is that so few traces of Vernon’s one-vibrant Chinatown, which allowed families like the Kwongs to prosper, remain in 2020?