New West's Chinatown persisted through fire and fury

From the Great Fire to its systemic dismantling, the Chinese community fought to come back

This photo from the 1890s shows New West's west side, including Chinatown.

This photo from the 1890s shows New West's west side, including Chinatown. / Photographer unknown, New Westminster Museum and Archives IHP4313

The great fire of 1898 couldn’t evict New Westminster’s early Chinese community, and the city’s systemic dismantling of Chinatown couldn’t either.

Chinatown disappeared over the course of decades, but the community didn’t simply disappear with it, local historian Jim Wolf told New West Anchor.

While many did depart for Vancouver’s Chinatown, Wolf said the Chinese community in New West persisted—and even thrived—on its own terms.

The city had two noted Chinatowns. The original one centered on Columbia and Front streets and lasted for several decades until it burned down with the rest of the city’s downtown core in 1898.

“In the aftermath of the fire, there was little left for the Chinese community to salvage,” wrote Wolf and Patricia Owen in their book on the history of the Chinese community in New West, Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory. Yi Fao was the Chinese name for New Westminster; it means "second port."

“On the furthest eastern extreme of Front Street, only a few Chinese merchants and their stores and tenements were left standing.”

And what was left was ordered demolished by city officials, “now paranoid about the threat of urban fires.”

Rebuilding Chinatown in the swamp

The fire left some Chinese people in New West homeless and forced others to rebuild. But along with the rest of the city, the residents of Chinatown rebuilt, this time in an area then referred to as “The Swamp.”

The Swamp, at Columbia St. around 10th St., was aptly named. According to Yi Fao, housing and stores in this area “had to be built high on piles to keep out the muck and flood ties of the Fraser River.”

The move to The Swamp had already begun 10 years before the fire, but after the fire, the area became the primary home of the Chinese community.

“The new Chinatown in The Swamp was built at an impressive pace following the fire, demonstrating the economic strength of the community and its merchants,” reads Yi Fao.

“Even though the remnants of the old Front Street Chinatown had been demolished, Kwong On Wo lost no time in re-establishing its lucrative opium business, erecting a one-storey brick block at its old Front Street site at a cost of $4,000.”

The company also bought a property at the edge of the swamp to build an “impressive” brick building at a cost of $11,000.

More wood structures also filled the new Chinatown area, which, because it was just outside of the business district, was able to skirt the new fire regulations for New West’s downtown.

Declining population, high unemployment

But Chinatown wasn’t immune to fire regulations—in fact, it was fire regulations that ultimately saw the dismantling of the second Chinatown.

The First World War started the demise of Chinatown, with severe unemployment in the mid-1910s, particularly for the Chinese community. This was exacerbated by the city passing a resolution that it would not employ Chinese labourers or buy from any companies using Chinese labour, according to Yi Fao.

Meantime, immigration from China had also dropped from around 3,500 annually to 1,000 or fewer, while many in the area decided to return to China. The city had also begun efforts to convert the west end of downtown into an industrial district.

In their book, Wolf and Owen noted “legitimate concerns” that the wooden buildings, owned by both white and Chinese people, were a fire hazard.

The effort was pushed by Thomas Turnbull, the city’s building inspector, who was also elected president of the New West chapter of the Asiatic Exclusion League. Elected secretary of the league was JD Taylor, editor of The Columbian newspaper.

A 'fire trap in the heart of the city'

After Turnbull condemned the buildings, council didn’t order the demolition of structures in Chinatown. Instead, they sought agreements with owners to put a 1917 expiry date on the buildings.

However, in 1919, provincial fire marshal JA Thomas toured the Chinatown district, declaring it a “fire trap in the heart of the city.”

But he also didn’t order a widespread demolition. Instead, he focused on an area bordering the city’s downtown to create a sort of buffer zone to prevent any fires in Chinatown from spreading into downtown.

Turnbull toured Chinatown again in 1920, leading to the demolition of much of the core of Chinatown—14 buildings in total, according to Yi Fao.

“Many Chinese property owners did not have the resources to fight the demolition orders. The economic ravages of the war years and the dramatic slide in the regional Chinese population had left many property owners with little or no source of income; their storefronts and tenements were rapidly becoming empty,” Owen and Wolf wrote.

The death knell for Chinatown came in the form of three Chinese general stores either closing or being demolished, and families in the community began to disperse throughout the region.

The story continues

These events are far from the end of the story, according to Wolf.

“Even though the Chinatown kind of disappeared, the community didn’t disappear,” Wolf told New West Anchor.

The Riverside Apartments on Royal Avenue at 11th Street became a third Chinatown in New Westminster after the city dismantled the second Chinatown in what is now downtown.

The Riverside Apartments on Royal Avenue at 11th Street became a third Chinatown in New Westminster after the city dismantled the second Chinatown in what is now downtown. / Cloyde Draper, New Westminster Museum and Archives NWPL2373

“I think something that got lost … was just how vibrant that community was and how successful it was at spinning off all sorts of businesses within New Westminster that wouldn’t have been. I think they adapted very well.”

Instead of focusing their businesses in one area, the Chinese community opened stores throughout the city, Wolf says.

And there were those in the Chinese community that concentrated, again, in one area.

According to Yi Fao, some decided to create a third Chinatown—this time at a Royal Ave. and Eleventh St. tenement building called the Riverside Apartments.

The building became home to displaced Chinese and Japanese stores, and apartments above the stores “served as homes that were equal to or better than the ones in Chinatown for displaced bachelors.”

The city did set out to “remove Chinatown from the face of the earth,” Wolf noted. And just over 10 years ago, the city apologized for its actions, something Wolf said was “so important.”

But he added that the resulting opportunities for some Chinese families and businesses were likely unintended by the city.

“So it’s really kind of an interesting, very nuanced story that I don’t think is very well understood,” Wolf said.

“And I have to admit that I’m still kind of feeling my way through finding that evidence and understanding it better.”