Chinatown Steeped in 130 Years of History

Winnipeg Free Press, July 28, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Chinatown Steeped in 130 Years of History

Many Winnipeggers only think of Chinatown as a slightly exotic urban pocket where they occasionally go for dim sum. But the few square blocks around King Street and Alexander Avenue, just north of the Exchange District, are steeped in more than 130 years of significant history.

North American Chinatowns started to emerge during the 19th century as extensions of China.

"Chinatowns weren't just in big cities such as Vancouver," says Henry Yu, a University of British Columbia professor who is the foremost authority on Canadian Chinatowns. "Cities such as Winnipeg had Chinatowns that served as the gateway through which Chinese travelled back and forth through the small towns of the Prairies."

Chinatowns were enclaves where Chinese political groups organized and dramatic troupes performed. They were havens where a Chinese newcomer who had just got off the train could get help from fellow countrymen.

They attracted Christian missionaries who sought to convert "heathen" Chinese. They were seen as "exotic" and "sinful," and thought to be associated with gambling and opium dens.

In many Canadian cities, for many years racism prevented Chinese immigrants from residing or operating businesses outside the borders of Chinatown.

Winnipeg was less oppressive that way, but its Chinatown was for decades an important landing place and community hub.

Winnipeg's earliest Chinatown residents were predominately male labourers from the Wong, Lee and Ma clans who came to this nation in the late 1850s as Fraser River Valley gold miners and in the 1880s as railway labourers.

Winnipeg's earliest documented Chinese residents were Charley Yam, Fung Quong and an unnamed woman who came from the United States in 1877. Many early Chinese came to Manitoba from the northern U.S. Within two years, Chinatown had Chinese laundries, groceries, tobacco shops and rooming houses.

Once the first phase of the CPR line was completed in 1885, hundreds more Chinese began to settle the Prairies as owners and operators of laundries and groceries, and after 1900, cafes.

Early Chinese settlers were drawn to Winnipeg. It was the geographic and transportation centre of Canada; cosmopolitan and known to be more welcoming toward newcomers. Unlike in British Columbia or Saskatchewan, Chinese could vote in Manitoba and practise as doctors.

Around 1909, the Chinese United League opened a secret clubhouse at 223 Alexander Ave.

The clubhouse, which Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited in 1911, was part of a global political network that facilitated the flow of member donations to establish a new republic in China. In 1912, the Chinese United League became the Chinese Nationalist League's secret Prairie headquarters. It was really these political groups, not the gradual increase of businesses, that fostered friendships and networks between Chinese men and led to the formation of Chinatown.

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