VMC LogoFrom Camp to Community: Cowichan Forest Life

The Communities : WHERE THEY CAME FROM : China

Shows Chinatown before it was torn down to make way for the Law Courts, Seniors Complex and Government Building, Sue Lem Bing ran the Peking Chop Suey Restaurant.

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Chinese men came to British Columbia during the nineteenth century to participate in the British Columbia and California gold rushes, and to labour on railroad construction. When the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway line was completed, many stayed on Vancouver Island, taking up other kinds of work. With an entrepreneurial spirit, they opened restaurants, set up market vegetable gardens, and ran shops. Many also went to work in the logging industry.

The Island Lumber Company at Somenos was an early employer of the Chinese community, until the mill closed in 1916. Chinese loggers were primarily employed by the Hillcrest Lumber Company and the Mayo Lumber Company. They were fallers and mill workers, and also worked as road and rail crews in the woods. These men often worked to an advanced age: Lum Yet Foo, who worked as a faller on Hill 60, was 68 when he was killed on the job by a falling branch.

Roy Hopwo began working in Chemainus in 1939. While being interviewed by students at Malaspina College for Loggers, Wives and Sawmill Workers: Memories from the Cowichan Valley, Mr. Hopwo explained that, "In those days in a lot of mills, if you were Chinese, Japanese or East Indian, you got about ten cents an hour less, until they got unionized. In a lot of mills if you wanted a good job you had to buy your foreman a jug of whisky once a month."

Section gang comprised of Chinese workers on their way to work.  Hillcrest Sahtlam.

Section gang comprised of Chinese workers on their way to work. Hillcrest Sahtlam.
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The social network of Chinese in the Cowican Valley was focused on Duncan. At its largest point, Duncan's Chinatown included 6 Chinese families and 30 merchants who supplied Cowichan's loggers and millworkers. Cannery and mine workers of Chinese background also supported these Chinese businesses.

Following the completion of the CPR, $50 head tax and later a $500 head tax was imposed on new Chinese immigrants. After 1923, The Canadian Government barred most Chinese from entering Canada. This made it close to impossible for wives and potential wives to join the single men. The mostly-male Chinese community looked out for each other like family. Originally a political group, the Chee Kung Tong organization became a community and recreation centre, eventually obtaining funding to build a Chinese School in Duncan.

Duncan's Chinatown was concentrated in a single block in the southwestern corner of Duncan. As single men became rare and families moved away, businesses closed and the buildings became run down. The city obtained a Centennial Grant to demolish the street and erect a new Law Courts complex. In 1969, as the entire Duncan Chinatown was being torn down, the historic value of the neighbourhood was finally recognized. The first structures at Whippletree Junction, just off the Island Highway outside Duncan, were built with materials salvaged from the demolition. Personal items such as a suit, suitcases and a shaving kit were found. In a final reminder of the Chinese in the Cowichan logging industry, the wreckers also discovered a pair of caulk boots.