A view of Chinatown on Vernon Street in Nelson in 1900, during the time Chinatown was forcibly moved from Vernon to Lake Street. Photo: Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery

Nelson’s Chinese cemetery, once an expression of discrimination, now a source of pride

Tim Jay reflects on the experience of Chinese people in Nelson over his lifetime

On a cold, sunny autumn day in 2022 with a trace of snow on the ground, Tim Jay kneels, places flowers by his mother’s gravestone, and lights a stick of incense.

He stands back, looks down at the grave, says something like a silent prayer, then makes a slight bow. He kneels again and arranges the flowers and incense.

Jay then moves a few steps down the slope to the grave site of his father and does the same, after brushing fallen autumn leaves from the stone.

Qui Far Jay, his mother, died in Nelson in 2011 at the age of 95. His father, Joe Wing Jay, died in 1983, also at the age of 95.

Tim Jay at his mother’s grave in the Nelson cemetery in 2022. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Tim Jay at his mother’s grave in the Nelson cemetery in 2022. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Asked what he was saying to his parents, Jay replied, “I just said that we miss them, we continue to miss them, and ask them to look after us and make sure we are healthy and travel safe, and help us to have a happy life on Earth.”

A stone memorial

Back in the cemetery again on a hot sunny day in the summer of 2023, Jay stands beside a new stone monument and plaque at the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. He feels proud to see this structure completed. He’s been planning it for years.

The words on the plaque, addressed to those buried in the Chinese section of the cemetery, read:

“May you rest in peace in the eternal heaven. Our sages, fathers, folks, thank you for what you do on your life journey. Please help us move toward health and safety and prosperity.”

Jay had the structure built by stonemason Brian Renk with money raised within Nelson’s Chinese community.

“It brings back memories of the old-timers. When I was a kid they would take me to a restaurant and treat me, buy me Boston cream pie and a juice.”

For more than a century, a small western corner of the grounds has been designated by two signs as “Chinese.” All the gravestones in this section have Chinese names on them. Much of rest of the Nelson cemetery is sectioned off in this way, with signs for specific Christian churches and community organizations. Other parts are simply labelled as “General.”

Tim Jay at the new memorial plaque, with the sign that indicates the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Tim Jay at the new memorial plaque, with the sign that indicates the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

The Chinese section is in the lowest corner of the sloped cemetery grounds, below a section that is labelled “Indigent” on a 2005 map of the cemetery. Indigent means people who were homeless or in living poverty. That sign is gone now but it is an indicator of the class-based nature of the cemetery’s design.

When the cemetery was laid out in 1898, the relegation of Chinese graves to a far-off corner represented a shunning — white people did not want to be buried anywhere near Chinese people.

Jay said he knows this because it was common knowledge in his parents’ generation, and it fits with the discrimination Chinese people felt at all levels of life up until the 1970s across the country.

In 1898, Nelson’s city council forced all residents and businesses in Chinatown on Vernon Street to move to a lower and less desirable location on Lake Street to make room for white businesses, according to documents at the Canada’s Historic Places registry.

A 1902 editorial in the Nelson Weekly Miner argued for the cessation of immigration from China and said the government should “kill off — if any legal way can be divined to accomplish that act — every mother’s son of the almond-eyed pigtail wearer, living at present in any country inhabited by white men. He is a filthy, immoral piece of human machinery, not a man in the sense in which the word is used by civilized peoples. He lives like a dog, contributes nothing towards the up-building of the country and poisons every community in which he locates himself.”

Tim Jay with the new memorial plaque at the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

The population of Chinatown at that time is reported to have been about 277, according to documents at the Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery. The Chinese population of the general Nelson area peaked at up to 1,000 by the mid-20th century, when the city’s Chinatown was the largest in the B.C. Interior. Men worked in outlying mines, lumber mills and railroads, and came home to Chinatown on the weekends. Many of them started market gardens in the Nelson area.

A declining population

Since then the population has dropped significantly.

In the 2021 census, 115 Nelson residents reported their ethnic or cultural origin as Chinese, and 25 reported a Chinese language as their mother tongue.

Racism against Chinese people continued through the 1960s, as the 80-year-old Jay remembers well.

During his boyhood in the 1940s and 50s he was often forced to fight when white kids called him names on the street and in school. This prompted him to study martial arts including judo and tai chi, the latter of which he credits for his good health today.

“I still do tai chi every morning. My mother-in-law, 94 years old, she’s still doing tai chi every morning.”

The need to defend himself continued into young adulthood when he was running a restaurant in Nelson.

A customer would drop a cup of coffee on the floor and order him to mop it up. When a meal was half eaten, a customer might pretend to find a hair in the food and refuse to pay for it. Or someone would just grab food from the counter and run. There were many shouted racist insults.

“They would come in and make all kinds of trouble, and the customers would leave,” said Jay.

He said there was no point in reporting such things to the police.

Most of the restaurants in Nelson in the 50s and 60s were run and staffed by Chinese people, often with Chinese kitchen workers and white servers.

Over the years Jay also worked for, among others, Canadian Pacific Railway, SuperValu in Trail, and the curling rink in Nelson. In 1982 he was appointed as a member of the Nelson Police Board and three years later his son Doug Jay was elected to Nelson City Council where he served 14 years.

This plaque was recently installed at the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

This plaque was recently installed at the Chinese section of the Nelson cemetery. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Jay and his wife now live in retirement in Nelson. They have four children, one of whom lives in Nelson.

The discrimination against Chinese people in Nelson gradually stopped in the 1970s and 80s, he says. He speculates that it was the visits to China by U. S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1973 that turned the tide, not just in Nelson but in the rest of the country.

In 2011, Claus Schunke and Cameron Mah organized the creation and installation of the stone plaque at the top of the hill at Hall and Vernon Streets with an inscription acknowledging the significance of Chinese culture in Nelson’s history.

Both Schunke and Mah have since died. Mah, who was Jay’s brother in law, was very knowledgeable about the history of the gradually declining Chinese population in Nelson. With his passing, the city lost many stories of Chinese life and history in in the city.

In 2016, the provincial government recognized Nelson’s former Chinatown as a significant historic site and added it to the BC Register of Historic Places.

Jay says the Chinese population of Nelson no longer minds having a separate cemetery. In fact it is a point of pride to have this separate identity, and he appreciates city workers for their upkeep of the grounds.

“We should keep it the way it is,” he says. “We keep it nice, nicely manicured and the grass is well kept. It’s nice and clean.”