Janus feature on the history of Cranbrook's Chinese community continues

A view of Chinatown along Van Horne Street sometime after 1910

A view of Chinatown along Van Horne Street sometime after 1910


Jim Cameron

Chinatown: On Tuesday, August 26, 1908, a most unusual court proceeding took place at the old Cranbrook courthouse.

According to The Herald newspaper: “A link between the Orient and the Occident was welded when Mak-Jo, a Chinaman, took what is known in China as the King’s oath, in a case in which the crown was prosecuting Ja-Chu for the alleged theft of $612 from Mak-See-Lee.

“R. C. Lew, the official interpreter of Victoria, was ordered by His Worship to prepare the oath and, in the presence of a number of citizens of the town, the oath … was administered. The oath itself is written in Chinese characters on a piece of yellow paper, yellow being the regal or royal color in China (hence the name “King’s oath”) and sets forth the fact that if the witness does not speak the truth … all of his ancestors shall be damned, he himself shall be damned and all his descendants shall be likewise dealt with.

“The right to use this oath in Canada is upheld by the decision of the judge in the cases of Rex vs. Wong-On and Rex vs. Ah-Wooey, as reported in volume 9 of the British Columbia reports, page 569.”

According to the account, Magistrate Ryan and the court accompanied the witness outside the courthouse whereupon four candles and four bundles of incense were set into the ground and lit on fire. The paper containing the oath, held by the witness, was also set ablaze. A chicken was then produced which, according to the account was “an old and disreputable rooster,” and was placed on a chopping block at which point the witness, “with one foul swoop,” cut off the head. The court re-adjourned inside and the case continued. It was noted, tongue-in-cheek no doubt, that “the chicken disappeared, how is not known, but a high power automobile was seen steaming up Baker Hill soon afterwards.”

The courthouse wasn’t in Chinatown, of course. Chinatown was across from the railway station between 5th and 7th Avenues and 1st Street. In present day terms it stretched from Food & Stuff to Integra Tire. It grew from a single Chinese laundry and a few shacks in 1899 to a community of hundreds by 1907.

The courthouse was at the opposite end of Baker Street, a place the Chinese rarely visited, confined as they generally were to their own small section. Still, it was only a block or two to the downtown business section, the hotels, restaurants and the theatre district.

Chinatown may have been a distinct community on its own but it was, against all opposition, an undeniable part of downtown Cranbrook. When the first white laundries were eventually opened in town, boasting “white labor only,” they found themselves losing money. The local townsfolk, many of whom spoke in harsh terms of the Chinese on one hand, on the other preferred their clothes picked up, laundered and delivered by the Chinese.

So, too, were Chinese vegetables grown locally preferred by many and the occasional feast of Chinese food was as much an indulgence then as now.

For others of “the lower order,” Chinatown was the home of 24 hour opium, liquor and gambling.

In describing Chinatown in April, 1910, following the news that the CPR intended to build a YMCA in the vicinity, the local newspaper stated that “a horrible, brutal eye-sore and serious detriment to the interests and progress of Cranbrook exists in the filthy, tumble-down huddle of Chinese shacks across the road from the C.P.R. station … and should be brought up by the city council.” it was a harsh, yet not inaccurate, assessment. The existence and condition of Chinatown was indeed brought up by the council many times over the next few years but little was done and Chinatown remained long after the YMCA was completed in 1911 at the west end of Baker Street.

On the evening of April 7, 1914, Mayor Taylor, the police chief, two police commissioners, the fire chief, two alderman and two newspaper reporters paid a very rare visit to Chinatown to establish the conditions in preparation for a general clean up of the city. They described it as “deplorably wretched.” The residents, ever-vigilant due to a previous series of opium and gambling raids by the local police, raised a general alarm and soon countless Chinese congregated in the streets and alley to watch the progress of the inspection party, although no opposition was given.

The group visited laundries, houses, stores and restaurants and came to the conclusion that the district was one huge, deadly firetrap. Indoor stove pipes rested upon wooden boxes for up to 30 feet at a time, running past “heaps of indescribable filth piled into all available space.” Rickety stairs led up dark passageways to bedrooms holding up to 13 beds. The waste from the wash houses flowed under the buildings and into the back yards. Small cesspools both within and without the buildings were, in most cases, covered with a few loose boards, being both unsanitary and dangerous as “anyone might inadvertently fall into the cavity beneath.”

It was not a pretty picture and certainly one that many townspeople wished to eradicate. “In so small a town’” it was noted, “and so close to all other portions of the city, an epidemic of disease could start easily in Chinatown and rapidly cover the whole city.”

And there you have it — the dichotomy that was Cranbrook in those days: cut off a rooster’s head on the courthouse lawn for a Chinese court case? You bet. Let a “Celestial” buy a house in a white neighbourhood? Not likely. The links between the Orient and the Occident would continue to confound the community on both sides for decades to come.


Next Week:

Chinatown Part II

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