Chinatown — in 1899 it was little more than a handful of shacks and a couple of laundries along Van Horne Street, across from the CPR station.
By 1904, it was a jam-packed community: houses, stores, restaurants, apartments, gambling dens and opium joints, all tightly bordered by the industrial district of 7th Avenue, the red light district of 6th Avenue and the CPR housing of 5th to 3rd Avenues. Within a block or two stood the Cranbrook business district, the churches, the theatres and the hotels.
It was a tightly knit downtown community all-in-all; perhaps too tight. By 1914, many in Cranbrook were exceedingly unhappy with the presence of both the Chinese and their ramshackle town-within-a-town. The fear of Chinatown burning and taking the entire town with it certainly played a part, as did sanitation and the fear of disease. Cranbrook had constructed water and sewer works in the years following incorporation in 1905, but Chinatown was not part of the programme and conditions there left much to be desired.
Still, for all the worry and complaining, there was little change in the ensuing years. Opium, the drug of choice among Chinese and whites alike, was readily available both before and after it was deemed illegal in 1908. The Herald newspaper of April 2, 1914, states that a police raid in Chinatown brought four Chinese men to court for the possession of opium. It was, surprisingly, the first case of its kind in Cranbrook. The judge was lenient and handed down $10 fines. Not so, one month later, when one of the culprits reappeared and was fined $100.
From then on police raids in Chinatown became a common occurrence. Local police constable Archie Herrigan certainly went above and beyond the call of duty in June, 1914, when he scaled a nearby telegraph pole to enter a Chinese dwelling thereby catching Mah Sing in the act of smoking the forbidden drug.
Crime aside, over the ensuing years many law-abiding Chinese made gradual social and economic headway into the community. Chinese businesses appeared on 8th Avenue and then eastward to 9th and 10th. When residents of 8th Avenue raised a petition in 1914 to protest against the erection of a neighbouring residence by two Chinese males, city council advised that it had no authority to stop construction; the Chinese were free to build where they wished. Many of the Chinese, through diligence, hard work and thrift, had money to spend and gradually improved their lot by moving out of Chinatown altogether. Still, Chinatown remained.
The Chinese community took a large step forward in November 7, 1920, when a Chinese Mission was opened on 7th Avenue, with support from the nearby Methodist church. There were now over 500 Chinese residing in and about Cranbrook and the Mission provided spiritual, practical and medical aid. The renovated two-story building included a large meeting hall, a kitchen and five bedrooms and was met with general approval throughout the city. New government legislation dictating working hours in laundries lessened the long-running antagonism that had flourished for years between white and Chinese laundry workers and, although some restaurants still advertised “White only,” there was a noticeable community shift towards the acceptance of the Chinese.
A Herald newspaper editorial in May, 1920, stated: “The Chinese are easy to please, complain rarely and have a high sense of honour. They will gamble till the cows come home and their ways are peculiar but they are scrupulously honest … The Chinese is not work shy, never was and probably never will be.” It was a far cry from the “yellow devil” branding of earlier years.
January, 1921, saw the formation of a local chapter of the Chinese Nationalist League whose doctrines included the maintenance of political unity in China, the expansion of local self-government and the assimilation of race. Within a month local contractors Sainsbury and Ryan took on the job of converting an older, two-storey building on 7th Avenue into the new Chinese Masonic Temple. Though not related in any way to the white Masonic Order, the fellowship between the two lodges did much to aid relations between the east/west business communities. Police raids in Chinatown continued throughout the 1920s, resulting in numerous opium, gambling and liquor infractions, although, it should be noted, no more so (with the general exception of drugs) than those brought against whites during the period.
On the afternoon of July 22, 1931, following an altercation with the renter of a 7th Avenue Chinatown shack owned by Mah Wee, Charles Chenier lit the shack on fire. A strong southwest breeze quickly fanned the flames as they spread from building to building and, for a time, it seemed as if the entire Cranbrook business district might be lost. Within an hour a number buildings in Chinatown were ablaze and nearby residents prepared to evacuate as spot fires spread throughout the area. Through the aid of an effective waterworks system and every fireman and citizen available, the blaze was finally contained but Chinatown bore the scars. Over the ensuing years both the city and private interests purchased and rebuilt on Chinatown properties, further adding to the decline of the once populous community. Another major blaze in February, 1952, razed the Chinese Masonic Hall, a neighbouring meeting hall and a nearby laundry. The Chinese Masonic Hall was rebuilt in the following months but Chinatown was on a steep decline, disappearing almost entirely by the 1960s.
Today, only the former Chinese Masonic Hall remains as a reminder of what was once Chinatown. The Chinese Nationalist League’s hope of assimilation appears to have been realized, the decades of blatant bigotry and confrontation now a forgotten memory. As Confucius says, “Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.”