Paint the Rails Community Circle - Chinese Benevolent Association

Our community circle and walking tour with members of Edmonton’s Chinese community was a wonderful opportunity to peel back the surface layer of chinatown to reveal some of the stories that lie underneath. We were lucky to hear from Lan Chan and Kathryn Lennon, two knowledgeable members of the local community, who shared many stories and insights into the history and features of Edmonton’s chinatown. They talked about how chinatowns began popping up in other international cities in the late 1800’s as many left China to make money elsewhere.  

Each Chinatown is unique and represents a fusion of cultures that is rarely seen elsewhere. Chinese food for example, adapts to use the local ingredients and flavours available. In fact, we learned that Chinese market gardeners grew vegetables in the river valley and were among the earliest and most popular providers of local, fresh produce.

Edmonton’s Chinese community began in the late 1850’s aboard the stage coach from Calgary that transported many newcomers to Edmonton along the Northern bank of the North Saskatchewan river, where the Shaw conference centre is today, was the site of the first Chinese owned business in Edmonton. More came, as labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railway, hoping to make money and return home.

In 1899 there were 13 men and no women. It was in 1911 that chinatown really began in Edmonton, along the eastern end of Jasper Ave. The shopkeepers were popular as they were open late and stocked supplies for those heading further north to the gold rush. Two theatres were very busy showing Chinese films and music on Sundays. Large heritage buildings, the Gibson Block and Ernest Brown Block were early rooming houses for primarily Chinese labourers; all in all there has been a vital, bustling Chinese community in Edmonton for over 100 years.  We learned a bit about the importance of Name Associations that provide social services, interpretation, burial services and community space for Chinese residents in Edmonton. There are over 70 different cultural societies, name and clan associations in Edmonton alone and they all serve complex and different functions. Some are political, some are purely social, many provide social supports and a sense of belonging for there members. Some will even ship your bones back to China for you, to rest in your ancestral home.

In the 1930’s The Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese from bringing their families. Only single working men could afford the head tax. It was at this time that many organizations like the Chinese Benevolent Association helped to house, feed and interpret for those impacted by these unjust financial penalties.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Chinese Head Tax in 2006.

Over the course of its history, Chinatown has been moved twice; first from it’s original Southern location along the river to a few blocks North; then further North to it’s recognizable 97 St. location. There was a plan in the 80’s to create a new chinatown on 102 ave and 96 St., where the Chinese Seniors mansion and Harbin Gate were built, but then a financial depression hit and it never happened.

Harbin Gate, gifted to Edmonton by our sister city, Harbin, China in 1987, stood as a marker of the wealth of history and contribution by Edmonton’s Chinese community. The gate was a symbol of community pride and value that was sadly displaced due to the expansion of the city’s LRT line in 2017. There are hopes that it will be be moved to bridge 97 St. once all the construction is completed, but for now it sits in an empty lot in an industrial area.

The community has done a lot of work to raise their concerns about the future of chinatown and the harbin gate. Their intergenerational network of artists and knowledge keepers shows a dedication to celebrating the living history of chinatown and Edmonton’s vibrant Chinese community of the past and the future. Something that really stood out in our conversations was the care for community and specifically honouring elders that is an important part of the community’s legacy and “secret” to their longevity and strength. We were thankful for all they shared with us.

Neximar Alarcon