We don’t know precisely when the Chinese Cemetery in Ashcroft was established; the best guess is at some point in the 1890s, when large numbers of Chinese immigrants who had helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway settled in the then-new town. They were doubtless attracted by the area’s hot climate and rich, fertile soil, of which they soon made themselves masters. They used their talents for irrigation and cultivation on local ranches and farms: their own, as well as those of white settlers, who admired the Chinese farmers’ ability to bring water to the desert landscape.
We do, however, know why the Chinese Cemetery was established; and the reason does not reflect well on the white settlers who lived in Ashcroft at the time. They had established a cemetery at the south end of Railway; but they made it clear that it was for whites only, and that any burials of Chinese people would need to take place elsewhere.
By this time Ashcroft boasted a large community of Chinese farmers, ranchers, and businessmen and their families. The importance and size of the Ashcroft Chinese community can be judged by the fact that in January 1910 Dr. Sun Yat Sen, considered the father of modern China, spent a week in Ashcroft and found a good deal of support, both moral and financial, for his efforts to depose the corrupt Manchu Government in China.
A burial place was therefore needed, and a spot was chosen on the far side of the CPR tracks, away from the town. At first glance the site seems inauspicious, even desolate, and in the postcard from 1965 that I wrote about it is barely visible, stranded between the railway tracks and Hwy 97C. One has to look carefully to spot it, as there is nothing to differentiate it from the grassland surrounding it except a low fence, marking the outline of a square on the otherwise barren stretch of grassland.
To the Chinese community, however, it was an ideal spot. Feng shui – the Chinese philosophy which seeks harmony between humankind and the environment – teaches that cemeteries should be built on a hillside or slope, with mountains on both sides and a stream or river passing through the middle. There should also be open space around the cemetery, a good view from it, and it should be visible from eight different directions. So while the area where the Chinese Cemetery is situated might seem hard and inhospitable to Western eyes, it was the perfect place for the Chinese settlers to select.
The cemetery was in use until the 1940s. By then attitudes towards having Chinese locals buried in the “main” Ashcroft cemetery had changed, no doubt in part because of the respect and goodwill the Chinese community commanded. Chinese farmers and ranchers were generous in contributing to the war effort during the First World War, and in 1914 restaurateur Chow Jim – aided by several members of the white community – set up a night school for the young Chinese men of Ashcroft, in a room behind his restaurant.
The Journal said of the effort “The sight of 20 or more bright young men studying the English language from 7:30 to 9:00 each evening (Saturdays excepted) is gratifying not only to [Chow Jim] but to all who long to see the utmost done for the Highest.”
After the devastating fire of 1916, Chinese merchants were among the first to re-establish themselves, creating a thriving Chinatown of more than 20 businesses at the north end of Railway. The (white) owners of the destroyed hotels dithered about rebuilding, leading to complaints from local businesses that the town was losing money, since travelers had no place to stay and moved on without depositing any cash in the town; so Chinese investors stepped in and ensured that the Ashcroft and Central hotels were rebuilt. Chinese farmers were instrumental in providing a steady, and high-quality, stream of produce for the Ashcroft cannery (established in 1925), making Ashcroft tomatoes and potatoes famous across the country.
In 1957 the cannery closed down, and many Chinese farmers moved away from the area, unable to compete with the cheap vegetables flooding the market from America. Without their support, Chinese-owned businesses in town began to shut down, with Ashcroft’s first Chinese business – the Wing Chong Tai (“Forever Great Prosperity”) store, established in 1892 – closing in 1981. From comprising almost half of Ashcroft’s population at the turn of the last century, the Chinese community in Ashcroft dwindled to a handful.
And so it was that the Ashcroft Chinese Cemetery began a slow descent into abandonment and neglect, away from the eyes of the town. It might have stayed that way, eventually to be engulfed by the grass around it, were it not for the efforts of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Rotary Society and the Ashcroft and District Lions Club, which banded together in 2005 to restore it.
After the initial major effort of clearing the site of weeds and debris, and ensuring the gravestones were in as good a condition as possible, the two groups have continued to spearhead efforts to keep the cemetery clean, with local volunteers assisting them during summer work parties. In 2012 a stone marker was placed in the cemetery, dedicated to “The Memory of the Chinese workers who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia.” A memory board was erected beside the site, with pictures of, and information about, the Chinese community in Ashcroft.
Almost all of Ashcroft’s Chinatown has vanished, but the Chinese Cemetery remains; a memorial to the people who played a large part in the town’s foundation, and then its prosperity. It’s also a reminder, to residents and visitors alike, of the rich and vibrant Chinese community which once thrived in Ashcroft.