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The ghosts of Ashcroft’s old China Town

by Esther Darlington MacDonald
Advertisements for old Chinese-owned grocery stores in Ashcroft from a 1928 Journal

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

Looking over past issues of The Pioneer newspaper, the weekly I published for several years way back when, I came over a number of items I had long since forgotten.

One of them involved Ashcroft’s unique China Town. It was the end of an era that spanned nearly 100 years.

I was sitting in the rear of the Wing Chong Tai general store with owners, Alfred and Eddie Chow. The store sat near the corner of the property that spanned the area from Barnes Lake Road to just beyond First Avenue, and included both sides of Railway Ave.

The property had just been sold. It was the end of an era, Alfred told me, and indeed it was. And we reflected, in a mood I can only describe as wistful nostalgia, on that long and hardworking history of a people who lived and flourished for so many years in that village beside the railroad.

Alfred, stoic, and ever the pedant, had written a lengthy and fascinating account of the general store built and run by his father, and then, later his sons. I had printed the article in my weekly newspaper, The Pioneer.

Alfred simply came into our office one day, and laid his article on the counter. “I want you to print this.”

I was flattered. I was even more pleased after Alfred left the office, when I read over his article. Well written, interesting, even fascinating. I didn’t have to edit a word out. The Pioneer ran the article as Alfred had written it. And that article is now in the archives of the Ashcroft Museum.

“Everybody who is anybody shops at Wing Chong Tai,” I had been told when I first took residence in the town. This was before the supermarket, Safety Mart was built.

The store wasn’t large. In fact, it would have fit into the produce section of Safety Mart. But it was always busy. From morning until evening. Entering it for the first time, I felt I had stepped back into the past 60 years ago or more. The store carried all the items most households would need, including some hardware and kitchen items. But there was also an air of intimacy about the store. I can’t quite describe it. I can only assume the feeling came as a result of the fact that Wing Chong Tai was a family owned business. A business, it seemed, entirely private. Solid, successful, no doubt in a modest way, yet decidedly of another era and time.

When Wing Chong Tai was razed and the family had left, the rest of the street of two story false fronted shops, cottages and sheds, went soon after. China Town was levelled to the ground.

The whole strip of Railway that included China Town was fascinating to me. I sat down at the edge of the town and painted a few paintings of the highboard fence, the Chinese noodle shop with its Nabob Tea wall facing north.

And then, making friends with the Chinese elder, the diminutive matriarch, Mrs. Aie, I made sketches of the interior of her store. We would sit beside the oil drum stove and she would make me a cup of tea. And we would talk about the old days. The store with its tongue and groove, smoke darkened walls, its glass display cases, now almost empty, and the few grocery items on the shelves above the counters, the rows of glass jars filled with “Chinese candy”, which the school kids loved to buy after school in years past, all held an overwhelming charm for me.

Mrs. Aie toured me through the kitchen where she had fed countless farm laborers in years past. The long table, the wood stove, the wooden chairs on either side of the table, - the grey quality of past history clung to the walls. I could even smell the vegetables in the wok. At least in my imagination. For everything was as clean as Monday’s wash on the line. Mrs. Aie took me upstairs, to see the small rooms on either side of a narrow hallway, where the laborers slept, washed, wrote letters home to their wives and families.

And she took me outside to see her small vegetable garden, and the chicken coop, where a few hens clucked. She showed me how she irrigated her vegetables with short shallow channels, using a hose and a tin can. The whole concept of an era, at least a large shred of it, came to mind as I stood there and observed. And thought, how fortunate I was to have been made privy to it. After all, Mrs. Aie didn’t know me. I was a stranger. Yet, I felt her appreciation.

Yes, it was the end of an era, when Wing Chong Tai was no more. An era you could write reams about and never really do it justice to.