Golden Country: Past, Present, and Beyond: Chinatown

Ashcroft's Chinatown thrived and helped the community grow, before and after the Great Fire of 1916.

The Wing Wo Lung store

The Wing Wo Lung store

More than ten thousand Chinese immigrants came to British Columbia in the early 1880s, to assist in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway or to seek their fortune in the goldfields. Many of these men would have passed through Ashcroft at some point in their journey, and in the 1880s a Chinese man named Lin Kee opened one of the first businesses in Ashcroft. Many of his fellow countrymen were attracted to the new town and the opportunities it promised, and by the turn of the last century as much as half of Ashcroft and area’s population—several hundred people—was of Chinese origin.

In 1892 Chow Sing opened the Wing Chong Tai—“Forever Great Prosperity”—store, near where the car wash stands today. It was to be a fixture of Railway Avenue for nine decades, and remained in the hands of the Chow family for four generations. In addition to selling general merchandise, the Wing Chong Tai store sold a vast array of traditional Chinese herbal medicines, which were kept in dozens of small drawers in a large wooden cabinet in the back of the store. These herbs would be prescribed by the Chinese herb doctor, and would either be given to the customer to take home and brew into tea, or would be administered to patients in the Chinese community hospital, located at the foot of Bancroft Street.

By the time of the Great War there was a well-established Chinatown in Ashcroft, clustered around the north end of Railway and beyond to where the Legacy Park now sits. Chow Jim operated the Club Restaurant (and donated a room at the back of the restaurant for a Chinese night school in 1914), and the Loy brothers had opened the Wing Wo Lung store, just down the street from Wing Chong Tai. There were two other general stores, belonging to Lin Kee and Hop Wo, and a reading room beside Wing Chong Tai.

A small Chinatown building was moved from Railway to a spot near Brink Lane; it had served as a Chinese library, and when Dr. Sun Yat-sen came to Ashcroft for a week in January 1910, to gain financial and moral support for his effort to depose the corrupt Manchu government in China, he gave lectures in this building. A Chinese cemetery had been established to the east of the CP railway line, as those of Chinese descent were not allowed to be buried in the “white” cemetery. Wah Lee had a laundry at the north end of Railway; in an ominous foretelling of things to come, it burned down in January of 1915.

Much worse was to come in July 1916, of course, when the Great Fire broke out. Although Chinatown was some distance from the starting point of the fire, a fierce wind was blowing from the south and carried the embers and flames northward along Railway. It raged out of control for four hours, and by the time it was out much of the business district of Ashcroft—including almost all of Chinatown—stood in ruins.

Perhaps fittingly, it ended near an establishment called the House of Blazes, which stood on the triangle of land by what is now Evans Road, near AES Electric. The building had started as a CP bunkhouse and been converted into a drunk tank for what was then the Thompson River Hotel (the hotel was later relocated to Fourth and Railway and became the Ashcroft Hotel). In 1886 the former bunkhouse had become Ashcroft’s first school, but was replaced, in 1889, by a small school located in what is now the Community Hall.

Ashcroft’s Chinatown after the 1916 fire, looking northeast along Railway. Chinese merchants were quick to rebuild after the fire. Photo courtesy Ashcroft Museum and Archives.

Almost immediately after the Great Fire, Chinese carpenters were hard at work rebuilding Chinatown on both sides of north Railway. Wing Chong Tai, Wing Wo Lung, and some eighteen other Chinese-owned businesses were soon back in operation. While many of the white-owned businesses also rebuilt quickly, some did not, and a year after the fire none of Ashcroft’s three hotels had been rebuilt. Merchants complained about the amount of business Ashcroft was losing: there were six CPR passenger trains a day, plus the Cariboo stage, passing through the town, but with no hotels to tempt travellers to stay they simply passed on through or disembarked and immediately left for elsewhere, taking their money with them.

Thus it was that in 1917 a group of Chinese merchants banded together and rebuilt the Ashcroft Hotel; three years later they rebuilt the Central. On the site where Safety Mart now stands there was built, in 1919, the Chinese Hotel and Tea Room. The Wing Chong Tai store across the street had been enlarged when it was rebuilt, and now included a hand laundry service and a meat department, as well as a toy department during the Christmas season; it also sold clothing, appliances, gifts, ammunition, fishing tackle, Hudson’s Bay rum (by the cask), and Chinese wine.

Chinatown continued to thrive through the 1950s; but its success depended on a large local Chinese population, as well as the hundreds of Chinese labourers who came to work on the local ranches and farms which supplied the cannery that had been established in 1925. When cheap imported vegetables from the States began flooding the B.C. market, local growers could not compete with the low prices and still make a profit.

The closing of the cannery in 1957 struck a death blow to Ashcroft’s Chinatown, as Chinese market gardeners and farmers sold their land and moved away. A handful of businesses clung to life on north Railway, but one by one they too closed.

When Wing Chong Tai closed down in 1982, it marked the end of an era. The rest of the Chinatown stores were soon to be demolished; and today the only remnant on Railway of Ashcroft’s once-thriving Chinatown is the Wing Wo Lung building which—much altered—now houses Rolgear, beside the Royal LePage office.