The Immigrants Chinese King Street is only a couple of blocks long. It does not lead anywhere special, just linking Alderson to Quadling streets. Most of you will never have seen it, and even those who pass by on their daily trip to school or work, may not know why or for whom the street was named. Long ago, a man called Lum King lived here. He was Chinese and he grew vegetables on this land, selling them to his neighbours, going from door to door. Many old timers who lived in this area remembered him and wrote about his friendliness and generosity.1 He died in 1958; his house and farm are long gone, but his name lives on. People of Chinese origin are now a major part of Coquitlam’s population, but in the very early days there is no record of any Chinese until 1913 when 20 were recorded in the census. These were probably connected with labour at Fraser Mills.2 Chinese, however, had been coming to British Columbia since l860, first from the California gold fields, and soon after from China directly.3
British Columbia was not a welcoming haven to the Chinese. Cheap labour was their main asset, and this was exploited on the railway, the telegraph line to Quesnel, and the power project to Buntzen Lake. Chinese laboured under harsh conditions with no regard to human safety. Six hundred died during the construction of the railway5. In times of unemployment, there was extreme poverty, but some Chinese earned a living through housework, others went off alone to pursue their quest for gold and some grew vegetables to sell to the settlers. Gradually a merchant class grew up in the rapidly growing Chinatown of New Westminster. It is hard to believe today that a thriving Chinatown existed and prospered there, with stores, restaurants, gambling dens and joss houses.6 Chinatown disappeared after two devastating fires, and a forceful clearing of the remains by municipal decree. White settlers feared crime as well as competition for jobs, and many were hostile to the different smelling food, the odd customs, religion, clothing, hair style, New Year celebrations, firecrackers and opium. Words and phrases that we today would undoubtedly call racist were commonly voiced, such as “our moon eyed brethren”, 7
Gradually, the Chinese became better absorbed into the surrounding community. One of the signers of the paper for incorporation of the city of Port Coquitlam on March 7, 1913 was Tom Lee8 and Gordon Lee born in 19179, was contracted to build the road to Colony farm. When the lumber mill opened at Fraser Mills, a few Chinese were employed, but the main labour force was from Quebec, specifically invited by the mill owners because of their skills, and to limit Asian participation.10 The Chinese labour force at the mills occupied the less desirable housing, close to ash from the mills and in constant danger of fire. There were distinct areas for East Indians, Japanese and Chinese.11 In the mid 20s, Quin Wong arrived. He had paid the head tax to come to Canada, served in World War I, worked in a restaurant, and had now been asked to recruit Chinese workers for the mill. Maida Wong, born in Burnaby, became his second wife in the late 1920s. Her knowledge of English made her valuable to both management and the newly arrived labourers. She was well known in the local multicultural community. Her seven children and two stepsons grew up there and experienced no discrimination.12 Times have changed, and this year, Coquitlam opened the first bilingual class in Walton School, with instruction in both English and Mandarin. In September, 2010, the city of New Westminster issued a public apology for their past treatment of the Chinese. If Lum King were alive today, I think there would be a happy smile on his face.
The Immigrants : Japanese, South Asian, Chinese and one family’s story
By l879 there were 300 in New Westminster’s Chinatown, and no doubt many of these passed through Coquitlam to work on the newly constructed railway, although the government stipulated at first that no Chinese were to be employed if government funds were to be forthcoming.4