Chinatown Edmonton

The regular stagecoach from Calgary arrives in Edmonton. Two men get off – their arrival is so unexpected that it is reported in the newspaper. There are now 2 Chinese men in the city!

When John Kee arrived with his brother to open a laundry in 1890, he was the only Chinese man in a town of around 600 people. His brother had returned to Calgary after helping him set up the business. Edmonton’s Chinese population was so small at the beginning that there wasn’t a Chinatown. It wasn’t until 10 years later that a Chinatown emerged at the intersection of Namayo and Rice Street (97 Street and 101A Avenue), placing it on the increasingly unpopular, north western fringe of Edmonton’s city centre.

Edmonton’s original downtown was centred on Jasper Avenue and 97 Street, developing eastwards. Development of the city westward exploded in the 1910s when the Hudson’s Bay Company began selling its reserve lands. Between 1909 and 1914 Edmonton experienced an unprecedented building boom. Edmonton was incorporated as a city in 1904 and became the provincial capital in 1905. And in 1912, the city of Strathcona was amalgamated with Edmonton. The city that emerged from this period stayed largely the same for the next 40 years.

By 1911 the Chinese population had slowly grown to 154 – 150 men and 4 women. Chinatown had spread north and east to cover 3 city blocks, and consisted of 9 laundries, 1 barber, 2 restaurants and 6 grocery and import businesses. There were also reports of 20 opium dens and 30 gambling joints clustered in this small area. Given that anti-Chinese advocates such as Frank Oliver (publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin) and Emily Murphy (writing as Janey Canuck) often accused the Chinese of immoral behaviour and using gambling and opium to corrupt western society, these numbers should be treated with suspicion.

The majority of the Chinese population at this time were men working as labourers. In 1885, the Canadian government had imposed a head tax on in order to limit the number of Chinese coming into the country. Rising to a cost of $500 (the equivalent of 2 years wages), only the very wealthy could afford to bring a Chinese woman into Canada, resulting in a ‘bachelor society’. Chinatown consisted of businesses and boarding houses. As the population grew, the men formed associations to provide social and financial support since they were usually refused assistance from outside of their community. The only exceptions were the Methodist and Presbyterian churches who were active in the home missionary movement, hoping to convert the ‘heathen Celestials’. Some Chinese men joined these congregations, benefiting from English language lessons and church sponsorship.

Between 1911 and 1921, the Chinese population grew from 154 to 518 (501 males, 17 females). Chinese made up 1% of the population of Edmonton but were still perceived as a threat to the Canadian way of life. In 1923 the Canadian government enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act which effectively closed the door on Chinese immigration to Canada. The Great Depression also hit this community of labourers very hard and by the 1940s, Chinatown had become part of the city’s skid row. Those Chinese with the resources moved from Chinatown to other parts of the city. Chinatown became the home of elderly, single men who could not afford to live elsewhere.

In 1947 Canada repealed the Chinese Immigration Act. Chinese Canadian veterans lobbied the government to repeal the act in recognition of the alliance with China during the Second World War and their community’s contributions to the war effort. New Chinese immigrants began arriving in the 1950s and like their predecessors, they looked to Chinatown as the place to find their feet in Canada.

Like the rest of the city, Chinatown also shared in the economic boom of the 1950s. Import companies and grocers flourished. Chinese cafes operated side by side with fine dining restaurants with marble decorations, custom dinner ware and lounges with live music. Philip Pon opened Edmonton’s newest fine dining restaurant The Lingnan on Dominion Day, 1947 with his import business next door. Victor Mah transformed his Chinese café, The All-American into The Blue Willow Restaurant which boasted a bridge entrance over a stream and an upstairs cocktail lounge. The Seven Seas Restaurant seated over 700 in different themed dining rooms – for many years it was the largest restaurant in Canada and even offered its patrons take home frozen food.

Edmonton’s Chinese population had always been small. In order to survive Chinese families looked to integrate as much as possible and as soon as they could, people moved away from Chinatown. Chinatown was a thriving hub for social and business activities but from the 1930s onwards, it was not considered a desirable place to live. Chinese immigrants in the 1960s-1980s were very different from their predecessors. Most had come to Edmonton to study at the University of Alberta or NAIT. They were educated and had come from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia. They had little in common with the older generation left in Chinatown. By 1973 there were only 260 people living in Chinatown, mostly low income. But Chinatown was still a busy commercial area with 27 Chinese owned businesses located to the west of 97 Street, between Jasper Avenue and 102 Avenue.

Starting in the early 1970s, the City of Edmonton started to look at ways to revitalize the Boyle Street area (also known as the Quarters). This area was the original centre of the city but by the 1970s had fallen into decay, the streets lined with derelict buildings. After many delays, a plan was put in place which recommended redevelopment in the area around Jasper Avenue and 97 Street and that Chinatown be moved eastward along 102 Avenue, between 96 and 95 Street. By 1981, the once thriving commercial centre was bulldozed and Canada Place was built on the site of Edmonton’s historic Chinatown.

Throughout the 1980s there were new developments in the relocated Chinatown. In 1977 a Chinese Elder’s Mansion had been built, followed by the Edmonton Chinatown Multicultural Centre, tower two of the Elder’s Mansion and a Chinese garden to the south. The Chinese Benevolent Association and various family associations also moved into the area. The Harbin Gate, in honour of our twin city of Harbin in the People’s Republic of China, was dedicated in October 1987 as the gateway to the ‘Replaced’ Chinatown. Despite this investment, this area never prospered. This part of Chinatown does not have many residents and those who live there are elderly and not great spenders. Despite its proximity to downtown, Chinatown South is cut off by Canada Place and the Shaw Convention Centre, which overshadow the area, discouraging people from going eastward.

While the city pushed for ‘Replaced’ Chinatown, people had other ideas. Uncertain about the fate of Chinatown, businesses had started to migrate northward along 97 Street. This made sense as they were now moving toward established residential neighbourhoods. New development soon followed. Pacific Rim Mall was the first major commercial development in the area and it spurred others to invest. Chinatown North as it became known is solely a commercial district. It attracted investment from Vietnamese and new Chinese immigrants who were out of place in Chinatown South. In 1998 the city erected the Gate of Happy Arrival, a South Asian style gate in recognition of this separate Chinatown.

Despite investment in this area in the 1980s and 1990s, Chinatown North also failed to flourish. It was cut off from its traditional customers and people were drawn away from shopping in the area as new Asian businesses opened elsewhere in the city. The entry of T&T Supermarket at West Edmonton Mall drew people away from Chinatown as the place to shop for their groceries and established supermarket chains expanded their ethnic food offerings to meet customer demand. As well, the city encouraged social service agencies to converge in the area to address chronic poverty, homelessness and addiction that centred around the streets next to Chinatown North. All these factors combined to make Chinatown North a difficult place to do business and an uncomfortable place to be.

After years of consultation, the City of Edmonton presented the Chinatown Strategy in 2017. The plan consists of 5 pillars: A) Improve sense of safety and security, B) Focused economic development, C) Governance and community leadership, D) Celebrate Chinatown as a Destination, E) Enhance built form and landmarks. However, with the LRT extension driving through the centre of Chinatown South, the impact of this disruption will undoubtedly affect the plan and how it can be implemented. It is uncertain whether the LRT extension will be a good or bad thing for Edmonton’s Chinatowns. Chinatown will persevere but how much it thrives is still a question. Watch this space.