Visitors to the Cumberland Museum and Archives are often surprised to discover the rich and storied history of the village. In 1898, Cumberland (then Union) was Canada’s largest westernmost centre. Between 1888 and 1966 over 25 million tons of high quality bituminous coal was shipped from Cumberland to the global market. Outside of the bustling dirt roads and wooden sidewalks stretching down Dunsmuir Avenue, on the road to Comox Lake, a thriving community was built by the industrious Chinese miners who began to settle in Cumberland in the late 1880s. Coming from Guangdong Province, these men were part of a larger workforce that included Japanese, African American and European miners.
In the early 20th century, the two main streets of Cumberland Chinatown—Shan Gai and Hai Gai—bustled with activity. The smell of lye drifted from the laundries, mixing with the earthy smell of the swamp. Grocers peddled fruits and vegetables. With hardware stores, barbers, apothecaries, theatres, parlours, fraternities and temples, Chinatown was an integral part of the Comox Valley and the larger business community of British Columbia. Local myth claims that Cumberland’s Chinatown was ‘the largest Chinatown north of San Francisco’, although population data estimates 1,500 residents.
Like many other Chinatowns, Cumberland Chinatown faced insurmountable challenges that eventually led to its decline. In 1923 an inquiry into the 1922 explosion of Cumberland’s No. 4 mine led to the prohibition of Chinese labourers working underground. During this same year the Canadian government initiated the Chinese Immigration Act which abolished the head tax but severely limited immigration. These measures coupled with a subsequent decline in coal markets put an abrupt halt to Chinatown’s growth.
On June 6, 1936, 43 of Chinatown’s buildings were destroyed by fire and many residents chose to move rather than rebuild. In 1968 most of the remaining structures of Chinatown were deemed unsafe and demolished by the Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department. The historic Chinatown site is now part of a 40 hectare park located west of the village centre on Comox Lake Road.
Jumbo’s Cabin, the only structure from Cumberland Chinatown standing today, was one of the community’s first buildings. It is named after Hor Sue Mah, known to most as Jumbo, who began working in the Cumberland mines in 1918 at the age of 20. He moved into the cabin in 1930 after his own was destroyed by fire. He was the last resident to leave Cumberland Chinatown, in 1971.
Although there was a significant period of time between the peak of Cumberland Chinatown and the opening of the Cumberland Museum and Archives in 1981, our organization holds a vast collection of artifacts and archives from, or related to, Cumberland Chinatown. Scrolls, ceramics, textiles, bottles, pipes, games, letters, photographs, newspapers, books, medicinesand more offer insight not only into Cumberland Chinatown, but also the broader socio-cultural context of Chinese Canadians and their interconnectedness across communities. Before the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project (CCAP), this important collection was only available by booking an appointment with museum staff—it was out of sight and therefore out of mind.
In 2014, the Cumberland Museum and Archives met Professor Zhongping Chen when he visited the museum to research our Chinese Canadian collections. This led to further connections with the University of Victoria (UVic). We were thrilled when asked to take part in the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project, headed by the UVic History Department and the Cultural Resource Management Program.
Cumberland was chosen as a pilot museum, alongside Nanaimo Museum, to work with partners to plan how to best compile the vast information from 13 museums into one accessible database. We came to realize that digitization projects are no small feat. The first hurdle was converting our ‘internal’ database to information that would make sense to the outside reader. The daunting task of updating over 1,100 lines of information was completed by Melissa Williamson, a previous summer student and part of the CCAP team.
It is not often that we are afforded the time to examine our holdings closely and there were some great discoveries made while photographing this extraordinary collection. Below is a photo of a pair of binding slippers, recorded in our database as ‘Chinese Royalty’. It is our hope that we learn more about items such as these through the online database.
With the photographs of the holdings complete, UVic was able to match the images to the fields on the online database. Technology is never straightforward and there were some hiccups but we are pleased to say that the database now holds over 1,200 records from the Cumberland Museum and Archives, with more than 900 associated images.
There is always a desire to know more about the histories connected to objects and artifacts. We feel a great sense of excitement knowing that this important piece of Cumberland’s history, in this case Chinese Canadian history, will now be widely accessible for researchers,descendants of Cumberland Chinatown and the general public. Our hope is that conversation and knowledge around Cumberland Chinatown will continue to grow.
The Cumberland Museum and Archives has made fruitful connections through the CCAP. We would like to acknowledge and give thanks to the UVic History Department, the Cultural Resource Management Program, the BC Museums Association, our pilot project partner Nanaimo Museum and BC’s Ministry of International Trade and Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism.