For a century, Chinatown was a significant cultural centre in Nanaimo. The promise of employment in Nanaimo’s coal mining industry attracted immigrants from Guangdong Province, China and the first Chinatown was established downtown during the 1860s. Land development and societal and economic pressures pushed the residents and businesses in Chinatown to new locations in 1884 and 1908, and to an extension of the third Chinatown location in the 1920s. In 1960 Chinatown burned in an accidental fire, leaving few surviving structures but fortunately no loss of life. By this time, many Chinatown families had moved to other Nanaimo neighbourhoods.
The Nanaimo Museum and Cumberland Museum & Archives were pilot museums for the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project (CCAP) to create an online database of artifacts held by local and regional British Columbia museums. Both communities have a strong Chinese Canadian history and extensive related collections. The Nanaimo Museum has over 500 artifacts and photographs from Chinatown, including an apothecary chest, clothing, coins and ceremonial and household objects. Many of these artifacts are on permanent exhibit and provide visitors with a glimpse into daily life in Chinatown. A driving force behind the development of the collection was Edward Hoy Lee (1910–1993). Lee grew up in Chinatown and was trusted by Chinese Canadian families in the area, many of whom put down permanent roots in the community and stayed for generations. He acted as an intermediary, collecting artifacts from his own family and families he knew in Chinatown for donation to the Nanaimo Museum. Without the efforts of Lee and his wife Marion (1913–2013), the local community and province would not have access to hundreds of remarkable artifacts that have stories to tell about Chinese Canadians in Nanaimo.
Our role as a pilot museum sparked discussions in the community about Nanaimo’s Chinese Canadian collection. The province-wide media coverage also helped us re-establish links with descendants of the Wong family, prominent residents of Chinatown and Nanaimo. Wong Kee (1880–1948), who learned how to use herbs and minerals to treat patients before leaving China, opened the Di Sung Tong and Co. or Keep You Alive Drug Store in Chinatown in 1912. He was the only doctor in Chinatown during the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 and the apothecary chest he used to store medicinal ingredients is on permanent exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum. In the 1920s Wong closed Di Sung Tong and Co. and opened the Canton Restaurant. His sons followed him into the business and operated the Diner’s Rendezvous—one of Nanaimo’s most popular restaurants—from 1956–2000.
I have enjoyed learning about our Chinese collection over the past year and seeing it through the eyes of the community, other museums and scholars. And with the help of CCAP Research Director Dr. Zhongping Chen, from the University of Victoria, several artifacts have new storytelling potential. Dr. Chen identified artifacts in the collection that we did not know were significant and provided translations for artifacts and scrolls. One of the scrolls is unusual because it uses the Japanese term for Vancouver. These artifacts had been in the collection for decades just waiting for their histories to be uncovered. I look forward to seeing connections between artifacts in Nanaimo Museum’s collection and those in other community museums. One example is a nurse’s lapel pin from the Nanaimo General Hospital, which appears to be a common artifact but has a remarkable story behind it. The pin belonged to Anna Fong Dickman, the daughter of Reverend Fong Dickman (Fong Tak Man) and his wife Jennie. Reverend Dickman immigrated to Vancouver in 1884 and drove stage coaches in the area. He became a Methodist lay preacher in the 1890s and in 1898 moved his young family to Nanaimo’s Chinatown where he worked to dispel negative stereotypes about Chinese Canadians, including problem opium use and gambling. Anna was born in 1906 after the family had returned to Vancouver but studied nursing in Nanaimo in 1926 and became a practical nurse at the Nanaimo General Hospital. By 1931 she was the first Chinese Canadian Registered Nurse in British Columbia. As the Dickman family and their descendants lived in different communities over the years it is possible that there will be related artifacts in other small museums that could tell us more of their story.
Visitors who search the artifacts online over the next year may have information hidden in attics or old family albums that will help us piece together lost histories and forge new links to Chinatown families. Who knows what we may find.