Close to my heart | Part One

Posted on March 29, 2021 • See the rest of our news

Close to my heart  | Part One

Historically, Cumberland was home to several different populations of primarily working-class people. The first settlers had rudimentary accommodations, but once the mill was operational, company housing was erected for white miners and their families – simple four or five-room cabins rented at a cheap rate and painted every couple of years. But company housing was only available if the breadwinner worked in the mines. In the days before workers rights, injury or death meant the widow and children would be out on the street after two months to make way for another mine employee to occupy their home. Home was only home as long as there was someone working in the mines. Mine owners had long used housing as a means to control workers and evict labour agitators.

The Chinese community

Housing was not provided for the Chinese miners. In 1888 when the first Chinese labourers arrived, water and lamp oil and tools for mining were supplied, but workers lived in tents or shacks or whatever could be erected quickly. Every spare cent earned was sent back to families in China. Living as cheaply as possible, Chinese workers would bunk two, three or more to a cabin, working alternate shifts and sharing the same small space with one miner heading off to work while another came home to sleep in the bed just vacated. Or they took crowded lodgings at one of the many boarding houses on second or third floors of the businesses that sprang up to provide food and supplies for Chinatown. Home was back in China. Only merchant families put down roots because they were allowed to bring their families with them when they came to Canada and they were exempt from paying the head tax. 

It was a hard life but people survived and hoped for the best. Fire was a constant threat and there were several over the life of Chinatown. The last big fire in the 1930s razed several buildings. Repressive legislation in 1923 severely limited emigration from China which prevented more Chinese from coming to Cumberland to work. The downturn in the coal market, limited work opportunities and the  Depression had their effect: many dwellings were never rebuilt or abandoned outright. Still, some old miners on relief and a few merchant families stayed. It was home to them.

There are a few old residents remaining that remember living in Cumberland Chinatown. They were children born in the 1930s and 1940s. Jack Chow, who came home to Cumberland in August 2020 with his family to celebrate his 90th birthday, pointed out where the Chow Lee Store was located on the Chinatown diorama at the museum. The store had a distinctive angled front abutting the old railway line. The Chow family lived on the second floor above the store. Jack’s mother, Dere Shee, Chow Foon Gar’s third wife, kept chickens in the side yard as well as maintaining a large vegetable garden. 

Chow Foon Gar was 56 when he married for the third and last time, his bride 25 – a year younger than his oldest son Winning. Jack was the youngest of their five children together, born in 1930 when Mr. Chow was 68.

All the Chow children living at home took turns helping their parents in the store or in the garden, but family memories were made in the kitchen upstairs. Jack’s favourite food was potato pancakes fried directly on the wood stove – an efficient way to cook several cakes on a large surface for a large family. 

Jack Chow left Cumberland Chinatown with his mother to move to Vancouver in the 1940s as a teenager after his father died. But Cumberland was always home.

Steven Lowe was an internationally acclaimed watercolourist who lived briefly in Cumberland Chinatown in the 1950s with his grandfather Lui Chang. He painted a scene from memory of his impression of his adopted home. The traditional Chinese characters on the side of this beautiful painting were translated into English by his wife Eunice – a part of the transcription reads as follows:

When I first came to this country, I lived in this quiet town for a few months and then moved on. However, even though I left, I will always consider Cumberland to be my hometown. Whenever I revisit this special place, its people and its surroundings, I am struck by how different it is from it used to be. Only a scant handful of the original miners still remain compared to the thousands before them. Only a few leaky, desolate shacks remain standing to remind us of the once burgeoning town and leave me in a melancholy mood. However, I keep close to my heart what the old seniors told me of this once thriving town as I stand alone in the empty streets. This painting is dedicated to the memory of Cumberland’s Chinatown. Painted June 1971. Steven Lowe

By the early 1960s, the existing buildings in Chinatown were deemed too decrepit to live in and too dangerous for people to explore. The remaining residents were persuaded to move before the entire community was destroyed by fire in 1968. 

There are photos of Chinatown when it was a vibrant community but there is no physical evidence that people ever lived there other than Jumbo’s Cabin at the side of the road, some interpretive panels in the wetlands and memories of former residents like Jack who came home with his children and grandchildren to show them his home so his memories would not be forgotten.

In memory of Jack Wing Chow, 7 August 1930 – 9 February 2021

Images: C040-336 [featured image], C040-039 – Chow Family, personal collection of Dawn Copeman.