British Columbia

Historic Chinatowns across B.C. brought to life by new digital database

A new provincially-funded project will create the first-ever digital database of Chinese historical records and artifacts in B.C.

Early Chinese immigrants settled in all parts of B.C., not just in Vancouver and Victoria

Cumberland had a thriving Chinatown between the late 1880s and 1960s. (Cumberland Museum and Archives)

A new provincially-funded project will create the first ever digital database of Chinese historical records and artifacts in B.C., going back in time to Chinatowns beyond those built by Chinese immigrants in Vancouver and Victoria.

Dozens of smaller B.C. towns once had large Chinese populations. Cumberland, for example, was a busy coal mining community from 1888 to 1966, attracting thousands of Chinese immigrants.

"Some say [there were] 3,000 (Chinese) residents at its peak … but it was a bustling community and only half of Chinatown's residents worked in the mines," Cumberland Museum and Archives executive director Anna Rambow told On The Island.

"Others worked as domestic servants in Cumberland, providing services in Chinatown. There were laundries, boarding houses, bakeries, restaurants, drugstores and even a 400-foot opera house."

Chinese coins, scrolls to be available online

Cumberland Museum and Archives and the Nanaimo Museum on Vancouver Island are in charge of piloting the $75,000-project, which was announced in late April.

The project includes cataloguing culturally significant artifacts like Chinese coins, scrolls, photographs and historic texts, and making them accessible to the public online.

The inventories from roughly 10 other B.C. museums are expected to be completed by the fall.

Rambow says the Cumberland Museum has more than 1,000 items archived. However, all that remains in Cumberland's historic Chinatown is a building called Jumbo's cabin.

"Like many Chinatowns in British Columbia, after the coal mining sort of stopped, many of the residents left and the buildings became quite derelict and it ended up being razed by the village in the 60s," she said.

"It's unfortunate but we're just happy that we were able to hold onto many of the artifacts in the museum."

To hear more about the online database project, listen to the audio labelled: Remembering the other Chinatowns of British Columbia