The Chinese And Chinatown Of Rossland:
Fragments From Their Early History
by Ronald A. Shearer
I grew up in what was left of Rossland’s Chinatown in the late 1930s and 1940s and I have long wondered about the histories of the few Chinese men that I knew, particularly Lui Joe who sold us vegetables and old half-blind John who was the last resident of the Chinese Masonic Hall across the street from our house and who occasionally sawed wood in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, I cannot resurrect their stories but as I was preparing a history of my family I began to wonder about the broader history of the section of town in which I once lived and of the Chinese men who inhabited it.
Rossland’s Chinese community was never large nor did it have unique characteristics that would make it stand out among other small-town Chinatowns across the country. As a result, in the extant literature on the Chinese in Canada Rossland is at best an afterthought. For example, what is billed as “a definitive history of Chinatowns in Canada” does not list Rossland in its index.[i] This is also true of Morton’s history of the Chinese in British Columbia.[ii] Other major works on the Chinese in Canada generally focus on Canadian and British Columbian attitudes and policies toward the Chinese. If they mention Rossland at all they make passing references to particular incidents that occurred in the city, but they do not examine the city’s Chinese community, its rise and decline.[iii] A 1901 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration included an officer of the Rossland Miners’ Union as a Commissioner and took evidence in Rossland, but apart from contradictory estimates of the size of the Chinese population in the city and some comments on the employment (or non-employment) of Chinese in various occupations its report provides little evidence on the nature and development of the community.[iv] The report is substantially a compilation of the attitudes of competitors and selected citizens, including clergymen, toward British Columbia’s Chinese residents. Rosslanders’ prejudices are well represented. As the report of a Canadian Royal Commission it is shocking in its shallowness. The foremost work on Rossland’s mining boom, Jeremy Mouat’s Roaring Days, briefly explores the information on the city’s Chinese provided by the 1901 census including both population size and employment patterns.[v] A variety of older local histories do not mention the Chinese community,[vi] but two short articles about the Chinese in Rossland on the web site of the Rossland Museum have interesting insights and anecdotes.[vii] A relatively recent local history by Jordan and Choukalos provides a brief but useful overview. [viii] Although it is thin on detail it tells us that there was a Chinese community almost from the beginning of Rossland; that it was entirely males who were isolated in a ghetto; that many of the men had wives in China who they probably never saw again after they left China for Canada; that the men cultivated gardens on the southern slope of Rossland from which they provided vegetables through door to door sales to residents of the city, eking out a meagre living in the process; that they were severely discriminated against, socially and economically; and that they had very low incomes.
All of this seems to be true but as a matter of personal curiosity I wondered what more could be said about the history of Rossland’s Chinese community. The availability of the local newspaper (the Rossland Miner) on microfilm and of the enumerators reporting forms (census manuscripts) for the 1901 and 1911 censuses provides raw material for such an exploration. This paper is the product of my enquiries. It does not pretend to be a history of the Chinese community in Rossland. Rather, it is a collection of fragments from that history -- fragments gleaned from public records that are incomplete and in some respects possibly defective. The period covered is from the late-1890s to the mid-1920s.
Topics Covered in this Essay
- How Large was the Chinese Community?
- Where did they live?
- What did they do?
- What did they earn?
- The Chinese and the justice system
- Social Status