Chinatown History

Chinatown History

The Chinese community of Winnipeg was founded on the 18th of November, 1877. On that date three Chinese individuals arrived by stagecoach from the United States. They came here to enter into the washee clothes business. On the 1st of July, 1886, the first transcontinental train moved across the nation from Montreal to Vancouver and the first wave of Chinese immigration to the prairies followed shortly thereafter. The greatest percentage increase in the Chinese population of the province occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s when the restrictions on immigration had finally been overcome. By 2012 the community numbers is more than 20000. As elsewhere in North America they opened small businesses such as laundries, restaurants and grocery stores.

During these early decades the Chinese population was scattered throughout the city and the most lived behind or above their business premises. At this stage of its existence the community was large enough to provide support but not large enough to give birth specific organization founded on collective interests.

The infrastructure of a real and distinctive community life only occurred with the development of Chinatown which provided a physical centre for the dispersed community. The genesis of Chinatown reaches back to the first decades of 20th century. A real impetus to its development seems to have been the appearance of the Chinese grocery store. The first of these, Quong Chong Tai Company, opened for business at 249 King Street in 1905. In the following year Hong Wah Company opened on Alexander Street where it remained under the new name of Quong Tong Sing Company until the twenties. By 1906 these two stores and four laundries were located in the area that was to become Chinatown. The area of the city bordered by Main and Princess Street to the east and west and by Logan and Rupert Avenue to the north and south respectively was by then well on its way to taking on the character of Chinatown. By 1909 Chinatown had taken on its distinctive character and while it would expand in size and shift somewhat in location, the core of the district would remain on the axis of King Street and Alexander Avenue. By the early twenties Chinatown was at the height of its existence.

With the establishment and growth of Chinatown the community was increasingly brought together and out of these moments of informal contact and communal activity arise the first formal organization. With the arrival of these institutions the infrastructure of a formal and organized community life was in place.

Essentially, there were two political organizations and both were founded in the context of the Chinese political scene of the era. These were the first Chinese community organization, the Chee Kung Tong (or Chinese Masonic Lodge) and the Kuomintong (or Chinese Nationalist Party). Another of these major organizations was the Chinese Benevolent Association. Unlike all the other societies of the day, the roots of the Association did not lie in China. It along sprang directly out of and in response to the needs of the Chinese community in North America. One of the most durable and successfully adaptive of the community’s organizations is the Chinese Dramatic Society. It was founded in 1921 by a group of recent immigrants and it has the distinction of being the first artistic organization of Chinese culture in Canada.

The single, non-Chinese organization to play a significant role in the community life of Winnipeg was the so-called Chinese Mission initiated by the Canadian Presbyterian Church. The Chinese Christian Association founded in 1917 and located at 418 Logan Avenue long played an active role in Chinatown. It was a popular place for socializing. It also provided a convenient postal address for many and hence was informally known as the “Chinese Post Office”.

The community’s organizations tended to serve the dual aims of addressing the needs of their members and supporting causes in China itself. They also filled the important role of mediating between the Chinese and the larger Euro-Canadian community.

However, it was with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 that a new spirit of solidarity truly gripped the Winnipeg Chinese community. World War Ⅱ quickly proved to be a seminal point in the history of Chinese community in the North America. Suddenly, Canada and China were allies.

In December, 1946 representatives of Winnipeg’s non-Chinese community joined forces with local Chinese community in united opposition to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. In May of 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed.

With the post war changes in immigration policy came radical changes in the composition and character of the Chinese community in Canada. As families were reunited thousands of women and children entered the community scene and a new social diversity was added to the community with the increasing arrival of skilled and professional immigrants.

Naturally, the character of the Chinese community in Winnipeg was greatly altered with these post war changes in the composition of its population. The new immigrants brought with them different needs, interests and concerns. As a consequence, many of the old organizations died, declined or faced great adaptive changes. Many new organizations were born in response to the new needs and inclinations of the community. In 1958 the Chinese Canadian Association was formed by the first generation of native born members of the community. Its essential aim was to make of its members better Canadian citizens while promoting an improved understanding between Chinese and other Canadians. The community, in short, became increasingly integrated into the life of its new homeland during this period. Increasingly, in effect, Canada became the homeland.

Annually, since 1970, Winnipeg supports a week long celebration of the city’s ethnic mosaic known as Folklorama. The organization of the Chinese community unite to provide exhibits, displays and programs highlighting Chinese art, dance, music and the traditional Chinese Dragon Dance.

A Winnipeg Chinatown Development Corporation was formed in 1971 to plan and direct the redevelopment and hoped for revitalization of the district. This plan was never very popular and was from the beginning the object of much criticism. Basically it failed because it was far too ambitious, radical and unrealistic in character. However, at the time the need for senior citizen’s housing in the area was urgent and, when this project died in the planning stage, the Chinese United Church decided to independently push ahead with that part of the original plan. On March 31, 1974 the Church’s Senior Citizen’s Housing Committee was established. Construction on the new eleven story senior citizen’s home, Sek On Toi, began soon afterward. The complex opened in 1978. In the same year, an independent developer built Chinatown Plaza, a modern oriental office and shopping centre, on the corner of Alexander and King.

In 1980, a new government sponsored program designed to redevelop the entire downtown area of the city was envisioned and the current revitalization of Chinatown dates from this year. Leading members of the Chinese community long interested in a redevelopment program for the district – namely – Dr. Joseph Nhac-Hung Du, Mr. Louis F.T Lee and Mr. Hung Yuen Lee – began at once to approach the community and develop a plan of action.

By November 1980 a Chinatown Development Committee had been formed under the Chairmanship of Dr. Du and the essential task of selling the idea to the Chinese community itself began in earnest soon after. With the necessary basis of community support in place, the Winnipeg Chinatown Development (1981) Corporation was formed and legally incorporated on the 3rd of June, 1981. Mr. George T. Richardson, a representative of one of the city’s most socially prominent and civic minded families, agreed to act as Honorary Chairman. Dr. Joseph Nhac-Hung Du was elected Chairman, Mr. Louis F.T. Lee, Secretary and Mr. Hung Yuen Lee, Treasurer.

For a variety of legal and technical reasons the Chinatown Development Corporation was obliged to form two sister corporation. In 1981 the Winnipeg Chinatown Non-Profit Housing Corporation was formed. In the October of 1982 a third corporation, the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre Corporation, was formed. In order to secure government funding the support of the entire Chinese community in Winnipeg (and not only that portion of the community residing in Chinatown) had to be demonstrated. It was with this end in mind that the new corporation was instituted. Lieutenant Governor Pearl McGonigal and Mayor Bill Norrie agreed to act as official patrons and Senator Joseph P. Guay became Honorary Chairman. Dr. Joseph Du agreed to act as President.

With the requisite community support and infrastructure in place the project was soon ready to go ahead. An impressive sod turning ceremony was held in the summer of 1983. His Excellency, Governor General Ed Schreyer (a former Premier of Manitoba) turned the sod officially inaugurating the project. The housing project was completed in December of 1985. The Chinese Heritage Garden and the China Gate were officially dedicated in a well attended public ceremony on October 15, 1986.

The six floor Dynasty Building itself was quite remarkable in the range of services afforded under a single roof. The centerpiece of the building is, of course, The Chinese Culture and Community Centre which occupies the whole of the second floor. It contains a multi-purpose room, changing rooms, a recreation room, banquet room, kitchenette, library, offices and a central hall to be used for cultural exhibits. In addition to the Culture Centre, the Dynasty Building also contains other shops and offices.

Dr. Joseph Du received the Order of Canada in October, 1985, due to his outstanding leadership and contribution to Chinese community. He is the first Chinese Canadian receive such honor which is also a milestone in Winnipeg Chinatown history.