Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chinatown steeped in 130 years of history

  • Print

Many Winnipeggers only think of Chinatown as a slightly exotic urban pocket where they occasionally go for dim sum. But the few square blocks around King Street and Alexander Avenue, just north of the Exchange District, are steeped in more than 130 years of significant history.

North American Chinatowns started to emerge during the 19th century as extensions of China.

  • Africa edition

    Africa is one complex and gloriously unmanageable 'theme' to choose to kick off our 2012 series, Our City Our World, which is why it took up the whole newspaper on Jan. 18.

  • China edition

    Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba.

  • Germany edition

    German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province.

  • Iceland edition

    Arriving in Manitoba in the 1870s unprepared for a brutal winter, Icelandic settlers and their descendants have left their mark on our province.

  • Italy edition

    Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L’art d’arrangiarsi (the art of getting by).

  • Latin America edition

    It used to be the only time Prairie folks met Spanish-speaking people was when they vacationed down south. More often now, they're the people next door.

  • Middle East edition

    When the first Middle East families immigrated to Manitoba, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic. But now all that has changed.

  • Philippines edition

    A booming Filipino community nearly 60,000 strong has transformed Manitoba.

  • South Asian edition

    As the city's Indo-Canadian population experiences dramatic growth, its pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome.

  • Ukraine edition

    Scarred by Holodomor, the Ukrainian community helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic.

  • United Kingdom edition

    Manitoba's history is built on a foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives.

"Chinatowns weren't just in big cities such as Vancouver," says Henry Yu, a University of British Columbia professor who is the foremost authority on Canadian Chinatowns. "Cities such as Winnipeg had Chinatowns that served as the gateway through which Chinese travelled back and forth through the small towns of the Prairies."

Chinatowns were enclaves where Chinese political groups organized and dramatic troupes performed. They were havens where a Chinese newcomer who had just got off the train could get help from fellow countrymen.

They attracted Christian missionaries who sought to convert "heathen" Chinese. They were seen as "exotic" and "sinful," and thought to be associated with gambling and opium dens.

In many Canadian cities, for many years racism prevented Chinese immigrants from residing or operating businesses outside the borders of Chinatown.

Winnipeg was less oppressive that way, but its Chinatown was for decades an important landing place and community hub.

Winnipeg's earliest Chinatown residents were predominately male labourers from the Wong, Lee and Ma clans who came to this nation in the late 1850s as Fraser River Valley gold miners and in the 1880s as railway labourers.

Winnipeg's earliest documented Chinese residents were Charley Yam, Fung Quong and an unnamed woman who came from the United States in 1877. Many early Chinese came to Manitoba from the northern U.S. Within two years, Chinatown had Chinese laundries, groceries, tobacco shops and rooming houses.

Once the first phase of the CPR line was completed in 1885, hundreds more Chinese began to settle the Prairies as owners and operators of laundries and groceries, and after 1900, cafés.

Early Chinese settlers were drawn to Winnipeg. It was the geographic and transportation centre of Canada; cosmopolitan and known to be more welcoming toward newcomers. Unlike in British Columbia or Saskatchewan, Chinese could vote in Manitoba and practise as doctors.

Around 1909, the Chinese United League opened a secret clubhouse at 223 Alexander Ave.

The clubhouse, which Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited in 1911, was part of a global political network that facilitated the flow of member donations to establish a new republic in China. In 1912, the Chinese United League became the Chinese Nationalist League's secret Prairie headquarters. It was really these political groups, not the gradual increase of businesses, that fostered friendships and networks between Chinese men and led to the formation of Chinatown.

You may have seen the blue building with the flag in Winnipeg's Chinatown at 211 Pacific Ave., just west of Main Street. That's where the Chinese Nationalist League has had its offices since 1932. This building tells heartbreaking stories of resilient men like Charlie Foo, Frank Chan, Happy Young, Charles Yee and Charlie Wong, who came to Canada in their youth and dedicated their lives to Winnipeg's Chinatown.

Heritage Winnipeg needs to recognize the enormous value of this building. Demolishing the Chinese Nationalist League Prairie headquarters would effectively be demolishing the history of Winnipeg's Chinatown.

By 1919, Winnipeg had the fifth-largest Chinatown and Chinese community in Canada: 900 men and a handful of women. By contrast, 400 Chinese lived in Edmonton and 450 in Nanaimo, B.C.

Until the 1950s, there were still only a few dozen Chinese women in Winnipeg. Newcomers were still finding temporary lodging in Chinatown, and some bachelors lived and retired there. But most Chinese families lived outside of Chinatown.

The rise and fall of Winnipeg's Chinatown roughly paralleled institutionalized racism in Canada. In 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act required almost all immigrants of Chinese descent to pay a head tax of $50. By 1900 that tax had risen to $100, and three years later it stood at $500.

In 1923, the act was revised, excluding virtually all Chinese from entering Canada. Until 1947, when it was repealed, few wives and children (at first due to the head tax and later because of exclusion) had been able to join husbands and fathers in Canada.

As women and children began to emigrate to Winnipeg in the 1950s, men reunited with families, moved out of Chinatown, and it declined. The ensuing decades brought the emigration of Chinese professionals and students, as well as Indo-Chinese refugees. These groups also sought to live, work and define themselves outside of Chinatown.

By the 1980s, the area was rundown. Dr. Joseph Du and Philip Lee successfully lobbied Mayor Bill Norrie, the province and federal ministers to revitalize Chinatown with the construction of the Dynasty Building, Mandarin Building, housing complex and the Chinatown gate. Today, Dr. Du, Malinda Lee and others continue to strive to reinvigorate Chinatown with the Peace Tower housing complex.

While Chinatown has evolved beyond its original purpose, its rich history deserves to be honoured and preserved as part of the Winnipeg story.

Alison Marshall, professor in the religion department at Brandon University, is the author of The Way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese Settlement in Manitoba and the forthcoming Confucianism and the Making of Chinese Canadian Identity (UBC Press).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j6

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets players discuss outcome of Game 3 and hopes for Game 4

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Deer in Canola field near Elma, Manitoba. 060706.
  • MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060711 Chris Pedersen breeds Monarch butterflies in his back yard in East Selkirk watching as it transforms from the Larva or caterpillar through the Chrysalis stage to an adult Monarch. Here an adult Monarch within an hour of it emerging from the Chrysalis which can be seen underneath it.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google