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.
"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).