Chinatown at 100
Chinese Canadians have had a long-standing presence in Edmonton. The first Chinese to arrive in the city were brothers Chung Gee and Chung Yan, who traveled north from Calgary in 1892 and opened a laundry. The Chinese community grew slowly, and by 1899 only thirteen Chinese men and three Chinese businesses (two laundries and a restaurant) are recorded as having been in Edmonton.
During Edmonton’s rapid expansion in the early years of the twentieth century the city’s Chinese population increased, and by 1911 there were roughly 150 Chinese men and 4 Chinese women in the city. Often discriminated against by the white majority, Chinese immigrants relied on each other for assistance and found comfort living among their peers. Several Chinese entrepreneurs opened businesses at the intersection of 97th Street and 101A Avenue to serve the growing community and an identifiable Chinatown emerged.
Despite restrictive immigration practices, Chinese immigrants continued to arrive and the community grew to encompass three city blocks, bounded by Jasper Avenue, Elizabeth Street (102 Avenue), Namao Avenue (97 Street) and Frazer Street (98 Street). By 1921 Chinatown had expanded east along 101A Avenue to 95th Street and had over 500 residents.
Growth in Edmonton’s Chinatown suffered a serious setback in 1923, when the federal government passed the now infamous Chinese Immigration Act, which severely limited Chinese immigration to Canada until the Act was repealed in 1947. By this time the original Chinatown was in decline. The neighbourhood had gained a reputation as a low income area replete with cheap accommodations, taverns, dance halls and second hand stores. As a result many of the former residents, as well as new Chinese immigrants, moved to more desirable neighbourhoods.
In 1979 the City Planning Department, in consultation with the Chinese community, approved a plan to demolish Edmonton’s original Chinatown and replace it with one a few blocks away. The replacement Chinatown, known as Chinatown South, covered an area from 95th to 97th Streets and Jasper to 102A Avenues. Chinese residents and businesses relocated to Chinatown South and in 1981 the original Chinatown was razed to make way for Canada Place.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s another new Chinatown emerged north of downtown, known as Chinatown North. The area began with businesses owned by and catering to members of the Chinese and Southeast Asian community along 97 Street from 105 to 108 Avenues, and by the early 1990s the area had spread to encompass the area from 105 to 107 Avenues and 97 to 101 Streets.
In the mid-1990s a third Chinatown began to form, this one located south of the river in Strathcona. Smaller than Chinatown South and Chinatown North, the Strathcona Chinatown likewise caters to Edmonton’s Chinese and Southeast Asian community. Today the Chinese and Southeast Asian communities are fairly dispersed, and pockets of businesses owned and catering to those communities can be found throughout the city.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of Edmonton’s original Chinatown, and although none of its buildings remain, the Chinese community is as strong as ever. Edmonton’s Chinatowns make an important contribution to the character of our city and represent a part of Edmonton’s heritage that goes back to the late nineteenth century. This year will be marked by events commemorating the Chinese presence in Edmonton, and will provide an opportunity for citizens to celebrate an important part of our city’s collective identity.