Upon arriving during the gold rush in the Interior, Chinese migrants made the Central Okanagan their home.
Xiaoping Li is a member of the Okanagan Chinese Canadian Society and chair of the sociology department at Okanagan College. Hua Meng is the founder and general administrator for the OCCA.
The pair sat down to explain the history of how Chinese migrants came to the Okanagan, and why the recent unveiling of a sign commemorating Chinese pioneers in City Park carries so much meaning.
Q: How did Chinese migrants end up in the Central Okanagan?
Li: The first wave of Chinese migrants came to Canada for the gold rush in the Interior. Many Chinese people moved from San Fransisco, so there were thousands of Chinese working in mines. After the gold rush ended some of them stayed and they dispersed in B.C.
Another wave came for the constructions of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway was completed in 1885 and many of them stayed because they didn’t have the money to even buy a ticket to go home. The government and the railway company broke their promise in providing a ticket home.
They were forced to stay and they dispersed in B.C.
Q: What role did they play in developing the local economy during that time?
Li: In the 1880s Kelowna was going through an industry change from cattle to agriculture so the Chinese workers filled a gap for labour. So they worked on the farms and in the orchards.
Q: There was once a Chinatown in Kelowna, where was it located?
Li: It was located between Water Street and Abbott Street and Harvey and Leon. It was just a dirty road. At the time it was the outskirt of downtown Kelowna so the Chinese were actually not included so they basically settled in that area.
Q: Chinese residents once made up 15 per cent of the population, what’s the percentage now?
Li: In about 1910 there was around 500 Chinese. According to the Statistics Canada census, the Chinese population is 2,340, and 10 years before than it was 1,500.
Q: Tell us about the sign project in City Park and it’s importance to the Chinese community.
Meng: In 2015, the province made the apology to Chinese people in B.C. about the historical wrongs. Before this, the government was doing consultations on how to make an apology. I was contacted and asked for the society’s support. I started to investigate the history as I came in the ’80s.
I think it’s important for the younger generation to understand the history of our ancestors and we don’t want the historic events to come back again, so we supported the B.C.’s governments initiative. There was an old sign, but it was not sufficient and we decided to replace it with a bigger one.
Q: What Chinese traditions are celebrated in Kelowna?
Meng: The OCCA holds a series of events each year. The spring lantern festival is the largest in Chinese tradition. This year we’ll be holding the eight annual of the spring lantern festival. May is Asian Heritage Month and the Moon festival in September.
Q: If someone wanted to learn more about the history of Chinese Canadians, where would they go?
Meng: Visit the museum, we’re also in process of establishing an online history. There’s a section on the Asian Heritage website, said Meng. (Asian Heritage Month information can be found at https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/asian-heritage-month/about.html. The OCCA can be found at http://occabc.ca/)
The OCCA was incorporated in 2010 as a charity. The charity aims to promote Chinese culture, help new immigrants, provide youth education and promote multiculturalism.
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