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COVER STORY: Ladner’s forgotten Chinatown
Hidden along a pathway on the east side of the River West condominiums in Ladner is a tiny, weathered piece of cracking concrete.
At first glance, it looks like nothing special.
But if you crouch down in the garden dirt, you will find a fading plaque obscured by hedges which tells of the history of a forgotten people.
It tells of Ladner’s lost Chinatown.
At one time home to more than 350 Chinese cannery workers, washermen, and store owners, little remains of the history of Chinatown.
Many of B.C.’s first Chinese settlers came from San Francisco in 1858 for the Fraser River gold rush, but most came under contract from China to work in canneries or the railway.
The demise of the Qing dynasty in China led to great poverty and an exodus of southern Chinese, mostly men, looking for work across the Pacific.
Some of these workers came to Ladner, where they built a dozen or so wooden shacks on the dyke near the entrance to Ladner Harbour. Opium dens were so common, the municipality charged vendors $25 per half year for a license in 1885, according to documents kept by the Delta Museum and Archives.
But there was friction between the European and Chinese communities, as the local farmers and fishermen struggled to adjust to the customs and traditions of these men from the Far East.
The drama was played out in the pages of the newspapers of the day.
The Delta News wrote on Feb. 28, 1903, that gambling was, “one of the many vices peculiar to Chinamen.
“But when the chinks, emboldened by the indifference of the authorities and moralists, start games in which white men take part, we think it is about time the general public knew about it.”
Gambling and serving alcohol to minors were just a few of the accusations made about Chinatown by the white community.
But curiously it was the Chinese New Year and its impressive fireworks displays that seemed to spark interest in Chinese culture.
On Aug. 9, 1913, The Delta Times wrote a story about the “curious ceremonies of Celestials.” The story referred to the historical practice of the Chinese of exhuming the bones from Boundary Bay Cemetery and shipping them back to China for proper burial under their own ceremonial traditions.
A superstitious people, after bad winds the Chinese would collect money to put food on the graves and feed the “hungry spirits.” This had to be one time to get the entire cannery back to work when fearful workers claimed their dead colleague had come back to life and cooked them breakfast.
One of the more colourful members of Chinatown was Ah Han, a Chinese house boy in the London household who was simply known to Ladner as “Smiley.”
Born in 1860, Smiley arrived from China to work on the railroad, eventually making his way to Ladner seeking work in the canneries.
“He was a real character,” said Phyllis London during an interview in 1981. “He knew everybody’s business and everybody’s history.”
According to Landing at Ladner (Hutcherson, W. 1982), Smiley was so named for “always having a leer on his face as he chattered away in broken English.”
Known as the town gossip, it was said that if a body sneezed in East Delta, the folks on Westham Island soon heard about it.
“It’s amazing how the local paper managed to compete against so much unsubscribed news.”
Any time he was caught in a fib the old man would show his gums through a crooked smile and accuse the listener of “too much talky-talk and no worky-work.”
Smiley’s one fear in life was being buried in a cedar box instead of being shipped to China. When he died in 1942 his first Ladner employer, the Rich family, fulfilled his wish.
On July 6, 1929, a great fire destroyed every building in Chinatown on both sides of the dyke, doing $10,000 in damage.
“Fanned by a tremendous wind the fire burned like lightning through the dry wood and the damage was all done before the fire fighting equipment of Vancouver could reach the scene,” wrote a local newspaper at the time.
Most of the displaced Chinese residents moved to Vancouver that year. But there are theories that is not the reason Chinatown disappeared altogether.
According to an interview with Phyllis London in 1986, there were few women in Chinatown (women generally weren’t allowed to immigrate to Canada then) and the population further dwindled with the invention of the “Iron Chink”–a machine invented in 1903 for gutting fish in canneries. The closure of at least five Delta canneries prior to 1929 contributed to the decline. Even before the great fire, London said most of the buildings in Chinatown were empty.
The last member of Chinatown
Perhaps Ladner’s best known Chinese settler was Mor Ping, or Chung Chuck, who immigrated to Ladner in 1909 with his father. In 1929 he bought land at the west end of Westham Street (now 48th Avenue) and farmed there until the mid-1980s. In the late 1920s the potato marketing board made regulations to try and eliminate potato farmers in the Lower Mainland. Chung Chuck protested and became a well-known potato bootlegger, landing him in court many times.
His son Winch Chung said his father believed in hard work and education.
“We worked hard when we were young,” said Winch, who is now 71. “We were farmers.”
He also believed in standing up for what was right, no matter the cost.
“Anything that came to his mind that he felt was not right, he was going to challenge it in court,” recalled Winch’s wife, Janet.
In the mid-1970s, Chung Chuck built a houseboat and marina on the riverfront of his property which led to the infamous 1977 standoff between the police and Chung Chuck, who sat at the edge of his property holding a shotgun.
Not just farmers, Chung Chuck’s other son Napoleon has been a fisherman in Ladner for more than 50 years. Today, the family runs Chung’s Fish and Chips restaurant on Delta Street.
Winch said when the family sold the land to the developers for River West condominiums they asked it be named after his father. It never happened.
By the time the Lowe family arrived in Ladner, Chinatown was long gone. But like many of Ladner’s lost members of Chinatown, Cheung Park Lowe paid the Chinese Head Tax to get into Canada.
His son, John “Johnny” Wing Lowe came to Ladner in 1953 to work on his uncle’s farm. Back then, Chinese farmers and businessmen were still struggling to find a place in the predominantly white and Christian community of Ladner.
Johnny saved up enough money from working on his uncle’s farm that he was able to buy a truck to start a vegetable peddling business.
“He would drive his truck to housewives all the way from East Delta to Tsawwassen,” said his daughter Bonnie Leung.
Johnny was married in 1963 and had four children, Richard, Robert, Bonnie, and Donna (who passed away in 1973). That year he opened a vegetable store on the corner of Ladner Trunk Road and Arthur Drive called Ladner Grocery. But everybody in Ladner would come to simply call it “Johnny’s corner.”
“Before cell phones when somebody was planning to meet they would say, let’s meet at Johnny’s,” said Bonnie. “It was the community that named it that.”
Johnny ran the store until he retired in 1994 and sold the business. Although he passed away in 2007, the family held on to the land and in 2010 Robert demolished the old building and constructed a new one that includes his new Stir Coffee business. Many older residents of Ladner stop in just to pay their respects and look at old photographs on the wall.
“There’s quite a few who remember or know the history,” said Robert, adding it’s nice to talk to people who knew his parents when they were young.
Like many Ladner residents, the Lowes and Chungs said they weren’t aware a plaque remembering Chinatown even exists, or if they did they had forgotten. They said it would be nice to see the contributions of the Chinese settlers of Ladner recognized in a more prominent location, lest that history be forgotten by all.