I used this word when I spoke as a panellist for Mapping Heritage: Uncovering Community (Heritage BC webinar). ‘Erasure’ continues to have meaning in thinking about heritage in BC.
I am a descendant of Cumberland’s Chinatown. My paternal grandfather arrived in Victoria in 1890 and soon made his way to Cumberland. He died in Cumberland’s Chinatown on April 27, 1924, leaving grandma with nine children (the youngest was less than a year old). The family left for China in 1928—never to live in Cumberland again.
When you leave, who will remember you and your family, especially as the community declines over time through death and/or dispersal to other places offering better opportunities? One by one the families leave, the ‘bachelors’ die, and then—silence. There are no voices to tell the stories, to say “we were here.”
The silence is also about what is valued and by who. In the colonial history of BC, those who settled and remained became those who mattered. Residents of smaller communities on the Island, not known for having a Chinatown, are surprised to learn that the early Chinese population was sufficiently large that they hosted a Chinese Freemason Society in the 1920s, i.e., Cobble Hill, Ladysmith. Or, that their place names are identified in Chinese characters dating from 1897, such as, Cedar, Comox, Departure Bay, Maple Bay, Parksville.
Today these locales are not known for their settlement by Chinese Canadians or any other racialized group with immigrant origins. Even in communities that acknowledge having a Chinatown, as in Cumberland, whose history that matters can be contentious. Today there are walking trails with signage informing visitors of the former Chinatown and #1 Japanese Town located in Coal Creek Historic Park. Cumberland successfully promotes its multicultural heritage. However, in 2001, the land still belonged to Weldwood of Canada Ltd (a forest products company) and how the land was to be used was in question.
In debating land use, the issue of whose history was being valued arose. In Cumberland proper, only one individual remained of the original Chinatown families. An ad hoc group, Concerned Citizens of Cumberland (of more recently arrived residents of European descent) was formed. A ‘battle’ for what was to become of the land engaged the community in lobbying, multiple town halls, stakeholders’ meetings, and even newspaper coverage outside of the Comox Valley.
In November of 2001, I received a call from one of the leaders of the Concerned Citizens. He was seeking an ally to support heritage; he did not know that he had stumbled upon a descendant of Cumberland’s Chinatown. At stake was the community’s heritage, but whose? European, or its Asian Canadian community; a history of the K’omoks People was not even a consideration.
Additional allies were sought. The journalist, Stephen Hume, was an important one; the title of his Vancouver Sun article (January 12, 2002) tells you exactly the dynamic of the moment. “Cultural Imperialism: When Cumberland officials decided to redevelop their bulldozed Chinatown, they consulted with many community groups – but ignored the Chinese themselves.” Erasure. It could very well have happened; however, those who cared were mobilized.
Instead of a rod and gun club, in its place the Village of Cumberland has Coal Creek Historic Park serving a diverse population of young and old from the Comox Valley and beyond. The history and memory of Chinatown and #1 Japanese Town are no longer a shadow.
Who are, or who will be, the heritage champions of those silenced voices from the past? If you do not look, will you see?
Imogene L Lim, PhD
Vancouver Island University
Since that fateful telephone call in November of 2001, Dr. Imogene Lim has maintained a relationship with the Village of Cumberland through the Concerned Citizens of Cumberland, then The Chinatown/ No.1 Japanese Town Ad-Hoc Group, and finally, through a formal appointment to the Coal Creek Historic Park Advisory Committee (2008-present). She is a founding member and former Board Director of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC. In 2020, Dr. Lim was appointed a Board Director of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society of BC, which will lead the development and operation of the first Chinese Canadian Museum. She is also a descendant of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Imogene created the image (above) using her father’s CI45 certificate—one that every person of Chinese descent was required to have or they would face a $500 fine and/or 12 months in jail.