In the District of Kent today, there are more than 200 residents of Asian descent.
Although some of these people are likely newcomers to the community, the history of Asian immigrants, and particularly Chinese immigrants, has deep roots in Agassiz — extending to before Kent was even incorporated as a municipality.
In the late 1800s, many Chinese immigrants came to British Columbia in search of gold. It’s likely many of these men (travelling from both China and the United States) came through the Agassiz area on their way, as the Fraser and Harrison Rivers were major conduits for gold seekers as they travelled north.
When gold rush slowed, many turned to other occupations. For Agassiz, the use of Chinese labour on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was particularly important.
It wasn’t easy. Chinese workers were paid only a dollar a day, compared to $1.50 or $2.50 for European employees, and had to pay for their own food and gear as they travelled with the railroad through the province. By the end of 1882, 6,500 of the 9,000 employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway were Chinese-Canadians, and over the course of its construction 15,000 temporary Chinese workers were put to work.
|Chinese at work on C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) in Mountains, 1884. (Boorne & May / Library and Archives Canada / C-006686B)|
These workers were given the most dangerous tasks — using nitroglycerin to break up solid rock, for example — and hundreds died from accidents, cold, illness and malnutrition. There was no compensation for those who were killed, and many wives and families left behind in China never heard of the men’s fate.
Chinese-Canadians continued to work in train-related occupations after the CPR’s construction was complete in 1885, particularly in Agassiz. Agassiz resident Donald McRae became head wood cuter for coal-burning CPR locomotives in late 1880s, and employed as many as 250 Chinese workers.
Although the railway is perhaps the best known involvement of Chinese-Canadians in the local economy, it wasn’t the only occupation: domestic service, for example, was also possible.
In 1891, the Agassiz family was photographed with a Chinese servant, unnamed, at a tea party after a tennis match. Identified only as “Chinese cook,” in the Agassiz Harrison Observer’s Centennial edition, the Agassizs would often for call their Chinese workers “Wing” — name also associated with the first Chinese woman to live in Agassiz, who had the first Chinese baby in the community.
The Agassiz family employed Chinese workers well into the 20th century. In a 1977 newspaper article in the Agassiz Advance, Ed Marler shared his memories of the 1948 flood, including one recollection of two Agassiz sisters who refused to leave their home.
“The ladies agreed to go if their Chinese houseboy of many years was allowed to stay on and watch the place,” the article reads. “As one of the ladies boarded the boat, she called out to the aged Chinese retainer: ‘Now Wing, you stay here until we return.’
“At first, Wing showed no emotion, then suddenly his eyes widened and he pointed to the water lapping at the top step, and said with typical Oriental brevity, ‘He come, I go!’”
Many Chinese eventually would work in the seasonal hops business, even developing their own community at the eastern end of Pioneer Avenue. Although some workers would live at the hops fields, those who lived in town would walk to the fields with their tools each day.
|Queenie Fong as a young girl in front of the laundry shop in Agassiz’s Chinatown. (Agassiz-Harrison Historical Society)|
The Chinatown in downtown Agassiz was a hub for the local Asian community, including at least two stores, a laundry and shoe repairman, a hall and a collection of small houses. The Fong family, perhaps the best-known Chinese family in Agassiz, started one of the stores on east Pioneer and supplied groceries to those who worked on the railroad, in the hops fields and in the shingle mills.
According to Queenie Fong, who shared stories from her family’s time in Agassiz in Vol. 2 of Memories: Agassiz, Harrison Hot Springs and Harrison Mills, her grandfather was a labour agent who brought men from China to work on the railroad. As many as 100 men lived in the top storey of his store, where there was a kitchen, a dining room and another large room where the men would play cards or fantan.
Although the Fong family was the best known in Agassiz’s history, they were by no means the only ones living in Agassiz’s Chinatown. Queenie Fong recalled both the Wing and Soo families in her letter to the Agassiz-Harrison Historical Society, and even mentioned “a beautiful lady,” who she remembered as wearing a lot of makeup.
“I later came to realize that she was a prostitute,” Fong wrote in Memories. “I don’t know how she came to Canada for, in those days, very few women were allowed in.”
Woo Shue (or Soo, as he was also known) also lived in Agassiz, from 1900 until his death in 1963. Not much is said about him in Memories, other than he was a “well-known Chinese gentleman who was loved by all who knew him, particularly local children.”
In the mid-1970s, Simon Chang and Ma Pang came to Agassiz to run the Agassiz Restaurant, according to a 1975 edition of the Agassiz Advance. The pair held an open house in October to kick off their business, and more than 100 community members attended.
Around that same time, the Yeung family came to Agassiz. Robert Yeung, who arrived in Canada in 1974s and settled in Agassiz in 1981, purchased a drugstore in the community with his multi-cultural family. Married twice, Yeung’s sons from his first marriage were Chinese-Romanian, and his step-children from his second marriage to Christina Charlie were of Canadian and Indigenous descent.
“This family is a bit like the United Nation!” he wrote in Memories.
|An image of one of the buildings in Agassiz’s Chinatown being dismantled, after being built in the 1920s. (Agassiz-Harrison Historical Society)|
By the time the Yeungs came to Agassiz, much of the Chinese population had dissipated, many leaving for Clinton in the 1950s with the demise of the hops industry. When they left, Agassiz’s Chinatown slowly dwindled; the building Arthur Agassiz leased to the Chinese people as store and boarding house became used as a morgue instead.
Now, there is little left of Agassiz’s Chinatown or the people who lived there. But the District of Kent continues to thrive, standing as it does on the labour of those Chinese-Canadian men who built the railway backbone of the community and their families who came to make their home in Agassiz.