Chinese Community


In 1891 the Chinese population in Nanaimo was 228. Most of the population lived in Nanaimo's "second" Chinatown, located in the south end of the city. Originally, the Chinese community was located on Victoria Crescent close to the centre of the city, but in 1884 it was relocated to a site near the city limits. The Chinese community moved again in 1908 when a "third" Chinatown was established at the north end of Pine Street. That community was destroyed by fire in 1960 and was never rebuilt. Today, Bayview Elementary School occupies the site of the 1891 Chinatown.

Why did the Chinese community move in 1884? "There were three possible reasons for the decision to relocate Chinatown," according to local historian Pamela Mar. "First, as the white business district of Nanaimo began to expand southward along the waterfront, the land on Victoria Crescent became too valuable for a Chinatown. Second, white miners in Wellington vented their rage upon Chinese labourers after Robert Dunsmuir broke their strike in the autumn of 1883 by using the Chinese as scabs. The third reason was as a precaution against the arrival of many Chinese labourers to work on the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway."

In 1887 the Nanaimo city limits were extended to include Chinatown. For administrative purposes, it was considered part of Nanaimo's "Middle Ward" and so was enumerated as part of Middle Ward during the 1891 census. Although Chinatown was officially part of the city of Nanaimo, Chinese residents and businesses were not listed in the 1892 Directory. By all accounts, however, it was a thriving community. Like the city of Nanaimo itself, Nanaimo Chinatown was a commercial hub for the mid-Island region, serving small satellite Chinatowns in Cumberland, Wellington, Northfield, South Wellington, and Extension.

Population distribution

The Chinese population was concentrated in Chinatown. The census indicates that 202 Chinese people lived in the Middle Ward Chinatown. Only 26 Chinese people lived in the city's North Ward. No Chinese were recorded in the city's South Ward. It is interesting to note that the Wellington District supported a substantially greater Chinese population than did Nanaimo. The areas of Wellington and Mountain/South Wellington supported Chinese populations of 227 and 85 respectively.


Nanaimo's 228 Chinese residents were associated with 75 census family units. Not all of these family units were located in Chinatown. For example, two Chinese men (each of whom was enumerated as a separate family unit on the census) were in jail during the census; other Chinese were working as servants and cooks and in private homes or hotels. When these situations are taken into consideration we are left with 66 census family units. It is assumed that these 66 all lived in the Middle Ward Chinatown, since their census family numbers remain reasonably sequential.

As might be expected, most census family households were made up of multiple males sharing a variety of living arrangements. However, it should be noted that the usual stereotypical mass crowding did not exist. When the numbers of rooms are compared to the number of occupants there was an average of less than one occupant per room. This isn't to say that multiple occupants didn't occur. To illustrate more clearly, there were 42 households with more rooms than occupants, 18 with equal numbers of rooms and occupants, but only 11 with fewer numbers of rooms than occupants. The two worst ratios were one of 9 occupants in 4 rooms and one of 12 per 4 rooms. Even these worst-case ratios indicate an entirely reasonable average of three or fewer occupants per-room. So, Nanaimo's Chinatown was not an overcrowded ghetto.

Women & children

The entire Chinese community, from Wellington to Nanaimo, was almost exclusively male. In 1891, the census shows just six females, all of whom resided in Nanaimo's Middle Ward Chinatown. Of these six females, four were between the ages of 20 and 25 while one was just 3 years old and one 41. In three instances the women resided in census households which included more than one male; in two cases, the women lived alone with their husbands. Of the five adult women, only two had children. Foong Ah, a 3-year-old girl, was the daughter of 23-year-old Mrs. Kioong, while Child Lung was the one-year-old son of Mrs. Lung.


The Middle Ward labour force was diverse, but heavily weighted towards general labourers. There were 24 different occupations, which employed 189 persons out of the entire population of 202. (Of the 13 people who did not have an occupation, two were infants, four were female homemakers, and seven were unemployed or did not have an occupation recorded beside their name.) Among Chinatown residents, there were 100 general labourers, 27 launderers, 21 cooks, 9 general dealers, 5 stokers, 3 store clerks, and 3 servants; 2 each of opium merchants, barbers, gardeners and farmers, and 1 farmhand, butcher, street vendor, medicine man, joss priest, bricklayer, tailor, bookkeeper, oyster dealer, railway hand, railway brakeman, land clearer and hod carrier.

It is interesting to note that there are no Chinese mine labourers listed in Nanaimo's Chinatown. However, the census does show an increasing number of Chinese mine labourers as enumerators moved north towards Robert Dunsmuir's coal operations at Wellington. There were 6 Chinese mine labourers in the North Ward and 73 in Wellington. There were 46 Chinese mine labourers in the Mountain/South Wellington district, where Dunsmuir mines were also located. This data illustrates contrasting labour policies practiced by the New Vancouver Coal Company, which did not allow Chinese labourers in its mines and the Dunsmuir mining operations, which did. The Middle Ward Chinese labour force - that is, the labour force that lived in Chinatown - was almost exclusively made up of general labourers and those working in the service industries.


The Chinese population ranged from 1 to 89 years of age, but the majority of residents were between twenty and fifty years old. There were 69 adults between 20 and 29 years of age; 59 persons between 30 and 39 years of age; and fifty people between 40 and 49 years of age. Ten men were in their Fifties, two in their Sixties, and two in their Eighties. The two eldest residents were general dealers.


In the 1891 census, nearly all of the Chinese were recorded as "pagans" on the nominal census schedule. "Pagan" was a subjective term used by the enumerator. The joss priest was a notable exception. He was recorded as a Buddhist. The presence of a joss priest would seem to indicate that the population of Nanaimo's Chinatown was more religiously devoted than the enumerator suggested.


The information researched, recorded, interpreted and presented in this report suggests that the residents of Chinatown were an industrious and determined people. It is hoped that the research offered here will foster a better understanding of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the city of Nanaimo.

Additional sources

David Chuenyan Lai, Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988); Pamela Mar, "The History of Nanaimo's Three Chinatowns," British Columbia Historical News, vol.21, no.2, Spring 1988; Jan Peterson, Hub City: Nanaimo, 1886-1920 (Surrey, B.C.: Heritage House, 2003).

Researched and written by

Rick Rembold, Brian Donald and Brian Simmons, History 358, October 2003.

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