Strathcona and the Chinese

Battling Both Racial Persecution and the Flu Pandemic: The Chinese Community of Strathcona, Vancouver

Ellen Scheinberg

During the time of the Spanish flu pandemic, there were around 7,000 Chinese living in Vancouver, making this group the largest immigrant community in the city. As the population grew, Chinatown began to experience overcrowding. Around the time of the First World War, the community began expanding into Strathcona, an area just to the east. While some viewed it as a natural and newer extension of Chinatown, it was far more diverse – home to Japanese, Jewish, Italian Black, East Indian, and eastern and northern European immigrants. Residents often referred to the local Strathcona Elementary School as the “League of Nations.” The residents traded and bartered with one another and got along well. Outsiders, however, viewed Chinatown (including the Strathcona area) as a dirty and dangerous neighbourhood due to the preponderance of immigrants and the presence of gambling, bootleggers, and prostitutes.

Chinese vegetable vendors on Dupont Street (later East Pender St.), ca. 1904. Vancouver Public Library, 6729.

Chinese migrants began arriving in British Columbia during the mid-19th century. They came in search of economic opportunity but ended up confronting exceptional persecution by the Canadian state at all levels of government. In order to limit the number of Chinese entering the country, the federal Immigration Branch enacted a head tax – an astounding $500 at the time of the epidemic – that was imposed only on Chinese immigrants. As a result, most of the Chinese immigrants entering the country were working men who couldn’t afford to bring their families to Canada, ultimately creating a bachelor society within that community. The head tax was eventually replaced with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, introduced to halt Chinese immigration. These punitive policies were not remedied until 1947, when the act was repealed.

Head tax certificate for Jew Chew Gee, August 14, 1918. UBC Library, CC-PH-0217.

Once they settled in the city, Chinese residents were unable to vote, purchase land, or work in many trades and professions. The community was also subjected to regular police raids, ostensibly to control the illicit gambling, drugs, and other criminal activities that officials felt posed a moral threat to the city. Chinese locals also confronted racism in the form of hostility and violence at an individual and community level from the dominant Anglo-Protestant population, making their lives extremely insecure and volatile.

Chinese workers unloading salmon at the Butterfield and Mackie cannery in New Westminster, ca. 1912. Photo: Philip Timms. University of British Columbia Library, EX-4-14.

Within Strathcona, the Chinese residents mostly lived in crowded houses with other male family members and countrymen, working in trades that were accessible to them, such as fish canning, gardening and hawking vegetables, and the laundry business. The work was arduous and the hours long. Yun Ho Chang, one of the individuals who shared his story in 1979 with Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter, the authors of Opening Doors: In Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona (Harbour Publishing, 2011), revealed that in order to fit as many men as possible into a small living space, “they’d cram four bunks in a small room.” This strategy was adopted so the tenants could send as much money as possible to their families in China. Another participant of the Strathcona project, Gordon Won Cumyow, described community members as being extremely self-sufficient. “[T]hey helped each other out and didn’t call in the white people.” Considering the harsh treatment that Chinese residents received from authorities and outsiders, it’s not surprising the community became so self-contained.

The central organization representing and protecting the Chinese community was the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA). Established in 1896 in the original Chinatown, its four-storey building at 108 Pender Street was completed in 1909. The CBA funded and built a Chinese hospital next door, at 106 East Pender Street. According to Paul Yee, the author of Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver, the CBA was set up to “unify the community, settle internal disputes, help the sick and poor, and defend the community against external threats.” It offered meals to its members when they were out of work and provided support – financial, legal, and political – to those in need. And when the flu beset the community, the CBA did its utmost to assist its constituents.

The Spanish flu stuck Vancouver in several waves, from October 1918 until March 1919. By the end of the epidemic, 30,000 residents had been infected and 900 had died. Strathcona and East Vancouver were the hardest hit districts. Rather than sympathizing and supporting Strathcona’s citizens, many locals blamed the victims for contributing to the contagion. According to historian Mary Ellen Kelm, immigrants in Vancouver were viewed as a threat to the city, due to their supposed “backward” cultures. Chinatown was perceived to be a particularly dangerous enclave, she argues, because locals felt it could act as “a reservoir of disease.”

Most scholars have argued that the infection and mortality rates for the Chinese in Vancouver were higher than that of white middle-class residents, perhaps as high as twice as much, according to an article published in The Chinese Times in March 1919. Since the data that authorities from that era and contemporary scholars have relied on was drawn from the BC death registers, the death rate may have actually have been as high as, or higher than, that projected by the Chinese Times. Chinese residents were far less likely than other residents to report communicable cases and deaths to the authorities, due to their precarious status in the country and a fraught relationship with government agencies.

The photo includes 104 to 108
East Pender St., ca. 1985. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA791-0796.

Socio-economic conditions played a role in these infection and mortality skews. Chinese residents lived in overcrowded housing, lacked the funds and family support to access modern medical care, and likely had great difficulty taking time off from work to convalesce (few could afford to forgo income or the loss of a job). When they did fall ill, recounts local resident Yun Ho Chang, community members rarely visited white doctors, preferring traditional Chinese herbalists (or doctors, as they were called at the time). “If a person got the flu or something like that,” he said, “they simply prepared herbs like ma-tse-on and lu-bo-cheung, and they worked – the herbal remedies all worked.” 

Chinese flu victims tended to visit the Chinese Hospital next to the CBA, where they would be treated with traditional medicines and therapies. For most Chinese residents, seeking treatment in a non-Chinese hospital was a last resort, as they lacked faith in Western medicine, couldn’t afford the fees, and had difficulty communicating with English-speaking medical personnel. Perhaps most importantly, white hospitals treated Chinese patients like second-class citizens. Some refused to admit Chinese patients, while the others, like the Vancouver General Hospital, relegated them to the basement.

Portrait of Dr. Frederick T. Underhill, 1936. City of Vancouver Archives, Port P1119.

During the height of the pandemic, municipal health authorities attempted to prevent the further spread of the disease by closing public spaces like schools, theatres, and shops. Vancouver’s first medical officer of health, Dr. Frederick Underhill, focused a great deal of his attention and efforts on monitoring the residents of Chinatown and inspecting their homes, businesses, and community buildings. In 1919, his department issued 20 orders to condemn buildings in the area, including the Chinese Hospital.

In fact, health authorities were deeply critical of the Chinese Hospital. Newspaper coverage at the time focused on Chinese medicine and condemned the community’s failure to report flu cases and deaths to the authorities. In contrast, The Chinese Times, a local Chinese language paper, emphasized the number of raids and health inspections that took place within the community and the burden these posed. Evidently, members of the community often viewed the health officials and the police as a greater threat than the flu itself.

Because of the state’s abominable treatment of the Chinese, the community turned inward, relying for support on the CBA, family, friends, and neighbours. The residents believed in traditional Chinese remedies and healers and were wary of Western medicine. These cultural factors shaped the community’s experience of, and response to, the flu pandemic. Despite the fact that most Chinese immigrants lacked female family members to act as caregivers when they fell ill, the strong community infrastructure that they developed provided treatment for sick patients as well as sustenance and support during a period of crisis.