Business owners Wong Gip She (right) and Wong Gip Low She (left) with their two sons Banford and David, c. 1916. Wong was a prominent figure of Chinatown South, establishing businesses, operating a de facto post office, and funding cultural events. (Photograph courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, P7642)

Chilliwack’s Chinatowns, gold rush era featured in new museum exhibition

Two-in-one exhibition connects Royal BC Museum’s Gold Mountain Dream with Chilliwack’s lost Chinatowns

The current installment at the Chilliwack Museum combines two exhibitions in one as folks learn about B.C.’s 19th century gold rushes and Chinese immigration to Chilliwack during and after that time.

The Royal BC Museum’s travelling exhibition, Gold Mountain Dream! Bravely Venture into the Fraser Valley, is well-paired with local pieces of history featuring Chilliwack’s lost Chinatowns. The two-in-one exhibition comes alive with Chilliwack Chinese artifacts, audio recordings, and a video in and amongst the informative panels of Gold Mountain Dream.

The local portion of the two-in-one exhibition is based on the 2011 book Chilliwack’s Chinatowns: A History by Dr. Chad Reimer. Chilliwack’s Chinatowns (yes, there were two) spanned nearly 40 years.

Chinatown North (1896-1921) was the smaller of the two with about ten businesses located north of Yale Road near Five Corners. Chinatown South (1911-1934) was larger, being home to 150 residents and several businesses along both the north and south side of Yale Road between what is now Airport and Parr roads.

The largest organization in Chinatown South was the Chee Kung Tong (or the Chinese Freemasons) which was established in 1917. Its members were responsible for maintaining the well-being of the community.

Several fires destroyed both Chinatowns. A devastating fire in 1921 caused many Chinese residents to leave Chinatown North. Two fires in 1932 and 1934 ravaged Chinatown South. The loss of the Masonic Hall in 1932 meant that many of the records of the Chinese community in Chilliwack were lost.

A well-known Chinese-Canadian politician, Dorothy Kostrzewa (nee Chung), who grew up in Chilliwack’s Chinatown South and stayed after the fire of 1934, is also featured in the exhibition.

When she was elected to Chilliwack City Council in 1970, Kostrzewa (1928-2013) became the first Chinese-Canadian woman to hold political office in Canada. Her victory broke both racial and gender barriers. Her career on city council lasted 38 years.

The local portion of the exhibition also features artifacts like clothing, tools and games, plus panels of text on topics like work, farming, and social life, as well as the decline of the two Chinatowns and racism.

It was believed some of the fires that destroyed Chilliwack’s Chinatowns were arson, set by those who were trying to push the Chinese out of Chilliwack.

The Royal BC Museum’s travelling exhibition, Gold Mountain Dream! Bravely Venture into the Fraser Valley, makes up the majority of the installment at the museum.

It explores how the gold rush not only changed the landscapes and lives in B.C., but how this monumental event changed China, as people flocked to a rugged land in search of fortune.

Created by the Royal BC Museum in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of History, Gold Mountain Dream! tells the personal stories and sacrifices of Chinese migrants in the 1850s as they landed on British Columbia’s shores in search of gold. It is a fascinating account of adventure, heartbreak, and social upheaval.

The travelling exhibition has been on display in various cities and countries (including China) since the spring of last year. The text on the panels is in English and simplified Chinese.

Gold Mountain Dream! Bravely Venture into the Fraser Valley, featuring Chilliwack’s lost Chinatowns is on display at the Chilliwack Museum (45820 Spadina Ave.) until Oct. 8.

Hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays until 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and students, free for kids 12 and under. Admission is free for Museum Members and their guests.



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Dorothy Kostrzewa (nee Chung) standing beside a truck belonging to her brother, Harry Chung, at their family home on Yale Road West in 1947; the Chinese Masonic Hall is visible in the background. (Photograph courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, P7472)

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