Cumberland’s Chinatown and Japanese Town

Jumbo's cabin and information kiosk at Cumberland Chinatown and Japanese Town, Vancouver Island

Historic log cabin from Chinatown and an information kiosk mark the access point to the Asian communities

They did their best, but unfortunately the efforts of the citizens of Cumberland to preserve an important cultural heritage site were unsuccessful. As a result there is very little left of the community’s historic Chinatown and No.1 Japanese Town.

View of old Chinatown site, Cumberland, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

A view of the Chinatown picnic shelter from along the pathway where a thriving town once existed

We discovered the existence of these settlements purely by accident – what is left of them is located more than a mile out of the heart of Cumberland off Comox Lake Road. A large information board and one of the original Chinatown log cabins marks the beginning of a half-mile trail that connects the two communities.

Information placard at Cumberland's Chinatown, Vancouver Island

One of the information placards that tell the story of Chinatown. These are scattered throughout the former townsite

Chinatown was built on wetlands at the site of the #2 mine of the Union Colliery Company. The swamp was drained in 1888 and houses, businesses and market gardens were established to the point where the Cumberland site was one of Canada’s largest Chinese communities by the end of World War 1.

Trail between Chinatown and Japanese Town, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

It’s an easy half-mile walk west from Chinatown to Japanese Town

The town site is little more than a memory now, but information placards at building locations tell visitors a little about the structures that occupied those spaces. Churches, bakeries, general stores, social centres, residences and restaurants were scattered throughout the area. One restaurant was capable of seating 100 patrons and served 10-course meals – a sign that the community thrived despite the extreme hardships endured by the railroad and mine workers.

Asian-style bridge on trail between Chinatown and Japanese Town, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

This pretty Asian-style bridge symbolically links the two communities. Lettering on one of the end posts means ‘tranquility’

A fire that swept though Chinatown in 1943 destroyed 43 buildings – one third of the community. Work for the Chinese had diminished due to government regulations and the population in Chinatown declined precipitously into the 1960s. In 1963 the Village of Cumberland unsuccessfully applied for funding to restore Chinatown as a tourist attraction. By 1968 collectors had ransacked the town and the decision was made to raze the remaining buildings. The aforementioned log cabin was spared and moved up the hill to the roadside as a marker for the site.

Japanese Town residence, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

Not much of the old Japanese Town is accessible, but one of the residences can be seen from the trail

Half a mile west along a pretty, easy trail are the few remains of #1 Japanese Town. This community got its start in 1891, but didn’t really amount to much of anything until after a world-wide Depression in 1892. The Japanese returned to the site in 1893 and constructed 36 homes and businesses, a bathhouse and two general stores. Between 1914 and 1939 the Japanese women had a traditional tea garden at Comox Lake.

Only two or three structures of the original buildings remain standing, with the two houses still occupied. There is no where near as much on-site information about Japanese Town as there is at Chinatown, but a wander through what was once a small thriving community is instructive.

Commemorative plaque marking Japanese Town, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

Commemorative plaque marking Japanese Town

The Japanese community flourished for 49 years, until the advent of World War ll when 31 families from the Cumberland Japanese Town were sent to internment camps in the interior of the province. They never returned, and the community fell in to disrepair when bottle diggers and collectors dug up the former town site.

The 104 acre property encompassing Chinatown and Japanese Town was gifted to the Village of Cumberland by Weldwood Canada in 2002. Initially known as Perseverance Creek, the site was renamed Coal Creek Historic Park in 2008.

Bunkhouse at Japanese Town, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

This is also in Japanese Town, but there is no indication as to its use. A bunkhouse perhaps?

The site of Chinatown, in addition to being home to many information placards, also hosts a picnic shelter. Preservation and management of the old site is overseen by the Coal Creek Historic Park Advisory Committee, which takes direction from the Chinatown Picnic Reunion Group, comprised of former residents and descendants who have met yearly since 1972.

Flowering cherry trees at Japanese Town orchard, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

Flowering cherry trees at the old Japanese Town orchard

Japanese Town commemorative components are also slowly being installed under the auspices of the advisory committee. In 2009 31 flowering cherry trees were planted in the old orchard to commemorate the 31 families forcibly removed from the community in 1942. A bronze plaque honouring the families was unveiled in 2010. The project was made possible by donations from the National Association of Japanese Canadians and by former residents and their families.

Information sign at Japanese Town, Cumberland, Vancouver Island

Information sign at Japanese Town

We came away from both communities feeling a little melancholy because of the sad histories behind the town sites. But we were pleased, too, to see the acknowledgment of both the Chinese and Japanese contributions, and to have the opportunity to better understand the hardships they endured. It may not have been the prettiest part of Canadian history, but the endeavours of both communities were crucial to the success of a young and growing country.

The site of the old Chinatown cabin and the large commemorative sign board marks the access point to both communities. They can be found on Comox Lake Road, about 1 ½ miles (2.5 km) west of the village of Cumberland.

Further information on both Chinatown and #1 Japanese Town can be found at the excellent Cumberland Museum website at:

http://www.cumberlandmuseum.ca/visit/

GPS co-ordinates for the Comox Lake Road site are:

Lat. 49.617176 Long.-125.048633

N 49 37.031 W 125 02.918

Shirley

About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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