Calgary is home to Canada’s fourth largest Chinatown after Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. It celebrated its 100th year in 2010. The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre ( 197 First Street, SW, 403-262-5071) is the beating heart of the neighbourhood. It cost 10 million dollars to construct in 1992 and is credited with keeping the historic area alive when it was threatened by Bow Trail extension through downtown in the 80’s.
This post will share what you can find if you explore the cultural centre as well as more about the history and current state of affairs of this not well known part of Calgary. There’s also a list of six restaurants that are definitely worth a visit.
When you enter the centre, you’ll find yourself in the Dr. Henry Fok Cultural Hall which is modelled after The Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Twenty-two artists were brought from China to paint the ceiling with its 561 dragons and 40 phoenixes.
The dragons represent vitality and are the male symbol. Dragons with five claws are the symbol of the Emperor. Dragons rule the air and sky and if you see a dragon in a painting you’ll also always see clouds as the dragon controlled rain. Rain is life in an agrarian society like China’s. The phoenix represents all things female, the Empress, earth and creativity. The four central columns supporting the dome represent the four seasons and the 12 posts, the 12 months. The blue tiles on the exterior roof represent heaven and they were made by the same company that created the original tiles for Beijing’s Temple of Heaven in 1420.
The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre also houses Canada’s largest collection of contemporary Chinese language books in the Orrin and Clara Christie Might Library and there’s a small but wonderful artifact museum in the basement. The following information was taken from the exhibits of the museum:
The Chinese Canadian experience – Important Dates
- 500,000 years ago – Peking man walked the earth
- 1858 – Simon Fraser Gold Rush brings Chinese to BC to work in mines
- 1880’s – 18,000 men recruited to work on the CPR (Chinese leaving China because of war – TaiPing Rebellion – over 20 million people killed, overpopulation, lack of farmland, high rents, increased poverty and hunger and unemployment of wage labourers)
- 1885 – Came to Calgary as cooks and to set up laundries
- 1885 – 1923 – Chinese Immigration Act and Head Tax ($24 million paid by the Chinese who were the only group in Canadian history to ever pay for immigration)
- 1890’s – first Chinatown – Centre and 9 Ave SE
- 1892 – Small pox riot with many Chinese businesses burned to the ground
- 1901- 1910 – second Chinatown – 1 St SW and 10 Ave SW
- 1910 – Establishment of current Chinatown with the first purchase of land by a Chinese man which was $18,000 for the land at 2nd Ave and Centre St
- 1911 – Dr Sun Yat- Sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalists League visits raising funds to overthrow the Qing Dynasty
- 1910 – 1930 – Key organizations like the first Chinese YMCA form and host the first All-Chinese hockey team – Tongs – mutual aid societies, family benevolent societies or Clan Associations (approximately 60 in Calgary) also form at this time
- 1923 – 1946 – Era of Exclusion (Dark Age) Chinese barred all entry to China – Canada becomes a Chinese bachelor’s community as men are not allowed to bring wives or fiancees from China
- 1946 – 1967 – Repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act and Family Reunification – the Chinese are allowed to vote
- 1967 – Total drop of all restrictions on immigration – New Era – Prosperity in a New Environment
- 1960’s – 80’s – many threats to the existence of Chinatown with Bow Trail’s development and the 80’s oil boom
- Early 80’s – Influx of people and money from Hong Kong as the British leave and the island is retaken by China – New Investor Category in immigration sees Li Ka Shing by 52% of Husky Oil
- Late 1980’s – Chinatown Area Redevelopment Plan builds Wah Hing Mansion for 9 million dollars
- 1992 – The Cultural Centre is finished for 10 million dollars
- 2006 – PM Stephen Harper publicly apologizes for exclusion and pays $20,000 to each living person who paid Head Tax
- 2005 – 2010 –Lieutenant Governor Of Alberta – Normie Kwong – succeeds in every facet of Canadian life – education, business, family, sports (he was a professional football player) and government
The centre’s collection of artifacts highlight the 10 major Chinese contributions to the world as follows:
- Block printing
- Literature and Philosophy – Taoism and Confucianism
- Fireworks and gunpowder
- The Compass
If visiting the centre piques your interest to learn more about China or Chinese Canadians here’s a collection of my favourite books that you might also enjoy reading as follows:
Favourite Contemporary books about Chinese Culture
- Moon Cakes in Gold Mountain: from China to the Canadian Plains. Dawson, J. Brian. (Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1991)
- It’s All Chinese to me: an Overview of Culture and Etiquette in China. Penner, Gwen & Ostrowski, Pierre. (All Out Press, 2008)
- Chinese in 10 minutes a day. Kershul, K. (Bilingual Books, 2004).
- Red China Blues: My long march from Mao to Now. Wong, Jan. (Anchor Canada, 1996).
- Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found. Wong, Jan. (Doubleday Canada, 2007).
- The Good Earth. Buck, Pearl S. (Washington Square Press, 1931)
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. See, Lisa. (Random House, 2005)
Calgary Chinatown – Past, present and future
When I first arrived in Calgary in 1984 I loved to go to Chinatown on the weekend to join the riot of and happy market shoppers and dim sum goers. The place was packed with people loudly bartering and produce spilling out of stores onto make-shift counters in the streets.
The last development plan for Calgary’s Chinatown was in 1986. Strict rules about development were enacted to save the area from begin devoured by Bow Trail. The cultural centre opened in 1992 – also with the intent of pouring life into our city’s Chinese culture heritage. Ironically, the activity in area seems to have slowly evaporated ever since.
Parking costs made it difficult for the markets to survive. There are none left. They’ve morphed from Mom and Pop places to super-sized chains owned by Loblaws and have moved out to the suburbs. I’d say Edgemont or Harvest Hills are the new areas of dense Chinese population in Calgary. I don’t know how the little businesses still left in Chinatown make it. The dried goods on their shelves are very dusty.
The restaurants still hop most nights of the week but a walk through the area by day is very quiet as you can see in this photo collection.
So this begs the question, What does the future hold for Calgary’s Chinatown? The area has recently formed a new Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ) and the city has formed a much-needed Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) to go back to the drawing board and work out how it will envelope a new LRT line destined to somehow go through the area into that plan.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to get our creativity going. I still love to wonder around this area and there are still good places to eat. There are less Chinese restaurants and more Thai, Vietnamese and Korean places. My Chinese friends now take me to their favourite restaurants on Centre St. North, in Edgemont in the North West or in the North East but I still have a few Chinatown gems that help me savour it all.
I’ll leave you with Six Chinatown Restaurants should you choose to explore this unique part of Calgary. I hope you’ll also join in the annual Chinese New Year celebrations and the block parties they host every August. Let’s breathe new life into the dragon and the phoenix of our Chinatown.
The Silver Dragon – 106 – 3 Ave SE – 44 years and counting – famous for Dim Sum but excellent a la cart in the evening as well
1Pot – 123 – 3 Ave SE – hot pot
U & Me Restaurant – 201 Center ST SW – popular late night spot
Golden Inn – 107 2 Ave. S.E – order the shrimp with candied walnut stir-fry – also open late
Kingfisher Seafood -Dragon City Mall, 328 Centre St. S.E
The Regency Palace – also in the Dragon City Mall – for the hot pot buffet