The first Chinese business in Lethbridge started in the 1880s. Considering that the Galts started their first mine in 1882 and the town-site of Lethbridge was surveyed in 1885, this makes the Chinese among the first settlers of the new community -- here even before Lethbridge attained town status.
Many more arrived over the next several decades. In the 1890s railroad buildings was occurring around southern Alberta - the Galt railway to Great Falls and the Crowsnest Railway among them. Several Chinese arrived to work on the railways. In the early 1900s, 75 Chinese were brought to Raymond to work in the sugar beet fields. Some of these men stayed in the area to work in laundries, restaurants, domestic work and market gardening.
The Chinese often faced discrimination and prejudice and had limited job choices. Chinese, Japanese, East Indian and African American immigrants were considered "unsuitable" and faced racism and occasional violence. People calling for tolerance were rare and usually ignored. Despite the challenges, these groups came to southern Alberta, some looking for a better life and hoping to make it rich so they could go home; some choosing to make a home in their new country. Around 1900 approximately 100 Chinese lived in Lethbridge. In a town of only a few thousand people, this was a significant portion of the population.
Lethbridge's Christmas Day Riot of 1907 provides considerable information about ethnic relations in Lethbridge. But the details are clouded by 3 distinct written versions and many rumours and legends that don't agree on any of the details. Also, no written version telling the story from the Chinese community perspective has been found.
The Lethbridge Herald reported that Jim Lee and John Lee committed assault and bodily harm to Harry Smith during a disagreement in a restaurant. Jim Lee hit Smith on the head with a hammer while trying to remove him from the building. A rumour started that Harry Smith was dead and 500 people went to Round Street (5th Street South today) looking for the waiter. They damaged the restaurant and were beginning to damage other Chinese businesses when Mayor Galbraith showed up with the RNWMP and City Police, read the riot act and sent everyone home.
An anonymous written report by an "Old Timer" said that Smoky Lee and Irish made a nuisance of themselves in Mah Wong's Restaurant. The two men were drunk and shooting at tomato cans lining the walls of the restaurant. The waiter used a cleaver to get the 2 men to leave. Later friends looking for Smoky Lee were told "oh, they're dead." Hearing the news and being intoxicated themselves, the men started a riot and were destroying the cafe and other businesses when Mayor Galbraith, the city Police and Mounties showed up, arrested people, and ended the destruction.
According to the Herald, Jim Lee and John Lee were both charged and found guilty. According to the anonymous account, apologies were made to Wah Wong, reparatations made and Lethbridge settled down to the normal tenor of its ways.
What is true? I'm not sure. Maybe neither. Maybe both have some points of truth.
What is known is that anti-Chinese feelings led to the City of Lethbridge passing By-Law 83 in 1910. The By-Law had an innocuous title - A By-Law Respecting the Erection and Removal of Buildings, Fire Limits and Prevention of Fires..... - but the by-law is best remembered for ordering that all laundries had to be within a specific geographic area of Lethbridge. The true nature of the by-law became apparent when all laundries, except the one owned by white residents, was forced to move into the area.
The By-Law was repealed in 1916 but by this time Chinese busineses and residents had moved to the area that became known as Chinatown. Chinatown developed a strong sense of community which it retained for decades.
Around the same time, many people complained that immigrants were taking jobs from Canadians. Discriminatory hiring practices were used. In January 1909 Lethbridge City Council ordered its engineers to employ English-speaking workers in preference to "foreigners." Some businesses, often hotels, restaurants and cafes, promoted that they only hired white help. One restaurant, White Man's Cafe, even expressed its hiring policy in its name.
The Chinese community learned very early on that they had to rely on each other in order to survive. Organizations - such as the Chinese National League and Chinese Freemasons - supported members of the Chinese community. They established roomed for their members to meet and socialize, libraries where they could read Chinese newspapers and classes for children to learn calligraphy and Cantonese. These organizations sponsored many celebrations including the Chinese New Years. Through the Great Depression no member of the Chinese community in Lethbridge went on relief as the support came from within the community and not government.
I have researched the Chinese community in Lethbridge for exhibits and books. There is very little documented history on the Chinese community in Lethbridge. There are few photographs and records. Even individual Chinese residents who operated businesses for 40 years in Lethbridge may only show up in the Lethbridge Herald 1 or 2 times. This is not a story of Lethbridge's past that is easy to tell or easy to find.
Sadly, earlier this week we lost a very tangible part of our Lethbridge history. The Chinese National League Building was built between 1909 and 1920. Not surprisingly this corresponds to the time By-Law 83 was being promoted. The building was originally a restaurant. Likely the owner found it prudent at that time to move to where the other Chinese businesses were being located because, of course, there is safety and support in numbers.
Many people have said there was nothing remarkable about that building. The story of that building was not in its bricks and mortar. It was in what it represented about Lethbridge history and about the Chinese story in Lethbridge history. This building told us about our community 100 years ago and over the past century -- who we were then, who we are now and who we would like to become. Now, sadly, the story of that building has been relegated to the dust heap.