Chinatown Fire Hydrant

January 25th, 2018

Installed in 1965, this fire hydrant commemorates the devastating fire that destroyed Nanaimo’s Chinatown in September of 1960. Since 2006 the Archaeological Society of BC-Nanaimo Branch (ASBC-NB) has been trying to gain support for a park which would commemorate the site.

Nanaimo’s first Chinatown had been established about 100 years previous to the fire, in the 1860’s, and was built initially in the area of Esplanade Street and Victorian Crescent by the Vancouver Coal Minng and Land Company (VCMLC) for its Chinese workers. The community was then moved due to an increase in this land’s value, and was relocated near Machleary Street. Chinatown persevered despite setbacks––in 1898 the Labour Regulation Act forbade Chinese and Japanese workers from working in the mines, where many of the town’s inhabitants were employed. In 1908 Chinatown was bought by local entrepreneurs, Bing Kee Mah and Chung Yung, who demanded steep rents, causing the community to relocate again, this time to the area near Pine and Hecate. Chinatown’s population began to decline after 1923, when the Chinese Immigration Act made Chinese immigration to Canada all but impossible.

On the dry and windy afternoon of September 30th, 1960, at the end of a long dry summer, a fire started in just one house at around 4:30 pm. Billy Thom, a cook at the Tideview restaurant, spotted the flames, but despite efforts on the part of standers by and the Nanaimo and Harewood Fire Departments, the community burned to the ground.

Chinatown was known for its line of connected wood houses––a detail which made the neighbourhood charming, but also vulnerable to fire. The community had poor roads, and lacked fire safety equipment.

When the volunteer firefighters arrived, the fire hose was so old it burst when hooked up to a hydrant, and the fire was so hot it began to melt a metal ladder used by firefighters. The blaze appeared on the front page of newspapers all across Canada.

The fire burned for seven hours. While the fire luckily took no casualties, it did leave approximately 200 people homeless, and many more suffered financial ruin from which they were never able to recover.

If created, the commemorative park proposed by the ASBC-NB would sit on the site of the last Chinatown. It is uncertain whether or not the park will be created; this hydrant is one of three remaining hydrants left to mark the history of Nanaimo’s lost Chinatown.


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