Part 1: Mt. St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Chinese Immigrants

Lee Building in Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Vancouver, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2020

A Dip Into the Past

Life really does get in the way, doesn’t it? Instead of roaming around the city, I ended up in the hospital (nothing life threatening). While I was in said hospital, I thought, “man, is this place ancient” …and then I thought, “this place is ancient!” As good a reason as any to see what kind of history it had, and it turns out the whole part of the city was older than I had thought (if you are not from this area, you’ll probably laugh at my use of the word ancient, but we are a very young country still, so to us this is super exciting – or at least to some of us). And to clarify, I am not suggesting anyone go to a hospital for touring or entertainment reasons (or at all, that’s just a horrible place to go to), but one must use the lemons one is given, mustn’t one?

Anyway. Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital, which I went to, is a small hospital in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood (on Kingsway). It’s a now somewhat ratty, brick building, which today has another cement-like building attached to it, as well. It’s really not overly exciting to see at first hand. Inside, they have many hand sanitizers (considering the whole world is raving about the coronavirus, these were much used). The inner parts are much like any hospital, aside from one interesting part at the front entrance, near their gift shop. There are a couple of plaques on the walls with Chinese characters and names.

Mt. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Vancouver, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2020

I walked by here many times before, but I have never considered why these names were there. It turns out that this hospital had come into being precisely for the oriental population of old Vancouver (and by old, I mean Vancouver a hundred years ago, now). The world was very different back then, and quite layered. I’ll touch on all of these layers a bit in order to shine a light on the idea of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood as it was around the 1920’s, which is about the only thing that unifies all I’ve ended up learning about. It turns out, however, that my extrapolation on this history has created a novel, so I will talk a little about three main subjects which affected Mount Pleasant during its early years: the European settlers, the Chinese immigrants, and the First Nations people. I have also made this post into two parts (in case the title was not read and the hint not picked up on).

That said, if you like history and want to see parts of Vancouver where you know something had once happened (but isn’t touristy), this is the post for you. If you don’t like history, you should probably not read this. I had meant to only look up information about the hospital, but had ended up dug into something entirely complicated. What I hope now is to carry across an idea of what the world was like a hundred years ago around Mount Pleasant, allowing one to compare it to today. That said and forewarned, those of you brave enough to plough on, here we go. We start with Mount Saint Joseph’s.

On May 2, 1921, four sisters from a Catholic congregation (Sisters of Immaculate Conception) traveled from Montreal to Vancouver for a mission to help the poor and downtrodden, which at that time were the Chinese immigrants. Sisters Marie du Sacre Coeur, Aimee de Jesus, Marie du Saint Redempteur, and Marie de St. Georges (this last had lived in China and spoke a little Cantonese, I believe) came to Vancouver to help chronically ill Chinese men who could not go back home or had no one to take care of them.

At first, they had rented a small house in Chinatown on Keefer Street in June 1921 (which they turned into a school), before buying a house on Campbell Avenue in 1924. This house became a small missionary hospital (and a convent). It had eighteen patients at first, but within the next four years it became too full and a new three-story building was built next door, and opened as St. Joseph’s Hospital. The sisters also opened a second dispensary at 795 Pender Street (they were tremendously busy, weren’t they?), which was also meant for those of oriental descent.

It wasn’t until 1941 that the property where the current hospital sits, at 3080 Prince Edward Street, was bought. It took five years to transform the sheep farm they had bought into a hospital (I bet most current hospital employees don’t know that). Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital was thus opened in 1946. It had about ninety beds (and was reputedly half empty), and had the four sisters and two doctors (as far as I understand), who all worked on a volunteer basis. In 1948, it became a general hospital and treated everyone.

As you might have noticed, there is a slight intonation on the missionary Sisters working hard to help Chinese immigrants. I remember hearing a little about the Chinese population way back when, but really knew nothing whatsoever, so I looked into it. There are different reasons why Chinese Canadians ended up as Chinese Canadians (and not somewhere else, or back in China), and why they needed help of any kind.

This goes back a little, and a little back to China, from the First Opium War (1839-1842, a series of battles between the UK and the Qing dynasty at the time), which was followed by the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The following is purely what I found reading about the Taiping online, so forgive me for being wrong if I am. What I found was that the Taiping Rebellion was a rebellion led by the Hakka (people who fled the Mongols in the 13th century and wanted to not be oppressed), who were led by Hong Xiuquan (who had had a fever and dreamed a series of things which resulted him believing he was the son of god), and who fought against the (in my mind, considering the Opium War had just ended, now possibly somewhat ruffled) Qing dynasty. The Taiping side won for a good number of years before the Qing dynasty took over again, however the war ended up with an estimated 20-70 million deaths. That said, you can imagine that some people tried to get the hell away. Possibly to somewhere like North America.

The first Chinese people known to settle in Canada, however, were fifty artisans who came with a Captain John Meares in 1788 (so before that whole mess above) to help build a trading post for sea otter pelts. The idea was to encourage trade between Quangzhou in China and Nootka Sound, BC. However, Captain Meares ended up being driven out of the area by the Spanish (it was a physical noodle box back then; I do not suggest pioneering for land or wealth purposes, it’s bad for the health), which left his Chinese crew to settle in the area, in BC. Some reputedly married indigenous persons.

Then came 1858, when Chinese immigrants began arriving to the Fraser Valley as gold prospectors from down south. On this topic, apparently Barkerville, BC had the first Chinese community in Canada, which I find cool. I had no idea (it’s further up in BC if you’re interested).

And then, then we come to the other reason Chinese immigrants came to Canada, which was for work. They worked in BC so they could support their families in China. It’s an age-old story, but the way they had to do it was pretty horrible. From around the 1880’s, something called a credit-ticket system was employed, where Chinese or North American lenders would buy the travel fare for the Chinese individual to get them to Canada, and then the person would spend an X number of years paying off the debt. This was not exactly legal, I believe, but it had been done all the same. Some of these deals went through Chinese gangs apparently, but it provided those on the Canadian side a cheaper option for manual labour, because they paid the Chinese individuals half the price than what they did a Caucasian man at that time. It was (as far as I can see) through mainly Chinese labour (and horrible working conditions, where hundreds died) that the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.

While the Chinese poured in for various reasons to work, to support their families, etc, the Canadian Europeans put a head tax on Chinese immigrants ($50 per head, and considering this was in the 1880’s, that was a lot, I think). Around 1900, the head tax was raised to $100 per head, however, Canadian politicians got annoyed by the high immigration rate (after the plunder and ill-treatment of said immigrants, to add), and upped the head tax to $500 per head. I assume this would be a little like if today one wanted to immigrate to Vancouver and an immigration person said, “but you each have to buy a house first!” (if you’re not from the area, house prices here make us all look like millionaires, so the idea is ludicrous). The immigration rate went from 4,719 people per year down to 8 per year at that time, and apparently this day is known to Chinese Canadians as Humiliation Day, which is additionally horrible. From 1923-1947 there was then no immigration whatsoever for Chinese immigrants.

In the meanwhile, however, those who were already in Canada had primarily spread across the country due to the railway they had built themselves. Some Chinese people became shop keepers or grocers or ran restaurants – in other words, they naturally settled. From around the 1890’s to the peak of the 1930’s, there were Chinese schools across the country (though they tried to segregate children, and there were no job opportunities in professional areas when the schooling was complete for Chinese Canadians). Chinese people also weren’t allowed to buy property until the 1930’s. There was an evident divide between the Europeans and the Chinese (or rather, between the Europeans and absolutely everybody else, which is a very wide topic).

Chinese people, in other words, weren’t allowed to do a whole lot of things, were discriminated against, treated harshly, and had a rough beginning in a new place – one that maybe some, or all, did not even want to be in, considering they may have had family back home. And so, enter the four Sisters from Montreal, who opened a hospital. I never much had any opinion on missionary work, but after learning a bit about the conditions these Chinese immigrants had gone through, I’m fairly happy that hospital was built. Next time I go in there, it won’t be only with dread of that horrible hospital smell, but at least with the knowledge that it helped those who were alone all that time ago.

Today, Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital still has certain events to remember their culture, and donors who help make it possible. From a few years ago, they started Soup for the Soul, which was a traditional Chinese soup made for their residents at the time (most were Chinese). It was accepted well by the residents (some said it reminded them of dinners with family long ago), and for a few years they had soup day every Tuesday and Friday, full of restorative properties and ingredients (good for the throat and hydrates the body!), though I am unsure if it still continues. All the same, from what I can see on their website they have events and donors to help keep it going. Well-wishers, maybe like the missionary Sisters from a hundred years ago.

This was one story. The Chinese had come to Canada, but so had the Japanese and the Sikhs, all with various prohibitions attached to their races. But for this particular post, I’ll stay focused on the Chinese immigrants, on Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital, and the neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, which was beginning to grow. Details on that will be in part two.

As always, if something is off (and being history, I am sure there must be something), leave a comment or let me know!

Sources & Links:

Barkerville, BC – First Chinese community | Canadian Pacific Railway – history about the CPR | Chinese Canadians – history on Chinese Canadians | Chinese History (First Opium War) | Chinese History (Taiping Rebellion) | First Nations Guide – great for Newcomers | Hastings Mill Museum – old shop left from the old Hastings Mill | Indian Act – Overview of the past and present Indian Act | IRSS – Indian Residential School Survivors Society | Lee Building (Vancouver Heritage Foundation) – History about the Lee Building || Mt. St. Joseph’s Hospital: Providence Healthcare History | Mt. St. Joseph’s 1971 Pamphlet History || Vancouver Municipalities of: New Westminster || Vancouver Neighbourhoods of: Gastown | Marpole | Mount Pleasant | Mount Pleasant History || Vancouver Heritage Foundation Interactive Map – map of heritage houses and other information | Vancouver – history of Vancouver before it was

Tell me when there’s more!

Published by Treensbert Churchmouse

I'm a European-born individual, raised on the west coast of Canada in beautiful BC, and a Vancouverite at heart. I love the world of city, sea, and mountain we are lucky to have, thanks to many years of some proper tectonic plate action. Vancouver is a vast, thriving west coast city, balanced perfectly with the peace of the wild surrounding it. That said, I love to explore, but also to escape! I'm a writing and travel enthusiast and have a good foot wedged into the tourism industry (it only follows, if one is a travel junkie). I hope to share what I see and learn about my experiences with those who might like to try the same.

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