China Steps Nanaimo’s best kept secret

NANAIMO - Situated between Victoria Crescent and Terminal Avenue, China Steps might seem a little out of the way.

Situated between Victoria Crescent and Terminal Avenue, China Steps might seem a little out of the way, but to two business owners who have their shops in the area, it’s great.

For Mike Cass, owner of Underground Skateboards, the fact that it’s not typical is part of what he likes.

“It’s a little bit hidden away, kind of forgotten by the city a little bit, but I like the area. It’s a cool, funky area, it just needs a bit of a facelift,” he says. “It’s different, it’s not generic cookie-cutter, like a mall (where) everything looks the same. It’s kind of a unique area plus it has a history. I don’t have any attachment to the history but the Chinese history of the area is pretty cool.”

Trader Jake, who owns China Steps Emporium, has been on China Steps for little more than a year and while parking is an issue, there is good foot traffic and he likes the area.

“It’s a good little hub, a good little part of the city. (The city) is starting to recognize it and do hanging baskets and things like that but there’s a lot to be improved as well,” Jake says.

When asked about how China Steps is tucked away, Jake does say it is unnoticed but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything in the area.

“Humans are pretty observant creatures but they just seem to stick to the main drag or that side of the highway. It’s a deterrent when they come and get to the end where (Catwalk Fashions) and the optical place is and – with a vacant A&B Sound building, a restaurant and a couple of sandwich boards – it doesn’t seem enticing to people to cross the highway for it, yet a whole trove of wonderful little businesses are down here.”

Jake says a lot of the businesses are independent at China Steps, everyone gets along; it’s a funky area just waiting to be discovered.

“I’d like to see it grow down here and Nanaimo become aware that China Steps exists and just take a walk down here and you’ll probably be amazed what’s looming,” he says.

Cass really thinks some beautification would do a lot to improve China Steps.

“The city needs to do a facelift down here. It’s such a cool area that a little bit would go a long way down here I think,” he says.

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While many Chinese came to British Columbia with visions of gold dancing in their heads in the mid-1800s, coal mining was the reason they came to Nanaimo.

The area now known as China Steps (area between Victoria Crescent and Terminal Avenue) had some Chinese businesses in the area as well as three bunkhouses for Chinese people off of Esplanade and while not officially the area’s first Chinatown, many consider it just that.

“In the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s there was a sprinkling of Chinese shops but there was no real Chinatown per se,” said Christine Meutzner, archivist with the Nanaimo Community Archives. “It wasn’t a distinct object. The second Chinatown, the third Chinatown were actually self-sustaining communities, whereas that first one was just some Chinese shops sprinkled throughout there.

“We think it was sometime in the 1970s and 1980s where they decided to mark the Chinese presence somehow, so they chose that site,” Meutzner said, adding that a mural will be going up with a reinterpretation of Chinatown to be depicted.

“I think that’s going up really quick,” she said.