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Chinese cemetery in Nanaimo in line for restoration work

Cemetery’s shrine pagoda and gateway are heritage treasures, say city staff
The gateway and shrine pagoda at the Chinese Cemetery on Townsite Road are slated for restoration work to repair decades of weather damage. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Structures in what has become a landmark of the history of Nanaimo’s Chinese community are set to undergo restoration work.

The gateway and shrine pagoda in the Chinese Cemetery on Townsite Road will receive a cleanup, repairs to concrete and roof tiles and fresh paint.

The structures have been beaten by more than 40 years of West Coast weather to the point where paint has worn off, concrete has crumbled and interior timber components have deteriorated.

At a city council meeting Monday, May 2, Bill Sims, city manager of engineering and public works, and Chris Sholberg, city culture and heritage planner, presented a report on the site’s history and the scope of the planned restoration work.

Sims referred to the cemetery as a “heritage treasure” at the start of his report. Sholberg said the site is listed on the city’s heritage register as cultural landscape and is “a rare and tangible link” with Nanaimo’s Chinese heritage.

The cemetery was established on the land, which was acquired by Chinese community members in the 1920s, and took over from the Chinese community burial site on Stewart Avenue, now known as Chinese Memorial Gardens Park, which is dedicated to Nanaimo’s Chinese pioneers, Sholberg said.

The first recorded burials took place at the Townsite cemetery site in 1933.

“There may have been earlier burials, but these are the ones … that we have records of,” Sholberg said.

Ownership of the site was transferred to the city in 1985. The cemetery is no longer exclusively for people of Chinese heritage and is still an active burial site.

Sims said a routine inspection revealed the level of deterioration in the gate and shrine structures has created a safety hazard, which is the reason for the restoration project.

“The essential work is going to be just stripping the coating – sandblasting it off – hammering at the concrete to get rid of some of the loose stuff and looking for and replacing any exposed reinforcing steel, patching the concrete and then repainting it all and replacing the roof tiles and so on,” Sims said.

Estimated cost for the repair work and the engineering and design report, according to a Herold Engineering document, is $57,000.

Coun. Ian Thorpe said he felt Nanaimo hasn’t done enough to recognize the contributions made by Chinese people to the growth of the city, noting that much of that community’s history was lost with the Chinatown fire of 1960. He asked if there was a possibility for educational signs about the history of the Chinese community and culture to be added to the site and if Nanaimo’s Chinese Cultural Society had been consulted for input about the project.

“The same thought occurred to us the last few months when we were working on this project was here’s an opportunity to do, probably interpretive signage, both at the front gateway entrance – particularly for folks walking by or passing on the street – but also maybe do an more in-depth cultural interpretation at the … shrine location,” Sholberg said.

Sims said initial attempts to reach out to a representative of the Chinese Cultural Society had been unsuccessful, but that the city would pursue that further.

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Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog noted that 53 Chinese workers died in the No. 1 coal mine explosion of May 3, 1887.

“Those Chinese workers who were killed in the mine, when they listed the names of the dead, were only identified by number, emphasizing again, as Coun. Thorpe brought up, the significant and lengthy history of the contribution of Canadians of Chinese descent to this community and the poor treatment,” Krog said.

Sims said depending on availability of contractors, the restoration work could get underway in late summer or early fall.

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The gateway and shrine pagoda at the Chinese Cemetery on Townsite Road are slated for restoration work to repair decades of weather damage. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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