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CCAP Historic Building Inventory Update

Research for the Chinese Canadian Historic Buildings Inventory began in June 2015 with the goal of creating a comprehensive list of all existing historic Chinese Clan Society buildings in the province of British Columbia, outside of the urban areas of Vancouver and Victoria. Such a task had never been undertaken, and given the number of Chinatowns destroyed by fire or torn down to make way for urban development over the past century, it was unclear how many of these historic buildings might still remain. In order to narrow down the initial search, it was decided that the project should concentrate on the earliest examples of Chinese Clan Society buildings constructed during the first waves of major settlement – a timeline that shifted according to geographical area. For example, areas such as Barkerville may have buildings dating from the 1860s during the Gold Rush, whereas other areas that followed the construction of the railway  were not settled until later. To accommodate the timespan of settlement, the study included buildings constructed from 1860 to 1930. The initial project had two planned phases: phase one involved compiling an inventory of buildings from across British Columbia, and phase two (still being completed) involves selecting examples from that list and providing a statement of significance for each.

As research for phase one got underway, we soon realized that many areas that once had significant Chinese communities and historic Clan Society buildings had completely disappeared and been transformed by modern development. What remained were only 6-7 standing examples from across British Columbia (not including Vancouver and Victoria where a larger number of buildings still do exist). During our research we also discovered that in small towns vernacular sites such as restaurants and drug stores, which were not technically built as Clan Society Buildings, appeared to have functioned in much the same way by offering a space for official and community functions, and providing benevolent service. Smaller communities would have relied on these vernacular sites as many did not have local Clan buildings of their own. Given the small number of existing official Clan buildings, it was decided that we would include vernacular sites with documented activities of this kind in our inventory with an eye towards future research on these hybrid sites.

Lytton Joss House in foreground. Circa 1912
Lytton Joss House in foreground. Circa 1912

Another unexpected inclusion in the inventory came in the form of sites where buildings no longer exist, but which could potentially have lasting cultural significance that should be documented. One example is the Lytton Joss House, thought to have been built in 1881. The Joss House, a small wood frame building, was considered a spiritual centre where people prayed to the goddess Kwan yin (among others) for healing and protection, as well as providing a meeting place for the Chinese community. The site of Lytton, with its surrounding mountains and conjoining rivers provided an auspicious place to locate such a “portal to heaven”(1).  Indeed, research suggests that this site was long understood as a place of healing by the Nlaka’pamux, the original inhabitants of the area (2). Although the Joss House no longer exists as a building, the site continues to serve as a place of prayer, ceremony, and healing. Since 2011, an annual Kwan yin ceremony for peace has been performed on the site of the original Joss house by the monks of the Lions Gate Buddhist Priory. More recently, the land on which the Joss house originally stood has been donated for a reconstruction that will function in the form of The Lytton Chinese History Museum. Construction is slated to begin in fall of 2015 (3). This example demonstrates how such sites are “cultural landscapes” with enduring histories regardless of existing architecture.