By Trevor, Junior Council
Last summer I was lucky enough to be chosen to attend the BC Provincial Heritage Fair in Victoria. It was such an amazing experience and so full of history as we visited significant places around the Victoria area. It inspired me to visit some historical sites when I returned to my home in Kamloops. One such site is the Kamloops Chinese Cemetery. It was interesting to actually visit the site that I had only seen pictures of at our local museum.
The Kamloops Chinese Cemetery is located in the southwestern outskirts of downtown Kamloops. It is on a grassy slope overlooking the Thompson River and Mount Paul as seen below in the photo.
Many Chinese immigrants first came to BC before it was even considered a province. They came in search of gold, in the 1860s, during the Cariboo gold rush. When the gold rush ended, the Chinese found work building the railway. In the 1880s, The Canadian Pacific Railway was created through Kamloops and many Chinese came to live in the area as they worked on the railway. There were over 17,000 Chinese workers who helped to build the Yale-Kamloops line. When the railway was finished many of these Chinese workers chose to settle in Kamloops and in 1890 there were over 400 Chinese residents. This was approximately one third of the Kamloops population. A section of downtown Kamloops was the original site for a Chinatown. In 1897, The Kamloops Sentinel created the first record of the cemetery in an article that they wrote.
It is one of Canada’s oldest and biggest intact Chinese cemeteries. It showed that the temporary Chinese residents decided to become a more permanent part of the community in the 1920s. Many of the immigrants had intended to return back to China in 5-10 years and the cemetery was created as a temporary burial place. They had not been allowed to bury their deceased in the Pioneer Cemetery, so the HBC decided to give them some land south of the town to use as a burial site. Surrounded by a wooden fence, there was an altar and a burner placed near the north section of the cemetery. Many of the graves were not marked until after 1923 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was created and they chose to settle down in Kamloops. At this time, permanent, marked tombstones started to be installed as early as 1927. Many of the marked graves are dated from the years between 1930 into the 1960s.
In 1979 the cemetery was closed. It is all that is left of the Kamloops historic Chinatown. It contains approximately 125 burial plots. Over 50 of these plots were disinterred. More recently, the Kamloops Chinese Cemetery Heritage Society has been trying to restore and rehabilitate the area as a place for community commemoration and worship. It is the only Chinese controlled cemetery in BC. Many come to visit the cemetery today to pay their respects to the people who are buried here.
Editor’s note: If you’re also staying close to home, there are lots of great resources to explore heritage virtually: Historic Places Day website, Virtual Museum of Canada, or BC Culture Online, just to name a few. You can also check with your local museum to see what they’re doing virtually – many summer programs have been moved online.