VERNON - It was a gathering place for Vernon’s Chinese at a time when the wider community did not accept them as equals. A place they held meetings, engaged in social activities, and cooked traditional feasts.
The large, beige, three-storey building at the corner of 28 Avenue and 33 Street, now the Gateway Men and Women’s Shelter, was built in 1952 as the Chinese Masonic Lodge. Vernon resident Herb Wong’s own grandfather was one of its founding members.
“My father relayed that it was not always the most pleasant experience growing up in a community that was hostile to Chinese,” Wong says. “Things have changed, with greater multiculturalism, the need for that sort of fraternal organization doesn’t exist anymore.”
But to Wong, it’s important to remember and recognize the hardships and the history of people like his grandfather. That’s the idea behind an initiative to nominate the building for the Chinese Historic Places Recognition Project, one of the outcomes of the Chinese Historical Wrongs Consultation, a formal apology by the B.C. government in May 2013.
“I don’t remember who said it, but the saying goes, ‘If you don’t remember the past you’re doomed to repeat it,’” Wong says. “If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past and point them out, certainly we wouldn’t want to see something like that happen again.”
The Chinese Immigration Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act are just some examples of the legislated discrimination faced by B.C.’s Chinese population. Chinese people were denied the right to vote, own property and hold public office for many years.
The former Chinese Masonic Lodge is one of the last buildings from Vernon’s historic Chinatown still standing. At one time, Vernon was the largest Chinese community between Vancouver and Calgary. Chinatown used to cover several blocks of the downtown area with Chinese groceries, laundries, restaurants, and community buildings like the Freemason Society.
“At one time, it (Masonic Lodge) was the cultural centre of the Chinese community,” Wong says.
Wong’s father was inducted into the society at 10 years old, and remained active into his 80's.
More than 60 years after it was built, Wong is glad the building is still offering a welcoming space to those who need it.
“Our Chinese Freemason Society, like any fraternal organization, was there to help people, so it’s nice to see the building is still being used to help people,” Wong says.
A selection of nominated historic places will be officially recognized by the provincial government and placed on the B.C. and Canadian Registers of Historic Places.
The deadline for nominations is Feb. 20.
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