Kelowna Museums highlighting area history with cemetery tours

Kelowna's past might appear to be monochromatic, but tucked into the hillside behind a local golf course, a different story can be found.

Kelowna’s past might appear to be monochromatic, but tucked into the hillside behind a local golf course, a different story can be found.

Headstones from the last century highlight the remnants of bustling Chinese and Japanese communities that long ago dwindled due to restrictive immigration policies and shifting economic realities.

It’s  history that Kelowna Museum highlighted this weekend in a Kelowna Memorial Park cemetery tour as part of their Asian Heritage Month exhibition.

” The Japanese are on this end, then suddenly it will shift to the Chinese,” said Local historian Bob Hayes, as he tromped by a line of headstones, with a handful of history buffs in tow.

“It’s a reflection of the time. People then probably thought, ‘Chinese, Japanese—What’s the difference?'”

It’s as ironic as it is ignorant, he pointed out, given that the two nations have always had a tense history.

Locally, the two populations also faced starkly different realities

At the turn of the last century, the Japanese had relatively significant populations in Coldstream, Glenmore, Rutland, Lake Country and Westbank.

“Men came out first and they would farm,” said Hayes. “The men would work, make enough money to buy property, then they would go home to marry, come back and have children.”

A lot of the time, the children would be sent back to Japan for an education. “The Japanese had an easier ride, even during the war I don’t think there was as much discrimination against the Japanese as there was against the Chinese.”

The Chinese, however, faced a wall of racism that was regularly highlighted in the local newspaper.

“They were horrible,” said Hayes. “In 1911, we had a visitor in Kelowna, who the next year would become the most famous person in the world, and the local paper slagged the whole thing.”

Sun Yat Sen, would go on to be known through history as the man who toppled the emperor of China, but when he visited Kelowna he was depicted in a cartoonish manner, with racial slurs in abundance.

“They even made fun of the horse he rode in on,” said Hayes.

His presence, however, may have reflected the strength of the Okanagan’s Chinese community, which started in the Okanagan following the CPR in the 1890s.

“Kelowna had a large community of Chinese Masons, and they had a lodge downtown, on the north side of Leon,” he said.

Leon Avenue,  up until it was flattened in 1972, was known as Chinatown, and it was born out of necessity said Chirstina Neale of Kelowna Museum.

“There was a chinese restaurant (on Bernard Ave) from 1895-1896, and unfortunately due to the times, the Europeans didn’t like this ethnic style food, and they drove this business out of town,” said Neale. “That’s when they turned the corner and decided to build the Chinatown.”

While the population was big enough to create a Chinatown, it was destined to dwindle.

Women were often not allowed to move to Canada, but even if they were the cost was too high to bear. For Chinese nationals to bring over a family member from their country in 1905, they would have had to spend $500. Compare that to the $200 it would have cost to july properly on Leon Avenue, and the weight it would have put on an individual is apparent.

Neale went on to say the population of Asians was about 500 around the early 1900s, by the 1930s it was down to 300 and by 1970s there were around 30 left.

So, while they helped build the community, it’s difficult to see the contribution they made.

To learn more about future cemetery tours or Kelownas Asian Heritage go to

Kelowna Capital News