Icons of Lethbridge’s historic Chinatown

Bow On Tong entraceway (2014.04.17)

The Bow On Tong Building and the Manie Opera Society Building are two well-known places in downtown Lethbridge that contribute to the distinctive cluster of buildings that make up Lethbridge’s Chinatown district. Recognizing their remarkable history and exceptional significance, the City of Lethbridge’s council recently designated each as a Municipal Historic Resource. The buildings are now undergoing comprehensive rehabilitation, including extensive structural repairs and the careful retention of historic elements found nowhere else in Alberta. I had the opportunity to visit these fascinating places just before Easter, gaining a glimpse into Lethbridge’s Chinese community during the first half of the last century.

Ted Stilson showing me Apothecary's showroom and work area. (April 17, 2014)

Ted Stilson showing me Apothecary’s showroom and work area. (April 17, 2014)

A 1907 City bylaw restricting all laundries to this area was enforced only if the laundry was Chinese-owned. Other Chinese-owned businesses followed the laundries into the neighbourhood west of Galt Gardens. The Bow On Tong was constructed in 1916 in the middle of the city block known as Chinatown, on 2nd Avenue South. Beside it stood the Manie Opera House Building (not its original name), built about a decade previously. Lethbridge’s Chinatown had begun.

The basement of the Bow On Tong Building in the middle of rehabilitation (April 17, 2014)

The basement of the Bow On Tong Building in the middle of rehabilitation (April 17, 2014)

My tour of the buildings started on the main floor of the Bow On Tong and was led by Ted Stilson, coordinator of Lethbridge’s Main Street Program, and Kevin Peterson, general contractor for the rehabilitation project. I learned that Way Leong, a Chinese apothecary, opened the Bow On Tong Co. in the 1920s, from where he dispensed traditional remedies to the Chinese community. Shelves and cupboards, labeled with Chinese characters, line the walls of the small shop and tell of Mr. Leong’s practice which operated here into the 1950s. Several of the varnished wood drawers still contain the apothecary’s supplies and equipment. (Unfortunately, while I was there, I did not have the pleasure of meeting Way’s son, Albert Leong, who lived in the building up until rehabilitation work started.)

The basement of the Manie Opera Society is just as interesting. Even with all the construction work going on, I could make out traces of the frail partitions dividing the basement into little rooms. Immigrant coal miners from China once lived down here; their tiny, cramped quarters wallpapered in newspaper still clinging to the walls. A few rooms seem to have been decorated with pictures of American celebrities clipped from magazines—icons of the popular culture of their new homeland.

Kevin Peterson shows us a portion of one of the makeshift walls. Pictures of american celebrities cut out of magazines are everywhere. (April 17, 2014)

Kevin Peterson shows us a portion of one of the makeshift walls. Pictures of american celebrities cut out of magazines are everywhere. (April 17, 2014)

Rehabilitation began last year when cracks appeared in the upper wall of the Bow On Tong, leading to the discovery of structural problems throughout both buildings that was slowly causing them to collapse. Major parts of the work are now in progress include the shoring up of a crucial load-bearing wall shared by both buildings and upgrades to meet the current fire code. Even with the urgency of the structural repairs, the work is being done with painstaking care to avoid destroying historic materials. The pressed metal ceiling of the apothecary, for example, has been carefully removed piece by piece. Each piece is numbered and its location mapped before careful cleaning and repainting. After structural reinforcement of the ceiling and the installation of new fire-resistant drywall (required by the building code), the ceiling will be reassembled, with each piece installed in the sequence in which it was removed.

The ambitious and painstaking work I saw is a testament to the dedication of the community of Lethbridge, which has supported the project through local fundraising activities and the donated time of many volunteers. Kevin Petersen, the general contractor, has himself contributed much of his own time. When the rehabilitation work is complete, Albert Leong will return to his lifelong home in the Bow On Tong Building. It, and the neighbouring Manie Opera Society Building, will continue the legacy of Lethbridge’s Chinatown.

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.

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