The first small concentration of Chinese in Calgary developed on the eastern edge of downtown at the end of the nineteenth century. Riots broke out in 1892 when some of the Chinese were discovered to have smallpox, and the Chinese population had to be protected by the police. In 1901 another area of concentration, again mostly a handful of residences, laundries, and restaurants, developed on the southwestern edge of downtown, on the other side of the railway tracks, when a local minister helped the Chinese obtain rental property. In 1910 soaring property values in the city led to the sale of the properties rented by the Chinese. But this time local Chinese businessmen were able to buy land, and they reestablished themselves on the northern fringe of downtown near the Bow River, on Centre Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, an area little valued because it was prone to flooding.
This area of concentration did grow slightly to include neighboring blocks as the population of Chinese in Calgary grew from 485 in 1911 to 1,054 in 1931. But additional growth was limited, because of the national prohibition on Chinese immigration, and because of the tendency for the Chinese to establish small businesses in suburban areas, which allowed little chance for community roots to grow. But by 1961 immigration regulations were relaxed and the census identified 2,232 Chinese in the city of a quarter of a million inhabitants. Chinatown contained approximately two-fifths of this total and had eleven different social associations, a school, two Chinese Christian churches, and thirty businesses, a majority of which were restaurants or other food businesses.
During the 1960s a series of transportation and slum clearance programs threatened to destroy Chinatown. But vigorous lobbying by the Sien Lok Society, founded in 1968 by a group of Chinese businessmen and professionals, suggested that business and residential redevelopment should be initiated by Calgary's Chinese population and should reflect the area's heritage. These ideas were formalized by the city's 1976 Design Brief for the area. The streets were given Chinese names, and street furniture and new buildings adopted Chinese motifs, styles, and preferred colors, such as red and gold. The climax of the redevelopment was the creation of a cultural center that was a replica of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, built by craftsmen imported from China. Opened in September 1992, the building contains a Chinese library, recreation hall, meeting rooms, Saturday language school, and restaurant and gift shop, and is actively used by the city's Chinese community.
Chinatown is no longer home to the majority of Calgary's Chinese population, whose numbers had grown to more than 50,000 by 1996. Most live in suburbs, especially Edgemont, Huntington Hills, and Marlborough. Chinatown now has 1,400 residents–less than 3 percent of the city total–housed mainly in three high-rise apartments. Ninety percent of these are of Chinese ethnic origin and more than half are senior citizens. However, Chinatown has seen a remarkable increase in commercial activity. It has expanded along Centre Street to 4th Avenue and neighboring streets to form a six-block commercial area, with interior malls and a wide variety of and a large number of businesses. Nevertheless, the historic concentration on restaurants and retail food outlets is still present, accounting for a quarter and a fifth of the businesses, respectively.
Planning surveys have shown that almost three-quarters of the shoppers in Calgary's Chinatown are from outside the area, but twothirds of the total are of Chinese ethnic origin, which shows that the area acts as a commercial core for the dispersed Chinese population, as well as for the city as a whole. However, new concentrations of Chinese businesses have recently developed: one is across the Bow River along Centre Street north to 16th Avenue and the others are in suburban locations, especially in Pacific Plaza and International Avenue in the eastern part of Calgary. Yet Chinatown is still the largest concentration of Chinese businesses in the city, and the presence of professional activities and social organizations provides it with a high degree of institutional completeness. Chinatown is no longer a historic ghetto. It acts as a refuge for the Chinese elderly, contains an invented symbolic core for Calgary's dispersed community, and is a distinctive, yet specialized ethnic business area.
Wayne K. D. Davies University of Calgary