Claus Lao Schunke stands at the future site of a tribute to Nelson’s Chinese community. Red lanterns will be symbols of next month’s weeklong celebration.

Claus Lao Schunke stands at the future site of a tribute to Nelson’s Chinese community. Red lanterns will be symbols of next month’s weeklong celebration.

Nelson Chinese celebration long overdue

Six hundred red lanterns will paper the downtown next month as part of a weeklong celebration of Nelson’s Chinese community.

Six hundred red lanterns will paper the downtown next month as part of a weeklong celebration of Nelson’s Chinese community.

Claus Lao Schunke, who has been spearheading the event, says the lanterns will symbolically tie the event together.

“Lanterns are really big in China,” he says. “For thousands of years they have connected people with the heavens and with each other. Lanterns mean good luck and red is the colour of protection and celebration.”

Schunke will be distributing them among participating businesses, along with a handout explaining their significance.

“You’ll walk into the bank and there will be lanterns hanging. Hopefully if people are waiting in a long line they’ll wonder what the lanterns are for.”

Chinatown Week, which runs May 9 to 15, will culminate with the dedication of a stone monument at the northwest corner of Vernon and Hall streets, funded by the city and Columbia Basin Trust.

The plaque will contain a few lines of a Chinese poem, some text in English giving historical context, and a taijitu symbol. The area, which was once an entrance to Chinatown, will also be landscaped with bamboo.

Although the inscription for the monument has been finalized, the actual stone still needs to be picked out.

Schunke, who hosted a 16-part series on Kootenay Co-op Radio about Nelson’s Chinese, says they have never officially been given their due. They were railway labourers, market gardeners, worked in service and retail, and were houseboys and cooks, doing jobs no one else was willing to.

“Without them, without their contribution, Nelson probably wouldn’t be what it is today,” he says.

“They were known to be dependable, didn’t drink, and only had to be paid half. The Chinese individually were praised by employers, but as a group, politically, they were dumped on all the time.”

Their contribution has been obscured and forgotten, he says, to the point that most people are unaware of it.

Nelson’s Chinatown was originally on Vernon Street, but was forced to relocate to Front Street — hence the monument’s location.

The inscribed poem, translated, reads: “Hard is the journey/Hard is the journey/So many turns/And now where am I,” which   Schunke feels well captures the Chinese experience in Nelson.

“There was no basis in fact for the way they were treated,” he says. “[Nelson] needed these people, but didn’t want them.”

Schunke adds he’s trying to make the event as inclusive as possible, and so far over 30 stores, restaurants, and organizations are willing to take part, although he’s leaving it up to them to decide individually how best to mark the week.

Poet Fred Wah will read from his book Diamond Grill, named after his family’s Nelson diner, and Schunke himself will give a talk about China at the Oxygen Art Gallery.

He laments that Nelson’s history is not taught in its schools, but is hoping to involve them in the celebration, and says Trafalgar principal Geoff Burns has shown interest.

Schunke envisions Chinatown Week as an annual event, which in subsequent years could include performances.

The celebration coincides with Asian Heritage Month in Canada.