June 16th, 2024

Bow On Tong destruction a devastating loss of city history

By Troy Bannerman - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on February 3, 2023.

An early view of Chinatown in Lethbridge, ca 1940s. Photo courtesy Galt Museum & Archives - Longtime owner Albert Leong stands next to apothecary drawers in 2019. Herald photo by Ian Martens - The demolition of the Bow On Tong building following a fire earlier this week revealed an old sign advertising "Black Watch Chewing Tobacco" visible on the wall of the Manie Opera Society Building. Herald photo by Al Beeber

Lethbridge has lost one of its historical landmarks after a fire early Tuesday morning ravaged the Bow On Tong building downtown.

On Wednesday what remained of the structure was demolished and the City issued a statement saying that in addition to the fire investigation, they have been working with the Province, representatives from Alberta Culture – Historic Resources and members of the Lethbridge Historical Society, on further steps to preserve any remaining historical elements.

“The building itself dates from 1919 as the apothecary,” said Lethbridge Historical Society president Belinda Crowson.

“As Bow On Tong, it started in 1926 when Wei Leong moved here. The apothecary would have been there until the 2010-2012 era when there was some damage to the building at that time, and Wei’s son, Albert Leong, moved out.”

Even though the building has been vacant for the last decade, Crowson noted, “the apothecary is actually incredibly well known across Canada. It’s a very rare type of building.

“And for Southern Alberta to have had that building has been phenomenal. Some of the medicines in there, I know they had somebody come down from Calgary several years back to look through the kinds of medicine and stuff that was in there and they were quite surprised by what was actually available in that store.

“And it had an amazing reputation. Back in the ’50s and ’60s people remember it being a very busy street with the Chinese National League, and the Free Mason’s Building, the Bow On Tong. There are amazing stories of Chinese New Year’s and fire crackers on that street. So, it has a very long, busy history over the years,” said Crowson.

Crowson, like many others in the community, had hopes to see the building used again. “The building has been vacant for the last 10 or so years, and work was done. First the building was stabilized so work was done there. Then there was work to try to renovate the building. It took a large number of years, but the hope was always to renovate it and get it going again as a useable building,” said Crowson.

“It could have been a store again, it could have been an interpretive site, there were many possibilities that people had discussed for the building. But, of course that would have been up to the owners – and to those people we would offer support in whatever they were doing. But there was a great deal of discussion on what could be done with the building in the past.”

In preserving the heritage of the building and what happens next, Crowson noted that “it was designated by the city first as a Municipal Historic Resource, and then by the province in 2019. So the building had both provincial and municipal historic designations.

“I know that the Chinese National League Building that was lost on the other side is looking at possibly turning it into a park or something that would actually tell the story of the Chinese community and tell the story of the building. So, that’s one possibility, is something like that,” added Crowson.

“Those decisions are always up to the owners but I hope that there is a way with that area to tell the story of Chinatown without these tangible buildings. There has to be other means of doing it, and I hope that is well considered as a way of keeping that history alive even without the buildings.”

Crowson has her own sentiments about the fire.

“I think with everyone, with the Historical Society and everyone in the heritage community, everyone in the community is just devastated to have had this happen to the building. The good news so far is that it looks like there were no injuries. So that is the one positive. As much as we love our buildings, we always put people before the building.”

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Citi Zen

Sad indeed. Probably one of the last unofficial warming centers for the downtown derelicts.

Kal Itea

Hate speech falls under Section 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code.

Under the heading “Willful promotion of hatred,” Section 319.2 states that “every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group” is guilty of a criminal offence.
Maybe Citi Zen wants to take this to the Supreme Court of Canada


….and the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. What’s your point Kal ?