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Race, hospital development and the power of community : Chinese and Japanese hospitals in British Columbia from 1880-1920 Vandenberg, Helen Elizabeth Ruth


Although much is known about the development of general public hospitals in Canada during the turn of the twentieth century, little is known about the rich diversity of smaller community hospitals founded during this time period. From 1880 to 1920, there were at least 155 hospitals operating in British Columbia, including several Chinese hospitals, founded in Victoria, New Westminster and Vancouver, and a Japanese hospital in Steveston. These hospitals were established in a context of harsh economic, political and social restrictions for Asian populations. Yet, Chinese and Japanese hospitals developed differently because of important cultural and political differences within Canada and abroad. An initial overview of Chinese hospital development reveals that Chinese hospitals mimicked charity hospitals found in China at the time and utilized Chinese, rather than Western medicine. In contrast, the Japanese hospital, which is the primary focus of this study, was built as a ‘modern’ hospital and utilized Western scientific medicine and trained nurses. Analysis of primary and secondary sources, including two newly translated Japanese histories, demonstrates that local communities played a significant role in the development of Asian hospitals. The Japanese hospital in Steveston, for example, began as a modest Japanese-Methodist mission hospital, established by Japanese Christian missionaries themselves. As hospital debts mounted and the anti-Asian labor movement intensified, Japanese leaders endeavoured to convince the Japanese fishermen’s Benevolent Association to build and finance a new modern hospital. Over time, the hospital became closely tied to the changing needs and prosperity of the local Japanese fishing community. The hospital was utilized as a source of leverage for Japanese fishing leaders during fishing price negotiations. From the unique perspective of community leaders, the hospital became an important political tool in the fight for racial and economic equality. This study reveals that Asian hospitals were much more than institutions for restoring health or curing illness. Chinese and Japanese hospitals were grassroots community initiatives that not only met important local and cultural needs, but could also play an important role in broader issues of social justice.

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