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Long-forgotten club sought better relations with China    

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Tom St. Amand

Since the 1880s, the two-storey building at 138 Cromwell St. has been home to a butcher shop, a doctor’s office, a barbershop, and a few restaurants. Typically, individuals and small families rented the two second-floor apartments.

Except from 1923 to 1945.

During that period a long-forgotten group, known as the Sarnia branch of the Chinese Nationalist Party, occupied the building’s upper rooms.

The CNP’s arrival in Sarnia began a decade earlier and 10,000 kilometres away.

In 1912, Sun Yat-sen, a physician turned politician, rejected the traditional and conservative practices of the Qing dynasty. Seeking to modernize and unite China along democratic lines, Sun Yat-sen founded what became known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. In 1925, Chaing Kai-shek assumed the party leadership upon its founder’s death and the CNP ruled most of the nation from 1928 to 1949.

In the early 1920s, the CNP also devised strategies to help countrymen abroad adopt modern practices while retaining their Chinese identity.

The plan included creating party branches overseas to spread the CNP’s political and cultural message. In Ontario, chapters formed in Sarnia as well as Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor, Chatham and others.

About 60 people of Chinese heritage lived in Sarnia in March of 1923, when the chapter held its first and well-attended meeting. A local newspaper carried the headline “National League Local Chinamen Formed in Sarnia.”

Willie T. Wong, the first elected president, stated its mission was “to better conditions of the Chinese people in China and throughout the world.”

The Sarnia branch had a few local concerns, as well. It was strongly opposed to gambling and the use of opium, and the assembled had reason to be anxious. A few years earlier a raid on a Chinese grocery store at 114 Christina St. N. had led to four men of Chinese descent being fined for opium use. Police also confiscated pipes and other drug paraphernalia.

What members also wanted was a place to call their own. Fortunately, the second floor apartments at 138 Cromwell were available.

By June of that year the local branch had moved in and for more than two decades used the rooms as a library and clubhouse.

Both rooms were put to good use.

To help Chinese immigrants transition to Western society and to forge closer ties with Sarnians, instructors taught Chinese and English two nights a week in the library. The room also accommodated larger groups, who gathered to discuss issues and events in China.

In July 1923 delegates of the Chinese Nationalist Party from Sarnia, Windsor, Chatham, London and Hamilton gathered in the library. President Wong emphasized to the delegates their importance in saving China “from a political bankruptcy.” China’s hope of establishing democracy and peace lay with “her sons and daughters who have observed the modern conditions of western countries,” Wong stated.

The other apartment was a clubhouse open to all Chinese looking to socialize.

By 1929, the CNP branches in Ontario, including Sarnia’s, were prospering, so much so that individuals were called upon to financially support particular families in China suffering from famine.

The local branch of the Chinese Nationalist Party left 138 Cromwell St. in 1945.

Today, the downtown building is home to Sitara Restaurant and two upstairs tenants.

In 1967, the Lambton Chinese Canadian Association was formed for about 400 residents of Chinese heritage in Lambton County. Former president Jerry Wu said the association aims to promote the cultural, social and general well-being of Chinese-Canadians locally.

Nearly a century earlier, Sarnia’s branch of the Chinese Nationalist Party hoped to do the same.


Tom St. Amand is a retired high school teacher, regular contributor and The Journal’s quizmaster

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