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Ah Foo – A South Westminster Wood Yard

February 28, 2014

Ah Foo was a Chinese merchant at New Westminster who also operated a wood and charcoal business at South Westminster until 1891, when he returned to China.

1891  McInnes Street  Chinese business - Ah FooAh Foo’s store in the city occupied a prime location in  the Chinese quarter at the southeast corner of McInnes Street at Columbia Street.

His name appears on the accounts of the snag boat Samson in 1890 as the supplier of 16 cords of wood.

Charcoal-making was long established at Brownsville, dating to the time English & Company opened the cannery in 1877.  It was a necessary adjunct to firing the boilers to make steam for canning. There was also a charcoal operation up near the Bon Accord cannery.

On Christmas Eve, 1879 one Chinese man was found dead and two others barely alive after being dragged from a cabin near English’s cannery, having burned charcoal to keep warm.

The date when Ah Foo began his business at South Westminster is not known, but an “Ah Foo” is listed in the census of 1881.

Smallpox outbreak at Ah Foo’s Brownsville camp

In August 1889 cases of smallpox were reported at “Ah Foo’s camp near the river.”

“Dr. A.M. McLean, health officer for New Westminster city, who had undertaken to investigate and report on the facts of the case, [had] found one Chinaman dead and three children who were recovering from the disease, he had vaccinated all who were unprotected  and instituted a strict quarantine around the infected vicinity with Dr. D McLean in charge.”

No effort was spared to “confine and stamp out the disease” which had also infected some members of the local first nations community.

The previous year a smallpox outbreak at the Walworth settlement east of Hazelmere had resulted in several deaths, the progress of the disease described in horrifying detail in local papers. (The Walworth’s located at the corner of present-day 16 Ave and 200 Street, Langley.)


By the first week of September, 1889, the crisis at Brownsville was over. 

“Yesterday the smallpox quarantine was raised at the Indian hospital, situated on the south bank of the Fraser River, opposite this city, and all bedding and other clothing was burnt to prevent further spread of the disease.”

Ah Foo sells his stakes

A newspaper advertisement dated January 1891 indicates Ah Foo was leaving the country and had disposed of his business.

“Notice – The undersigned is about leaving for China. All parties having claims against me will be paid at once, and all who are indebted to me must settle immediately.”

“My wood and charcoal business over at South Westminster will be conducted by Kwong Wan Yuen & Co.

Sing Kee and Tom Joon Woo hold my power of attorney and will take charge of all the buildings situated on the corner of Columbia and McInnes streets, West End.

– Ah Foo”

  1891 01 26 Ah Foo Brownsville wood and charcol business - leaving for China

Apart from this notice of sale, we have seen no other items about Ah Foo’s South Westminster business, nor when it was established.

In 1891 John George opened a “Wholesale Wood Yard” at South Westminster. George, formerly storekeeper and Postmaster at Clayton, had just built a Hotel close to the landing place of the new ferry Surrey.

It could be that George took over the existing Chinese yard, or was opening into competition. Certainly with all the railway and real estate development the market would have expanded.

  “John George has established a Wood Yard in connection with his Hotel & Stables at South Westminster, near the ferry landing.
Stage Office in Connection.”
  1891 John George woodyard


Brownsville charcoal maker “Charcoal Nelson” is the subject of an upcoming post.

More information about Chinatown in New Westminster can be found in Yi Fao by Jim Wolf.

On the making and uses of charcoal see Japanese Charcoal Pit Kilns on the Gulf Islands by Stephen Nemtin.

Related posts on John George and his hotel: First Runs and Auspicious Openings and The Latter Days of the Brownsville Hoteliers.

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