All 1,600 artifacts in Lytton's Chinese history museum destroyed by fire 'can't be replaced'

The inside of the Lytton Chinese History Museum as seen before the 2021 wildfire destroyed the museum and all 1,600 artifacts housed within. (Supplied/Lytton Chinese History Museum)

The fire that destroyed the small town of Lytton, B.C., also took the town’s Chinese History Museum and the 1,600 artifacts it housed.

Museum owner and director Lorna Fandrich opened the museum in 2017, and says the artifacts are irreplaceable.

“It’s easy enough to build a new building, but the artifacts, those can’t be replaced because they’re actually from this community,” she said.

Since the museum was fairly new, Fandrach had the capacity to digitize the collection as she built and opened it. But, that digital collection isn’t available right now, she says, because it’s housed on a server in Lytton that’s currently without power.

Fandrich had been at the museum on the day of the fire, working in the basement. But she had left early that day, and narrowly avoided the fire.

"I usually stay there until 5 (in the evening) but I decided to go home at 3:30 that day so I'm so thankful because when the fire came through so quickly, I wouldn't have been able to get out of the basement if I was still there."

Lytton and the surrounding areas were home to many Chinese-Canadians in the 1800s and early 1900s, as Chinese workers built the railway, roads, and worked in the gold rush, Fandrich said, and some stayed on and opened shops, laundromats and restaurants. The museum had several permanent exhibits, including one about discrimination and hardship, the gold rush, the railway, village life and more. The collection also contained items from Quesnel, Ashcroft and Williams Lake.

Fandrich, who isn’t Chinese-Canadian herself, created the museum with the hope that it would spark interest in the contributions of Chinese-Canadians to the area and town.

“My goal was … when people came to the museum, that they would go home and think about or research what the Chinese contribution was, and not just the wrongs that were done to Chinese people but also how resilient they were and how they actually started so many businesses in small towns and how they maintained their livelihood,” she said.

The museum, now reduced to rubble, had been built on a lot that was home to a Chinese temple from 1881 to 1928. Fandrich and her husband had purchased the lot in 1980 and initially used it for their river rafting business.

“We bought an empty lot in town … and then soon after people came to us and asked if we knew there was a Chinese temple there at one time,” she said.

She did some research, and found old photos and drawings that confirmed what townspeople had been telling them.

“For a long time, it was my thought that somebody should do something on that lot to remember what the Chinese contribution to the province was, not thinking that I would do it because I was busy with my family and with our other business,” she said.

“But as time went on, I just thought, ‘I have the ability to do it now and I have the time to do so why don't I just do it.’”

In 2015 the site was named as a Chinese Canadian historical site, and Fandrich had the museum built soon after, and gathered a collection using items she’d collected at antique shops, as well as by acquiring the collections of two older collectors who were downsizing and wanted their items to be available to the public.

About a third of her visitors were tourists from mainland China, another third were from the Lower Mainland and included many Chinese-Canadian residents, and the other third was people who were generally interested in museums and who were curious about why there was a Chinese history museum in Lytton.

Now, Fandrich says she’s in the process of consulting with museum advisors about whether it’s feasible to rebuild without her collection, and whether she might pivot the organization into a story-telling centre.

Fandrich’s daughter lost her business in the fire, and her two son’s lost their homes. While her own home nearby was spared, she’s grieving for the rest of her community.

“My hope is that we can pull together enough that the people who have been forced to leave town – that they'll have reason to come back here and not just say ‘Okay we're done with it,’” she said.

“I'd like to see that our community can reform.”