Bamboo water pipes in the Kootenays
Lily Chow unearths stories about Chinese settlers in BC.
April 28th, 2023
Facing hardships and systemic racism, early Chinese settlers in the Kootenays forged new lives for themselves, some even prospered although most were segregated from areas where white settlers built homes.
By Janet Nicol
A railroad worker turned merchant and his wife; chanting laundrymen who smoked bamboo water pipes while they worked; and a teenage house cook & servant whose murder went unsolved are some of the historical people remembered in award winning author, Lily Chow’s new book about Chinese settlers.
Hard Is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in British Columbia’s Kootenay (Caitlin Press $26) is a richly detailed account of the challenges and achievements of Chinese immigrant settlers in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Chow has written other histories on this subject, focusing on north central BC, Sojourners in the North (Caitlin, 1996); the north west, Chasing Their Dreams (Caitlin, 2000); and the Fraser Canyon and Okanagan, Blossoms in the Gold Mountain (Caitlin, 2018). In this book, known histories of BC’s mainstream society are interwoven with original research about early Chinese communities, its residents typically segregated and coping with systemic racism. A map of the Kootenay region provides a geographical introduction, the five locations chosen for study based on well-populated, early Chinese settlements. They are Cranbrook, Revelstoke, Nelson, Rossland and the ghost town of Fisherville near Fort Steel.
Much of Chow’s research relied on archival local newspapers. She also utilized the Chinese Times of Vancouver, offering the reader another valuable point of view. Interviews with contemporary Chinese-Canadian residents about their family history also delivers important insights, including that of Cameron Shan Mah, (1946-2019), a prominent chef and community pillar of Nelson. Black-and-white photographs, many pulled from local archives, are sprinkled throughout the text. A striking sepia tone photograph on the book cover (circa 1910s) portrays a bejewelled Jung Ling, wife of Revelstoke merchant Wing Chung, and mother of four sons. Dressed in a patterned blouse with long sheer sleeves and a skirt, her steady gaze suggests a woman of forbearance and grace.
The earliest immigrants to the province came from villages in the Guangdong region in southern China for the gold rush of the 1860s and later, to labour on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese railway workers were notably absent when photographs of the ‘last spike’ event were taken following completion of the CPR rail in 1885. Yet Wing Chung, a laid-off railway worker (and later, merchant husband to the previously mentioned Jung Ling) said he was standing in the crowd of white people in attendance. Chow discovered this “subversive” anecdote on a research visit to the Revelstoke Museum and Archives.
Chinese men also worked on the Dewdney Trail, at one time the main route across BC, running from Hope to Wild Horse Creek, near Fisherville in the southeast corner of BC. After the trail’s completion in 1865, some of the men were drawn to mining for gold in the Fisherville area. They faced hardships and mistreatment from white miners who “jumped” their claim, then occupied it for themselves. However, the author also cites instances of their financial success and friendly relations. For example, several mining companies at Wild Horse Creek were owned by Chinese men—including the Hang Company and the Quong Yung Tong Company. Individual miners were known to go back to China with substantial cash in their pockets as well. As for friendly relations, Jack Lee, among the first to mine in the area, was regarded with sympathy by the wider community. When Lee passed away in 1929, the Cranbrook Courier wrote: “His death is deeply regretted by many who knew and liked the old fellow who was almost as much of a landmark of Wild Horse gulch as the mountains above his lonely cabin.”
As Chinese labourers dispersed around the province following work on the CPR railway, many built new lives in the Kootenays, taking jobs in placer mining and establishing market gardens, laundries and restaurants. The Chinese joss house in Revelstoke, built in 1901, was a hub for the Chinese community and served as the location of the Chee Kung Tong (Chinese Freemason Society). Given the hostile flare-ups by townspeople toward Chinese residents who lived in crowded, impoverished quarters north of Revelstoke, the joss house played an instrumental role as a place of prayer, ceremony and advocacy.
The unsolved murder in 1900 of Mah Lin, a 19-year-old cook and servant in the Rossland home of single mother, Mary Chenowith, is given a second look by the author and exposes racial injustices. Also sketched from this era are Rossland’s nine Chinese laundries, the men labouring seven days a week and sleeping on hard wooden bunks in their shops. While washing customers’ clothes, “they hummed, sang or chanted, and they smoked tobacco with bamboo water pipes during breaks,” writes Chow.
The government’s legislative policies, from the discriminatory implementation of the Head Tax in 1885 to the granting of the vote in 1947 are layered into the chronicles and so are depictions of political upheavals in China and their impact abroad.
The dense tapestry of material in Hard is the Journey is remarkable—and sometimes unwieldy. A brief conclusion following each chapter assists the reader to a degree, but could benefit with the author’s observations of themes and insertion of examples from the content. Chow’s meticulous and fascinating book nevertheless offers fertile groundwork for a future of truly inclusive BC histories.
Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and former high school history teacher.