1723 The forgotten Chinese

Hard Is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in British Columbia’s Kootenay
by Lily Chow

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2022
$26.00  /  9781773860749

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


Looking Deeper into History: The Trails of Chinese Immigrants Revealed in the Kootenays

What a pleasant surprise to see Cameron Mah on the first page of Lily Chow’s new book.

Everyone knew Cam as the waiter at the Marlene Hotel café in Castlegar, BC, and later the Hilite café where we congregated after school for chips and gravy and an Orange Crush. Everyone liked Cam, too. Unsubstantiated rumour had it that his boss Yorkie Mah had imported him as slave labour.

So, Chow’s book brought back old childhood memories, but it also rekindled the unspoken fact that we were racist back then and that Cam and one other Chinese family were almost invisible to local white society. As Chow points out, it was a long tradition that goes back to the pioneer days of gold mining, railway building, salmon fishing in the Columbia River. In fact, prejudice and discrimination against Chinese people were a legislated tradition.

Abandoned cabins at Fisherville. Royal BC Museum and Archives, D-06562

“In 1885, once the Canadian Pacific Railway was complete and the Chinese labourers sere no longer considered essential, the Chinese Immigration Act was passed,” writes Chow. That included a head tax that eventually reached $500 in an attempt to prevent Chinese immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 went even further, prohibiting Chinese immigration almost entirely. The act wasn’t repealed until 1947.

Chow takes us to five Kootenay communities where Chinese immigrants settled. The first is the gold-mining town of Fisherville, long abandoned, near Fort Steele in the East Kootenay. Here, the stories of mining discoveries and the rush to get rich often don’t include Chinese as miners, but Chow shows that about 250 Chinese miners worked claims in this area.

One of the first Chinese miners to arrive at Wild Horse Creek, Jack Lee was known as a cheerful character until his death in Cranbrook in 1929. Royal BC Museum and Archives, C-00752

Chinese workers helped build the famed Dewdney Trail and then followed it to what they hoped would be their Gold Mountain. Chow explains how individuals like Jack Lee, panned for gold in Wild Horse Creek and the methods used under the supervision of Chu Ban Quon, who owned and operated the Invicta Mining Company’s properties. When white miners left Fisherville, some Chinese stayed. Lum Kim became a gardener and established successful terrace gardening plots.

Lum Kim, gardener and miner near Wild Horse Creek. Royal BC Museum and Archives, E-0818

The next town on Chow’s itinerary was Cranbrook also in the East Kootenay. Again, mining attracted Chinese immigrants, but the going wasn’t any easier. Nativists inspired by editorials in the Cranbrook Herald made it difficult to find work. “One white man working at good wages is better for a community than ten Chinks or Dagoes,” stressed one racist comment.

It was repeated endlessly in the Kootenays by other newspapers, politicians and trade unions fearful of being replaced by cheaper Chinese and Italian labour. “Some merchants and the miner’s union formed an anti-Chinese committee and printed signs that said ‘We Neither Patronize or Employ Chinese Here’.” But the Chinese workers found various jobs, such as cleaning cabooses for the CPR, ranching, cutting brush and as gardeners. Laundries and restaurants also popped up in Cranbrook’s Chinatown to offer more employment.

Chow also digs into the cultural aspects of Chinatown with its more than 400 residents in the early 1900s. Noisy celebrations of Chinese New Year irritated the locals as did the Chinese pastime of gambling, particularly the game of fan tan. The gambling dens brought the law and some interesting court cases.

One case involved the gambler Da Chu and the invocation of the “chicken oath” to prove his innocence or guilt in a case of theft. He was found guilty. Chow also discusses opium dens and white society’s response. Opium was not illegal in Canada until 1908, but after that it was open season on the dens leading to many arrests in Cranbrook and elsewhere.

Political institutions also formed in the region. Historians have long written about the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Chow explains the basic history, but also tells us about Kootenay followers of the Chinese National League. Local groups formed chapters of the new republic’s political party, the Guomindang.

Social institutions also developed in the Kootenays. Many immigrants were members of the Chee Kung Tong, the Chinese Freemason Society. Given the restricted employment situation, the organization helped Chinese find work and provided lodging. The Dart Coon Club, part of the society, helped organize various seasonal festivals and trained people in the martial arts and dragon dancing.

On Front Street, Revelstoke, the Chinese joss house also headquartered the local chapter of the Chee Kung Tong. Revelstoke Museum and Archives, Image 3103

In Revelstoke, we again visit the CPR workers who were left behind once the railway was completed. They were the survivors of the 17,000 Chinese who helped build the railway. Institutions such as the Chee Kung Tong were also set up in Revelstoke, in the northeast part of the Kootenays.

Again, the courts and confrontations with police marked early settlement. Chow describes the hardships and some of the murders that occurred in the Chinese community. She also documents the official raids on the community to expose their impoverished lives. In one case several homes were razed after a medical inspector declared them possible sources of an epidemic.

The Revelstoke Herald was the Cranbrook Herald’s equal in attempting to ostracize the Chinese. The paper was especially incensed by a proposed joss house, a Chinese community hall, that was erected near the fire brigade station. The hall was built despite the negative publicity and it became a hub of the community, even donating money to the local hospital.

Chinese made their living at local laundries and other enterprises. One famous individual made his fortune as a recruiter of Chinese labour for the CPR. Wong Kwong then set up the Kwong Lee Laundry. “He was a blessing to the Chinese-Canadian community,” noted Chow, as was his wife Yee Von who ran the business after her husband died. Wing Chung, another entrepreneur, set up a store to “meet the needs of many people in the Revelstoke community, not just the Chinese.”

Jung Ling, wife of Wing Chung and highly regarded in the community, died of asthma complications during a trip to Shanghai and was buried in Hong Kong. Revelstoke Museum and Archives, Image 1797

Moving on to Nelson, Chow describes the migration to the Silver King Mine on nearby Toad Mountain. Chinese laundries were quickly established, but the backlash against them came as well with newspaper ads calling for “white” laundries and restaurants and hotels proudly exclaiming that they hired no Chinese help.

Among the many colourful individuals, Charlie Bing stands out “as a renowned Chinese gardener and rancher as well as a Chinese cowboy” whose riding abilities made him a local legend. Shu Tong also made his mark as a Chinese newspaper journalist in Vancouver and later as a fundraiser to support the fight against the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s. Nelson was also the eventual home of my childhood friend Cam Mah, “a venerable Chinese Canadian.”

We learn of the Chinese Empire Reform Association in Nelson and the Chinese Nationalist League as well as the ubiquitous Chinese Freemasons Society. Also noted are the China Clippers, a basketball team started as part of the Nelson Chinese Youth Association.

In Rossland, we again find Chinese miners in search of gold. When they were not allowed to work underground by law or were shunned by local mine employers and unions, they worked on railways. Later they got jobs as cooks in sawmills and worked as servants in private homes and, of course, there were always laundries and market gardens.

The Silver King placer mine, on Toad Mountain near Nelson, was known to ignore legislation and hire Chinese labourers. Royal BC Museum and Archives, C-07791

As with the other Kootenay communities, there was suspense and intrigue in Rossland. For example, Chow describes the courtroom scene during the trial of a young man accused of killing Mah Lin, his mother’s house cook. He was acquitted, Chow noted. “Thus, the murder of Mah Lin remained an unsolved mystery.”

Opium and gambling dens also followed the Chinese to Rossland. “Chinese immigrants were lonely and helpless,” Chow explained, “so they indulged in gambling with the hope that they might win enough to return to their families in their home villages in China.”

The Chinese Freemasons where active in Rossland, but they and other Chinese institutions faced “classic intolerance and rejection.” Without the Freemasons providing housing, food and other services, survival in this mountain mining community would have been even more difficult.

That ends the journey to the Chinese past in the Kootenays. The text suffers from repetition and some questionable language usage, but Chow overcomes these issues with her honest non-prejudicial approach to the history of this important and often maligned people. Photos enhance this story of a minority’s struggle to survive and flourish.


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His forthcoming book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), was reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), was reviewed by Mike SasgesEditor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Eileen Delehanty PearkesAndrea Geiger, Jean BarmanSarah BermanWayne Norton, and Mark Hume for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy. Ron lives in Victoria. 


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

5 comments on “1723 The forgotten Chinese

  1. Another great review by Ron Verzuh. One that is enriched by his personal connection to the history of these communities, both geographical and societal. A dark history, that Ron says is told by Lily Chow with an, “honest non-prejudicial approach to the history of this important and often maligned people.”

  2. Mr. Ron Verzuh: Thank you very much for your support and review of my latest book, Hard is the Journey: the early Chinese Immigrants and Settlements in Kootenay. Much appreciated for your very good comments! Sincerely, Lily Chow

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