It was a bright and sunny morning in Richmond, BC, where ISSCO (International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas) conference delegates gathered to embark on a trip to visit Nlaka’pamux territory and learn about the legacy of Chinese miners in the region. Joining them were hua foundation staff (Kevin, Alan, Angela and Emily), who were excited to assist with the “Gold Mountain River” tour by providing both Cantonese and Mandarin translations, and their knowledge of local Chinese-Canadian history.
ISSCO is the first and only international scholarly organization dedicated to the advancement of research on Chinese overseas. The primary goals of the society are “to advance research and scholarly exchange in the study of Chinese overseas, provide means for research and publications, and to organize and support national and international conferences.” Last week, over 300 delegates, special guests and volunteers participated in the three day conference in Richmond on unceded Musqueam territory. 40 conference delegates attended the post-conference trip to unceded Nlaka’pamux territory of the Lytton First Nation to visit Browning’s Flat, a provincially recognized Chinese heritage site where Chinese miners once worked.
As we made our way down the Fraser River, tour guides Henry Yu (Historian & UBC Professor), Sarah Ling (UBC Researcher and Film Producer) and Michael Kennedy (Geographer), members of the Fraser Corridor Heritage Landscape Project, uncovered the history of Chinese migrants in the region, such as the less commonly told relationships of reciprocity and trust that existed between the Chinese miners and Indigenous nations. One example of such cooperation was during the Fraser Canyon War, where Chinese miners were permitted to stay in the region despite American miners being driven out by local Indigenous groups. As shared by Henry Yu, Chinese miners tended to approach Indigenous groups with respect, often asking where they were allowed to mine and making efforts to forge long-term relationships with the local inhabitants. Visiting these mining sites was a way to engage the broader hua community in important conversations about migration and history, through a nuanced cultural lens that offers alternative understandings to dominant narratives of Canadian history.
Upon reaching Browning’s Flat, we were struck with awe at the sheer size and scale of the mining sites. Stretched across several kilometers were incredible hand-stacked stone walls called “chutes,” which were built by Chinese miners in order to divert wastewater used for panning gold. Walking through the mining site made it easier to wrap our heads around the tremendous amount of labour that went into the mining operations. When asked to estimate the number of miners that contributed to the site, participants responded with numbers ranging from 50 to 300. However, to our surprise, Browning’s Flat likely came to be only through the efforts of 20 or so Chinese miners, over the course of 10 to 15 years. Turns out, smaller operations facilitated trust and cooperation amongst the miners, and ensured that they received a fair share of the returns.
While the Gold Rush and Canadian Pacific Railway are often invoked in discussions regarding Chinese contributions to Canada, Henry pointed out that Chinese migrants also contributed to Canada in less commonly recognized ways. Chinese migrants played a major role in founding Canada’s social and economic infrastructure, establishing and amplifying industries such as restaurants, farming and the merchant trade. These contributions paved way for the growth and success of many present day businesses that we have come to know today.
In terms of our food security work at hua, it has only been in recent years that we have been able to learn about the legacy of Chinese-Canadians on the local food system. For example, Chinese-Canadian farmers produced 90% of BC’s vegetables up until 1920’s, after which the Vegetable Act curtailed their right to be able to market and sell their produce. The ramifications of systemic segregation are still experienced to this day: the majority of local Chinese businesses in the lower mainland, such as restaurants, green grocers, and fishmongers, all support and contribute to the local food system, but exist in parallel to the conventional, mainstream system. Despite this, the local Chinese food distribution system is a significant shadow economy that provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue, formed out of resilience against systemic racism.
Forming a partnership with the “Gold Mountain River” initiative was significant for hua foundation for several reasons: not only were we able to put our language (Cantonese, Mandarin and Taiwanese!) skills to the test, we also had the opportunity to experiment with alternative community engagement models that address history through a decolonizing lens, all the while fostering a sense of belonging. As an organization, it is important for us to be able to provide accessible programming in order to be able to share these experiences and stories with our elders, whom might not have the linguistic capacity to be able to access these opportunities.
Through the programming and partnerships that we pursue, hua foundation strives to foster a sense of belonging to the broader hua community, such as by facilitating an understanding and appreciation for local histories. While we may not be directly tied to these histories per se, shedding light on past experiences of Chinese-Canadians is a way for us to reconsider our relationships to the past, and our relationships to one another. By retelling the legacies of Chinese-Canadians that are less commonly acknowledged in public narratives, perhaps we can (re)discover how our present lives have been fundamentally shaped by the contributions and relationships forged by Chinese-Canadians from the past. Despite the fact that our lived experiences as Chinese-Canadians may differ, learning about the foundational contributions from the past is a way for us to understand how we are inherently connected to one another.
Reflecting on the past weekend, it was a transformative experience to be able to connect with ISSCO conference delegates from around the world over shared and parallel migration histories. As we gain momentum towards our goal of cultivating intercultural understanding, we hope that you will join hua foundation, UBC St. John’s College and Fraser River Raft Expeditions at the next Gold Mountain River Tour on July 28th, 2016.
Everyone is welcomed to attend the tour. For registration details or for more information, please contact the tour coordinator Sarah Ling at <email@example.com>
Interested in our work? Keep an eye out for future programming that further explores untold local histories through our social media, and sign up for our newsletter here.
Additional pictures of the raft tour can be found on our Facebook page.