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Cover: Hard Is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in British Columbia’s Kootenay

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

By Lily Chow

Review By Georgia Sitara

September 12, 2023

BC Studies no. 219 Autumn 2023  | p. 129-130

Having left their villages in the districts of the Zhujiang Delta (Guangdong province) in search of their fortunes, Chinese immigrants ended up being foundational to the settling of British Columbia. Lily Chow’s book Hard Is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in British Columbia’s Kootenay charts that history, providing five place-based chapters for one town and four cities – Fisherville, Cranbrook, Revelstoke, Nelson and Rossland. Gorgeously illustrated with photographs of people, buildings, and places, full of anecdotes and compelling stories, this book brings a rich history of Chinese immigrants, and Chinese Canadians, to life.

Although 17 000 Chinese men helped to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, they are absent from the images commemorating the last spike. Chow’s research found that “At least one Chinese man was present, even if he is not visible in the photographs.” (88) Rectifying this omission, Wing Chung’s portrait is featured in Chow’s book and is emblematic of Chow’s effort to make Chinese Canadian history visible by writing people into a history that has tried to exclude them.

Many Chinese came as sojourners, without intention of spending their lives away from home. They aimed to work and save money, return home to buy a piece of land, and thereby provide a better life for themselves and their families. For many, that dream never materialized.

White supremacy and racism limited jobs, wages, and opportunities, making it very difficult to accumulate wealth. Chinese men worked as “houseboys,” servants, and cooks. They also established businesses including general and grocery stores, tailor shops, restaurants, and laundries. Many had been small scale farmers in China and resumed that work in BC. They established market gardens, peddled their produce, and supplied fresh vegetables to locals.

For decades, white anti-Asian racism was central to the writing of Chinese Canadian history. In this book, that history is written from insiders’ perspectives. As Chow explains, “the early Chinese immigrants had little choice but to tolerate racism in order to make life work in a foreign country.” (84) Although white supremacy shaped Chinese experience, it neither consumed nor defined it. In Hard Is the Journey, the lives of newcomers are foregrounded with dignity and respect.

The book is a history of individuals, about communities and community building. Organizations like the Chee Kung Tong and Joss houses created places of belonging, forged links between the old and new world and made life better and richer. Stories of care and generosity are wonderful antidotes to a history of racism and white supremacy.

The final section of each chapter explores the reunification of families made possible when the 1923 Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1947. It tells the history of families, wives, parents, marriages, children, and grandchildren. The sacrifice of forebearers and the hard work of ancestors made it possible for Chinese Canadians to become professionals, scholars and to have “a pleasant and comfortable life.” (176) The reunification of “old timers” with “newcomers” (81) marked the fulfillment of the hope of making life better for future generations.

Although the book does not explore at any length the relationships between First Nations and Chinese settlers, who were part of the colonization process that dispossessed Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources, each chapter begins with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous nations (the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, Sinixt, and Sylix) on whose territories this history is taking place. This is a critical corrective to the traditional writing of BC and Canadian history.  Chow’s example is a good beginning. It is up to future historians to continue this crucial work.

Publication Information

Chow, Lily. Hard Is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in British Columbia’s Kootenay. Qualicum Beach, BC: Caitlin Press, 2023. 222 pp. $26.00 paper.