Research shows Chinese migrants key part of Okanagan history

But piecing together the story is a difficult task for local historians

By way of the California gold rush in the mid 1800’s, thousands of migrant Chinese migrant workers came to the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

Many, the vast majority of them men, came to North America to escape political persecution in their homeland or to earn money to provide a better life for their families.

But despite toiling tirelessly in the mines and fields and working to stitch the country’s first railway together, their pages in our history books are few.

As a way to fill in some of those missing chapters, three regional historians are currently engaged in an ongoing project to shed light on what really took place.

Kim English of the Hedley Heritage Museum Society, Sarah Stanley of the South Similkameen Museum Society and Matteo Carboni of the Grist Mill and Gardens recently held a special public seminar at the Grist Mill to outline some of their findings and invite people to provide additional material.

“In part we don’t have that information because the history we have today is told through the lens of the different biases of the time,” said English.

“Those (biases) might be reflected through their political stances and we are trying to bring light to those times that tend to be missed throughout many parts of Canada.”

For a lot of the Chinese who came to Canada to work in the Southern Interior, they were treated as second-class citizens.

In Keremeos, Princeton and Hedley, they lived in some of the worst areas, in homes built on stilts by the river and other unfriendly locations.

“Much of the material we have came through local newspapers and Keremeos police ledgers,” said English.

“With that, they are often small fragments and pieces of stories of events that had happened but they’re summarized through a few short sentences and aren’t identified through named persons and are often derogatory in nature.”

After the gold rush ended and other employment dried up, many Chinese decided to stay on in their new country and worked in laundries, restaurants, farms, and other mines like mercury and borax.

It is relatives of those people who the local historians are hoping to reach to fill in a few more of the blanks in their research.

“We would very much like to hear from anyone who has any first-hand information about what their ancestors went through and how they came to be where they are,” said English.

“The reason for the presentation was to reconstruct as best as we could, with as little evidence as we have, our historic records on the Chinese communities.”

As well, she noted often in any sort of dispute the immigrants were typically assumed to be the guilty parties and without interpreters, were unable to mount any defence.

English remembered one story about an Asian man who apparently killed two of his co-workers and wound up in an Okanagan sanitarium.

“This was a very dark part of Keremeos history,” she said. “But there are a lot different threads to the story we don’t know about.”

She feels it is critical to set the record straight, not only for the Chinese, but for everyone living in the area today.

“For all of us, whether we’re from this valley or wherever we come from, the museums and the historic keeping and the story sharing is a really important part of what makes us who we are,” said English.