LITERARY LOCATION: Chee Duck Tong building, 197 Quebec Street, Prince George

Lily Chow's father-in-law, Chung Chow, paid the Head Tax of $500 to enter Canada on August 1, 1913. As a former labourer for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, he inspired her passion for B.C. history with his heart-wrenching stories of Chinese Canadian workers. With the Chow surname, he felt obliged to contribute to the construction of the Chee Duck Tong dormitory building for Chinese immigrants in Prince George in 1920.

There were three Chee Duck Tong benevolent societies in B.C. (Vancouver, Victoria, Prince George) to help Chinese immigrants retain their heritage and to provide single males with accommodation. The PGCDT Society extended its housing facility to 199 Quebec Street in 1965. Prior to their marriage, Lily Chow's husband, who started the Oriental Inn restaurant in Prince George, stayed at the society's rooming house for a year and donated money for the expansion of the building's second phase in 1964. As a single woman, Lily Chow was not allowed to stay at the dormitory when she arrived in Prince George in 1967.


According to Lily Chow, two generations of the Chow family contributed to two Duck Tong Society buildings in Prince George in deference to the dictates of Emperor Chow Tai Wong of the Chow (Zhou) dynasty (1046-221 BC).

"Emperor Chow Tai Wong wanted to expand his territory and sent ethnic groups from Shanxi to distant countries to cultivate land and educate the local people," she writes. "Five ethnic groups were successful in their missions and each of their settlements was conferred by the following titles: Chow (Zhou), Choy (Cai), Wu (Ng), Cho (Cao) and Yung (Weng).

"Hence these titles became the last names of the settlers and their descendants. Years later, the descendants bearing these five last names met in a region south of the Yangtze River and founded an organization known as Chee Duck Tong. Then whenever these five ethnic groups met, they established chapters of Chee Duck Tong Society to retain their brotherhood and heritage in the localities."

The ancient history of the Chinese is rarely considered in Canada so few British Columbians know about Hui Shen, the Chinese monk who reputedly discovered the B.C. coastline about ten centuries prior to Columbus. Just as Christopher Columbus is usually credited with 'discovering' America (rather than the Vikings who we know arrived much earlier), mention is never made in our schools that some Chinese Canadians believe five monks and their disciples first sailed across the Pacific Ocean around 458 A.D. Legend has it that this expedition's leader, Hui Shen, who reputedly hoped to teach Buddhism to native tribes, survived his 9700-kilometre voyage and described to court historians in China a place far to the east where red mulberry trees grew profusely. He called the new land Fusang; Fu means help or nurturing and sang refers to the mulberry trees.

It's a seldom-heard and rarely taught story, one that appears in the third chapter of Lily Chow's second book, Chasing their Dreams (Caitlin $18.95). "Throughout this book," said Chow, "the strength of conviction and perseverance of the Chinese immigrants shines through the hardships they had to endure... Chinese people often say, 'If you break open the silver we earn, you can see drops of blood in it.'"

Chinese immigrants who arrived much later than Hui Shen faced racism and legislated efforts at exclusion. In 1885, the Chinese Restriction Act was passed and the first head tax of $50 was introduced. This tax was raised to $100 in 1901 and to $500 in 1904. In 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to prohibit Chinese entry to Canada. The Chinese were not granted the right to vote in British Columbia until 1947. What makes Chow's research into the Chinese history of northwestern B.C. (the region extending from Smithers to Prince Rupert) so interesting, and so readable, is that it illuminates lives from the inside.

Here is a fragment from a diary from 1900, in which a fish-cannery worker writes about the wife he has left behind in China:

"I could never forget her silky skin and the fragrance given out by her youthful body. Although I met her only on the night of our wedding, I fell in love with her at the very moment I saw her. I hope she finds life comfortable living with my parents, and that she has carried out her duty as a good and respectful daughter-in-law. I pray that my parents do not enslave her, but treat her like a daughter. So far I have not received any serious complaints from my parents about her except that she daydreams a lot."

The passage reflects the harshness of the lives of married Chinese men who were denied family rights. The cover photograph of a man smoking a Chinese water pipe is both apt and misleading. Framed as he is by a Union Jack and the Maple Leaf flag, this pipe-smoker signals the history of Chinese immigration and ethnicity in central B.C. (also the subject of Chow's first book, Sojourners in the North). But the exoticism of the man's costume and activity prevents us from seeing the central truth that Chow so carefully unfolds -- at their heart all stories of immigration are private and personal stories, more than they are cultural and political ones. "In 1971," says Chow, "the Canadian Chinese in Vernon participated in the City's parade celebrating the Centennial. This gentleman, dressed in Chinese traditional garment for the well-to-do with a water pipe, sat on the float during the parade. To the Chinese elders, smoking a water pipe in the evening was a luxury, a symbol of contentment. Apparently, that float won the first prize in the parade." [As of 2015, the pipe-smoking gentleman was still living in Vernon.]

Chasing their Dreams contains biographical sketches of brothers Cedric and Albert Mah, pilots known as the Prince Rupert Flying Tigers, as well as Alcan Asia president Hing Mung of Kitimat, but Chow mainly offers brief mentions of individuals such as laundryman Chow Tong, water-carrier Ah Wing, Hazelton alderman Bob Eng, Port Essington labour contractor Fan You, farmer Jack Chow and restaurateur Sam Lee, to name only a few.

Inspired by the stories she heard from her father-in-law, Lily Chow's fourth book, Blood and Sweat over the Railroad Tracks, (UBC INSTRCC & CCHSBC $40) is a recollection of the CPR construction which employed thousands of Chinese labourers to build the transcontinental railway linking this country from coast to coast. The book examines the reasons for constructing the railway and why and how the Chinese labourers were recruited and transported from Guangdong to the various construction sites in British Columbia.

Chow illustrates the difficult and dangerous tasks that the Chinese labourers had to perform bearing testimonies to the challenges, hardship, struggle, and endurance of these workers. Despite the hard labour these men displayed an excellent work ethic, and were diligent and dependable people. Included are some poems and verses by a couple of Chinese labourers and their family members, which show their anguish, anxiety, and longing -- human feelings and emotions that had been repressed.

Her first book, Sojourners in the North (1996), won the Jeanne Clark Local History Award and is used as a textbook in many colleges and universities. She has given presentations on Chinese Canadian history at schools and universities including Beijing University, Laoning University, Jinan University, Shangdong, Tsing Hua University, and Zhong Shan University.

Chow's third book is Legends of Four Chinese Sages, a children's book written in both English and Chinese (Mandarin phonetic) with eight pages of illustrations, translated by Wang Meizhong.

Lily Chow was born in Kaula Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1931 and has lived in Canada since 1967. She came to Canada as a qualified teacher and taught general science, Biology and Mandarin in Prince George Secondary School and Duchess Park Secondary School. She then graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Education and received her Master's of Education in University of Victoria. She has taught in the Prince George School District for 25 years. In 1993 she retired from teaching high school but continued teaching Mandarin in the University of Northern British Columbia. She now devotes her time to research and writing while living in Victoria.



Blossoms in the Gold Mountains: Chinese Settlements in the Fraser Canyon and the Okanagan

As a high school teacher in B.C.’s interior, formerly Prince George-based Lily Chow of Victoria travelled in her spare time to identify Chinese Canadian cafés that dotted every small town in B.C. and across the Prairies, also noting Chinese names on headstones in cemeteries.

Her explorations eventually resulted in two ground-breaking books about Chinese in northern B.C. Sojourners in the North (1996) and Chasing Their Dreams (2001). Now Henry Yu responds to her fifth book, another cumulative study, Blossoms in the Gold Mountains: Chinese Settlements in the Fraser Canyon and the Okanagan (Caitlin $24.95). – Ed.


In Malaysia, where Lily Chow was born and raised, it was a common pattern for ethnic Chinese to be clustered in cities such as Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh or Georgetown (Penang), with small numbers of Chinese families running local businesses in rural areas and small towns.

Lily Chow noticed that B.C. had a similar historical pattern. The wholesale shift of so many Chinese in rural B.C. in the mid-20th century from small towns to Vancouver had left only traces of their presence in the places she passed through as a teacher.

Chow therefore developed her ongoing curiosity about individuals such as the lone Chinese cook at a mine or logging camp, or the lone Chinese Canadian family in a town who happened to own a store, a café or a laundry.

The Chinese migration from small towns to cities within a broader 20th century rural-to-urban shift within Canada in general generated new opportunities for the younger generation of Chinese Canadians after 1947, when re-enfranchisement and the quiet dismantling of white supremacy meant a long-denied ability to enter white collar professions, including medicine, dentistry, accounting, and law.

With full citizenship rights restored — the vote had been taken away from Chinese and non-whites as one of the first acts of the B.C. legislature in 1871 after the colony joined the Dominion of Canada — Chinese Canadians were finally able to aspire to a living beyond the mostly manual labour to which they had been restricted by legislated discrimination.

Chinese labour in laundries, and food services in rural and small town Canada was gradually forgotten as more Chinese families moved closer to universities. We owe a debt of gratitude to Lily Chow for telling us the stories of the Chinese in northern and interior B.C. in her earlier books.

Based mostly upon oral history interviews (supported by written traces of the earlier Chinese presence in newspapers and local records), her Blossoms in the Gold Mountains concentrates on a few families who are inextricably tied to the history of particular towns, such as the On Lee family in Yale and the Chong family of Lytton.

Along the way Chow explains why there has been such inconsistency in the anglicization of Chinese names in B.C. The On Lee family of Yale, for instance, was actually part of the Jang family, but as with many other small town Chinese-Canadian families, they became known by the business name of their store rather than their own family name.

And, of course, there was no shortage of clerical errors. In an earlier work, she once explained how Alexander Won Cumyow and his son Gordon Cumyow acquired their family name in English from a clerk writing down Cumyow’s given name as the family name.

This happened, as well, to C.D. Hoy, the famous storeowner and photographer of Quesnel, whose proper name, Chow Dong Hoy, was rendered in Chinese order, with family name first. By the alchemy of anglicization, the surname Chow became Hoy.

Lily Chow establishes how what seems in English to be a confusion of names — Chow, Joe, Zhou, Chou — is actually the same Chinese family name, 周. The proliferation of variants was both the product of transliteration and the fact that different dialects of Chinese pronounce the same character differently.

[Here’s how tricky it can be: The family name 謝 is spelled in the pinyin Romanization system of Mandarin Chinese as Xie, but in the Toisan dialect of the majority of the migrants to B.C. it was generally anglicized as Der or Deer; whereas in Hong Kong it would generally be spelled as Tse; in Singapore as Chia; and in Shanghai as Sia.]

But Blossoms in the Gold Mountains is about much more than semantics. It’s primarily about families—no matter what others called them. Peter Wing, the first Mayor of Chinese heritage elected in Canada (mayor of Kamloops, 1966-1971), was actually of the Eng family, but Chow’s larger purpose is to see him through the lens of his family, through multiple generations.

In this way, the stories of Chinese Canadians in Yale, Lytton, Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, and Armstrong are brought to life not as anomalies but in ways that explain why they were often respected citizens and community leaders.

By countering the over-generalizations of others, including scholars who have insisted that the Chinese lived overwhelmingly in Chinatowns across Canada (in fact, in no historical period did the majority of Chinese Canadians live and work in urban Chinatowns), Lily Chow has rescued the lives and work of the Chinese minority in these interior communities.

With Blossoms in the Gold Mountains, Lily Chow provides an inclusive and accurate historical narrative that looks back in time just as we look forward and aspire to be a nation that derives strength and commonality from the diversity she reveals.


Lily Chow Appointed to the Order of Canada

January 19, 2022

Caitlin Press is thrilled to finally share that author Lily Chow was appointed as a member to the Order of Canada in late December 2021.

Since 1967 the Order of Canada has recognized the outstanding achievement, dedication, and service of remarkable Canadians. Chow was recognized for "preserving and promoting the history of early Chinese immigrants to Canada and their contributions to the country’s social and economic development.”

Her book publications include Blossoms in the Gold Mountains (Caitlin Press, 2018), Blood and Sweat over the Railway Tracks (Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2014), Chasing Their Dreams (Caitlin Press, 2000), and Sojourners in the North (Caitlin Press, 1996).

Hard is the Journey: Stories of Chinese Settlement in BC’s Kootenays is forthcoming from Caitlin Press later this year. In her newest book, Chow bravely exposes dark parts of BC’s history while shedding light on both the struggles and accomplishments of the Chinese immigrants who risked everything and often lost their lives in building the Canada we know today.


Friends throw the book at Victoria Author Lily Chow at celebration in Ashcroft

November 3, 2020

(ASHCROFT) When award-winning author, historian and Multicultural champion Lily Chow announced she would be retiring from the New Pathways to Gold Society (NPTGS) Board of Directors this fall, her friends decided to throw the book at her.

And that was just one of the ways Chow's friends and colleagues showed their appreciation at a celebration held in Ashcroft on October 21. NPTGS Directors, friends and representatives from some of the many groups Chow has worked with over the decades gathered at The Hub to share stories of her tremendous dedication to heritage and social justice.

That included compiling "The Book On Lily Chow," a memory book full of pictures and reminiscences featuring Chow's time as NPTGS Multicultural Director from 2007 to 2020. The cover for the book was hand-made by Ashcroft artist Daniel Colette.

NPTGS Co-Chair Terry Raymond said nice as the book is, it just can't contain all the great memories he has of working with Chow.

"Lily is one of a kind – a very special person," said Raymond.

"She has been a tower of strength on the NPTGS Board and her commitment to shining a light on the Chinese experience in B.C. and creating a broader narrative of our shared history has made us all richer as citizens in this province."

Chow's admirers went even further by awarding her a book prize in her own name. She's the inaugural winner of the "Lily Chow Cedar-Bamboo Heritage Award," which will be given annually to a writer who exemplifies her spirit of multiculturalism, inclusivity and excellence. The award includes $1,000 in prize money.

"We chose cedar-bamboo because Lily has done so much work documenting the special connection between the early Chinese arrivals and the Indigenous Peoples of B.C., especially in the Hope to Barkerville corridor," said Indigenous Co-Chair Cheryl Chapman.

"No one has done more to chronicle the spirit of cooperation and mutual support between these two peoples – one that continues to this day."

The book award is the brainchild of consultant Mike McDonald, who has worked with Chow for years and shares her passion for the history of the Fraser Canyon and the rest of the Hope to Barkerville corridor. They also both share an enthusiasm for the future of the corridor and the progress of Indigenous reconciliation among its communities.

"Lily Chow has provided a great service to British Columbians by telling the untold stories of Chinese settlers along the gold trails and rails of British Columbia," said McDonald.

"Alongside indigenous histories that are gaining much-needed attention, stories like Blossoms in the Gold Mountains and Sojourners in the North add to our collective understanding of who we are as British Columbians. We can't know ourselves without understanding the diversity and lived experiences of those who came before us."

Chow, who lives in Victoria, is an outstanding academic, historian and author. An award-winning writer, her books include Sojourners in the North, Chasing Their Dream and Blossoms in the Gold Mountains. She's taught in the Prince George School District and at the University of Northern British Columbia. Chow has received the Queen's diamond jubilee medal twice.

A tireless advocate for human rights and social justice, Chow was a member of the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council that sought redress for the injustices done to the Chinese community in our province. She is a founding member of the NPTGS Board of Directors and was the Society's designated Multicultural Director.

NPTGS is a non-profit organization committed to developing local economies in the Hope to Barkerville corridor through heritage tourism development, First Nations reconciliation and Multiculturalism. For more information, please visit the NPTGS website.


Sojourners in the North, Caitlin Press, 1996
Chasing Their Dreams, Caitlin Press, 2000
Legends of Four Chinese Sages $16.95 978-0-9783746-0-0
Blood and Sweat over the Railroad Tracks (Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC, 2014) $30 plus $10 handling/shipping
Blossoms in the Gold Mountains: Chinese Settlements in the Fraser Canyon and the Okanagan (Caitlin 2018) $24.95 / 9781987915501

CITY/TOWN: Prince George

DATE OF BIRTH: July 7, 1931

PLACE OF BIRTH: Kuala Lumpur

ARRIVAL IN CANADA: August 13, 1967





Prince George, Jeane Clarke Local History Award, 1997,
Queen Elizabeth 11, 50th Jubilee Award for documenting Chinese Canadian history in the Interior of BC

[BCBW 2022]

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

Review by Janet Nicol

Rrailroad-worker-turned-merchant and his wife, chanting laundrymen who smoked bamboo water pipes, and a teenaged house cook and 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 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— their 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 are: Cranbrook, Revelstoke, Nelson, Rossland and the ghost town of Fisherville near Fort Steele.

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 Chinese Canadian residents about their family history also deliver 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 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,” Lily Chow writes.

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. 9781773860749

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and former high school history teacher.

[BCBW 2023]