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 north-western 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 pipesmoker 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, 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, watercarrier 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.


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

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 2015] "Chinese" "Kidlit"