A Chinese bunkhouse in Richmond, BC

I’ve really been struck during my visit to Vancouver by the similarities between Australia and Canada (or this bit of it, at least), particularly regarding the ‘big’ themes in the historical experience of Chinese people in these two far-distant places. But it’s also very cool to consider the differences that geographical location and physical landscape bring to that experience. (Note gratuitous photo showing how glorious Vancouver looks in the spring. Yes, I like it here.)

Today I went to the Britannia Shipyard National Historical Site at Steveston in Richmond, just south of Vancouver. It is located on the Fraser River, where there once was a salmon run that supported 15 canneries in Richmond alone. The canneries there and further up the Fraser River employed Chinese workers to process the fish – paying them a fraction of what they would pay Anglo-Canadian employees. A skilled Chinese butcher would process between 1500–2000 fish in a 10-hour day.

At the Britannia Shipyard site is a Chinese bunkhouse that was built in around 1920 by the Anglo British Canadian Packing Company at Knight’s Bend, further along the river. It was moved down the river by barge to Steveston in 1951, after which it was used to store nets and lumber. In 1992 it was relocated to its present site at Britannia after being donated to the City of Richmond.

The 2000-square-foot two-storey timber building was restored in 2007. It, and the timber houses around it, is built on pilings and accessed by a wooden boardwalk over the water. The downstairs of the bunkhouse is now used as a funtion/meeting space, while the upstairs has been recreated to suggest the living conditions of it original Chinese residents and to provide a display on the history of the Chinese cannery workers. Although there are no photographs of the inside of the building in its original use, they have based the interior fit-out on contemporary descriptions. And they’ve done a really nice job of it.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of Vancouver’s Chinese history when I visit Chinatown in the coming days. I only wish that I also had the time to also visit British Columbia’s oldest Chinatown, which is in the provincial captial, Victoria, located a couple of hours away on Vancouver Island west of Vancouver city. Lots of buildings there are listed on Canada’s register of historic places. Oh well, I’ll just have to come back another time!

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