China – Conclusion and Results!

Delegation at Liyuan Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo by Zhang Lianyan)

Why would 2 people from Barkerville travel across the globe (especially in this time of fiscal restraint!)?  What did we gain for Barkerville?  What will be the next steps for further communication with our new friends and contacts in China? 

Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Offices in Guangzhou, Kaiping, Jaingmen and Taishan and to Wuyi University in Jaingmen, the trip cost us very little.  In fact it cost less than some of our in-province trips to attend conferences and meetings.    

We can’t thank Lily Chow enough for convincing us to take this trip.  Lily, a retired school teacher from Prince George now living in Victoria, has assisted the City of  Prince George with a number of their missions to China.  She was very instrumental in arranging the delegation from China which came to Barkerville in 2006.  To develop our relationship with China we needed to return this visit.  Lily acted as our guide and translator and a fantastic job she did.  The woman is a dynamo! 

The people in Guangdong Province still feel incredibly connected to the “Overseas Chinese” who left Guangdong in the 19th and early 20th century.  The money they sent back to their families and to support a variety of charitable organizations changed the face of Guangdong and resulted in significant economic and social development. The money not only built diaolou and villas, it contributed to the building of schools, hospitals, bridges and other important infrastructure.  But much of the interest is on a more personal level and there is a sincere desire to know more about the life and times of the migrants, what types of jobs they had, how they lived, what their lives were like. 

The more we learn about the diaspora from Guangdong the more we realize the extent and the significance of the Chinese collections at Barkerville.  We have artefacts that are not common today in China.  We have buildings, photos and archival material that tell stories that have been lost on the other side of the Pacific.  

The Chee Kung Tong Building in Barkeville, which has recently been made a National Historic Site of Canada, also has significance in China, and may be a candidate for a World Heritage Site.  The Chee Kung Tong supported the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty.  Where did the money contributed by the Barkerville Chee Kung Tong go?  Did any of the Barkerville Chinese ever build a diaolou?  

Additional research on the kinship and village of origin of Barkerville residents may also result in the location of additional letters and archival material in China.  There are examples already in museums in China of letters written home from San Franscisco and Montreal. If we were able to locate villages of origin, could we locate letters that had been sent back from Barkerville describing their life there? 

In visiting the diaolou, and the associated displays, we often saw artefacts similar to those in Barkerville and were able to put these objects in a better context. For example, in the kitchen of the Chee Kung Tong building in Barkerville there is a wood burning stove made of brick. Many years ago this stove was dismantled and stored, and when the time came to put together  the exhibit, no one had any idea how to do it, so an approximation was made.  We brought home detailed photos of several similar stoves, some still in use in traditional houses.  Another example is the altars to the kitchen god.  We saw several examples of these altars still in use.   

Overall, we realized that Barkerville is valuable to the Province of British Columbia not only because of  its heritage value, but also because of the role it can play in assisting the Province with its Pacific Gateway ambitions.  Guangdong Province,  BC’s sister province, is very interested in Barkerville and is very pleased with the job that we have done in preserving and interpreting the history of the Chinese immigrants.  As Prince George looks for new markets for their International Airport, Barkerville can be an important resource.  As northern BC looks to China for new markets, Barkerville’s connection to China can be an asset. 

Here are some of the direct results of our visit:   

  • Bill is writing an article for an academic  Journal of Overseas Chinese Research
  • We are developing a proposal for a travelling exhibit on Chinese in the Cariboo for 2012, which is Barkerville’s 150th anniversary.  The exhibit will be mainly photographs, including CD Hoy portraits but also including contextual photos of Chinatown, various mining ventures, etc.  We have confirmed two locations for the exhibit, the Overseas Chinese Research Centre at Wuyi University and the Guangdong Museum of Overseas Chinese in Guangzhou, but expect that the exhibit will tour to several other locations including  Hong Kong, Taishan and Kaiping.
  • In conjunction with the exhibit, we will produce a catalogue/book in both English and Chinese.
  • A proposal is also being developed for a research project that would identify home villages, and take copies of photos to the villages for potential identification and location of any extant archival material.
  • The Guangdong Museum of Overseas Chinese has expressed interest in a permanent installation on Barkerville.  We will be giving some thought to what form that might take.  One idea is an installation of a typical Chinese Miner’s Cabin.
  • Barkerville has offered to host student researchers wishing to study Barkerville.

These activities will raise the profile of  Barkerville in China and among the many Chinese from overseas who visit these museums.  We believe in the long term this will result in increased visitation to Barkerville.  When Canada receives “Approved Destination Status,” we expect that tours to BC will include Barkerville in their itinerary.  More research will reveal more about the significance of the Barkerville collections and the possibility of world heritage status for all or part of Barkerville’s Chinatown may become a reality.  This will significantly increase Barkerville’s access to funds and increase its desirability as a tourism destination.

All in all, I would say the trip was a extremely worthwhile investment!