Bringing life to the Chinese cannery workers at Steveston chapter

The Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site wants to revitalize a part of history with a 10-minute documentary.

Hardship and Hope: The Story of the Chinese Cannery Workers in Steveston is a historical overview to help explain what brought these individuals to B.C. and what they experienced here. It shines a light on living conditions in a bunkhouse, home to the Chinese men who worked in canneries.

The documentary plays in an exhibit at the site, a room set up like a bunkhouse at the time the Chinese men worked at the canneries.

The story follows a young man from Tai Shan, China who comes to Vancouver looking for work in the cannery with hopes for a better life in Canada, as the conditions in China were harsh.

The documentary is produced in partnership with North Vancouver’s As You Like It Media. Sheila Allan is the producer of the project and her partner Scott Alpen is the director. Allan says they decided to focus on one person’s journey because they thought it would be more interesting to the audience.

“If they could hear the story of one young man’s experience it would help breathe life into the exhibit, which we hope it has,” says Allan.

After visitors see the exhibit and watch the documentary, Allan wants them to have a better understanding of the Chinese worker experiences.

“[To see] what the Chinese workers had to deal with coming over here to work. The hard work, the loneliness and the discrimination they endured,” she says.

Re-creation of a worker’s bunkhouse at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site | Photo by Brooke Lees

Re-creation of a worker’s bunkhouse at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site | Photo by Brooke Lees

Ongoing restoration work

The City of Richmond is continually restoring work at the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site, in particular, exhibits that interpret the history of this area and people who see Britannia as their home. Many families, college-level students and new immigrants come visit the exhibit, says Brooke Lees, whose role is to develop interpretation plans to curate exhibitions inside heritage buildings.

Over a period of eight months, Lees worked with the Richmond Archives, the Richmond Museum, UBC Special Collections, Barkerville National Historic Site and the Burnaby Village Museum to source information, artifacts and images.

“I use my background in anthropology, archaeology, history, art and graphic design to transform complex storylines into understandable and engaging exhibits for visitors,” she says.

Response to the exhibit

Even though the exhibit has been open since May 2011, many visitors were not aware of this part of history, notes Lees. She hopes visitors recognize the importance and significance of the work of the Chinese men who made up 90 per cent of the labour force in the early canning days.

”People of all backgrounds are able to identify with the stories and challenges faced by the Chinese men that worked here,” says Lees.

Lees feels Steveston Village, like many other communities, existed and flourished because of the success of these canneries. Although the Chinese men experienced many hardships, they persevered silently. Unaware, they helped to build an industry that changed the province.

“Cannery ‘boom towns’ later became bustling centres of industry and business and were made up of settled families from many cultural backgrounds that together built strong, diverse communities,” says Lees.

Hayne Wai, past president of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C., has visited the exhibit a few times.

“I think it’s an outstanding exhibit which conveys the challenges of the early Chinese community and their contributions to the economic development of our province,” he says.

Future exhibits

Lees says the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site is currently working on plans to develop a series of permanent exhibits inside a 13,000 square foot net loft building at Britannia.

“Exhibit themes will focus on invention and human ingenuity within the fishing and boat building industries along this section of the Fraser River,” says Lees.