Chasing Their Dreams

Lily Chow

Panning for gold, making ties for the railroad, canning fish, running laundries and restaurants, the Chinese settlers survived despite persecution by the local populace and the provincial and federal governments. Relations with the northern tribes, including reports of trips made by Chinese as early as 458 BC, make this book one of the most thoroughly-researched histories of Chinese settlement in British Columbia.

Excerpt From Chapter Three

The Gold Fever

Whenever someone reported that gold had been found, even if the place was near the Arctic Circle, flanked by snow-capped mountains and deep canyons, or swamps infested with mosquitoes and black flies, miners would flock there. They did not mind wading through swift rivers and stumbling into turbulent rapids to reach the goldfields. The Cassiar Gold Rush was no different when discovered in 1874. Between 1874 and 1895 the official mining reports stated that $4,968,500 of gold was extracted in Laketon, a town on the west side of Dease Lake. Similarly, the production of gold in Dease River, Thibert Creek and McDame Creek also contributed to an equal amount of value in the same period. These reports attracted thousands of miners to the area.

Early Chinese Entry

Numerous news reports, articles and books have indicated that the Chinese people were in the Cassiar District long before the Gold Rush. In 1882 white miners dug up about 30 Chinese brass coins near the bank of a creek. These coins were strung on a piece of wire, which disintegrated after it was exposed to air. The coins remained bright although they looked a little worn. The miners asserted that the ground had not been disturbed by anyone before they dug up the relics. These coins were taken to Victoria for determination of its dates and authenticity. According to some experts in Victoria, these coins were engraved with a date about 1200 BC. Some people speculated that the coins were brought to the District by a group of Chinese sailors, who were stranded on the west coast of British Columbia after a shipwreck about 3000 years ago.

In 1885, some First Nation people dug up a Chinese vase containing similar Chinese coins. The vase was found entwined in the roots of a huge tree, about hundred years old. These relics were bronze discs about two inches in three diameter with a square hole at the center. On one side of each coin was the symbol of I Ching (Yijing) and on the other side were Chinese ideographs. The ideographs were interpreted by Chinese experts stating that “Heaven is round and the earth is square. The six rules and nine regulations ordain that wherever the spirit of this charm shall visit, all devils shall be exterminated.” One of these coins was given to Sun Ming Shu, a County Court interpreter in Victoria when he came up to the Cassiar District to placer mine one summer. Sun presented the charm to Judge Eli Harrison, who sent it to New York and Washington for determination of its date and authenticity. Apparently, Harrison retained the relic until he died, but no one knows who has the coin today.

The presence of these ancient Chinese objects led to speculations about when and who brought to them to Cassiar District. According to the records in Liang Shu, an ancient Chinese anthology, five Chinese monks and a few of their disciples sailed across the Pacific Ocean en route to the Alaskan coast and reached the west coast of British Columbia around 458 AD. This group of Buddhist devotees, led by Hui Shen took forty-one years to complete their round trip from China to the Pacific Coast of North America and back. Apparently they sailed along the warm Japanese ocean current to the north and then down south along the Pacific Coast of North America before they followed the equatorial ocean current to sail home. Hui Shen was the only monk to return to China. No one knows what had happened to the other four or their disciples. They may have died on the journey or remained in North America. Upon his return, Hui gave an account of the countries he visited to several court historians who recorded his discoveries. One of his descriptions stated that he had visited a place about 20,000 Li, approximately 9700 kilometers, east of China. He called this place “Fusang” where red mulberry trees grew profusely. “Fu” means ‘help’ or ‘nurturing’ in Chinese and “sang” refers to the red mulberry trees. Putting these two words together the term “Fusang” means helping the people in the red mulberry land. In his narrative Hui Shen asserted that the five monks had attempted to deliver the teaching of Buddha to the native tribes as a means of helping these people to attain salvation. The following excerpt is translated from Liang Shu:

On the land of Fusang, the red mulberry plants produced oval-shaped leaves similar to paulownia and edible purplish red fruits. The place was rich in copper and traces of gold and silver but no iron. The native tribes in Fusang were civilized, living in well-organized communities. They produced paper from the bark of the red mulberry plants for writing and produced cloth from the fibers of the bark. Their houses or cabins were constructed with red mulberry wood. The fruits and young shoots of the plants were one of their food sources. They raised deer for meat and milk, just as the Chinese raised cattle at home, and produced cheese with deer milk. They traveled on horseback and transported their goods with carts or sledges pulled by horses, buffalo or deer.
… An emperor, or a main chief, with the help of several officials, governed the country. The majority of people were law-abiding citizens. The country had no army or military defense but two jails, one in north and the other in south of the country. Those who had committed serious crimes were sent to the north and they stayed there for their entire lives. These inmates, however, could get married. If they got married and produced children, their sons became slaves and daughters remained as maids
… The marriage arrangement was relatively simple. If a boy wanted to marry a girl, he had to build a cabin next to the home of the girl and stay there for a year. If the girl liked him they would get married; otherwise he would be asked to go away.
“¦When a person died in the community his body would be cremated. The mourning period varied from seven days for the death of a parent to five days for a grandparent and three days for a brother or sister. During their mourning period they were not supposed to consume food, only water. They had no religion.

Hui Shen and his fellow monks attempted to preach Buddhism to these people while traveling through the country. Wherever they went, they left behind images of Buddha and literature of Buddhism for the people. This account of Fusang, which was also translated by a couple of Jesuit priests at the turn of the century, aroused the interest and curiosity of a number of historians. From the descriptions of the flora and fauna, and the mineral deposits, some historians like John Murray Gibson, John Windsor and A.B. McKelvie have suggested that Fusang was a place in British Columbia’s northwest, as some of the customs described were similar to the native practices there. Whether the monks had visited the Cassiar District and deposited the coins in the locations mentioned above is a subject worthy of further investigation. The discovery of the ancient Chinese coins indicates that Chinese people may have been in this country much earlier than previously thought.