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Returning to the Mouth of the River by Sarah Wai Yee Ling

Returning to the Mouth of the River: A Reflection on the Cedar-Bamboo Fraser River Rafting Expedition 

By Sarah Wai Yee Ling

Mylo (age 8), Chloe (age 9), and Sarah (UBC Grad student).

Mylo (age 8), Chloe (age 9), and Sarah (UBC Grad student).

The Cedar-Bamboo Fraser River Rafting Expedition was quintessential. Sunshine blanketed our raft through a series of white rapids as we witnessed the beauty and power of the river, walked through Chinese mining sites, camped by beaches, and engaged with early Chinese Canadian and First Nations history in tangible ways.

While my first experience of the rapids was exhilarating and full of laughter, especially at an area more intimidating than Hell’s Gate called Sailor’s Bar, it was not without awe of the Chinese pioneers who regularly traversed the river over 150 years ago, many with the help of local First Nations. As Chinese Canadians, rivers across British Columbia have carried and nourished our ancestors – but these rivers have always belonged to and been cared for by the Indigenous peoples of the land.

During the expedition, I thought of my great-great-uncle, who was the first of my ancestors and one of the first Chinese merchants to settle in the small city of Prince Rupert in Tsimshian territory of Northern B.C. To reach Prince Rupert, he travelled north with a group of First Nations traders in their dugout canoes down the Skeena River, which carries the Tsimshian name “water from clouds”. As a merchant he continued to follow local Indigenous trade routes and traded with Haida, Tsimshian and Gitskan peoples. I view his journey as a model of respect and reciprocity not only between himself and the river that sustained his life, but also between himself and the Indigenous peoples of the territories that he was a settler and guest on. 

At Browning’s Diggings, I hiked around with Chloe Yu, age 9, and our rafting guide Shane along trails that Chinese miners had used to navigate the rocky landscape. These trails led to impressive ditches the Chinese made by stacking large stones. Further along the river, trains on the Canadian Pacific Railway passed by us and we trained our eyes to follow remnants of the Cariboo Wagon Road, reminding us of some of the many challenges Chinese labourers faced.

Chloe and our intrepid Brad Pitt lookalike guide Shane.

Chloe and our intrepid Brad Pitt lookalike guide Shane.

It was great to experience this trip with younger Chinese Canadians like Chloe and her younger brother Mylo, not only because of the excitement and wonder they carry with them, but also because I was happy that they will have this unique experience to share and look back on, especially when they are ready to fully engage with their family history. Children remind us of the future we wish to create for them, and the stories we need to ensure are not lost until then and generations afterwards.

Reflecting on the conversations I had during the trip, I am also reminded the Chinese Canadian mentors and role models I am fortunate to have met in Vancouver. I am grateful for their foresight and leadership as they continue to invest in the education of present and future generations of Chinese-Canadians so that we will truly know and share who we are, where we are, and where we come from. On the drive to Yale I sat beside Lily Chow, whose book Chasing Their Dreams features interviews with some of my relatives as early Chinese immigrants who overcame many hardships as they settled in Northern British Columbia. I also got to speak with Larry Wong, the historian whose Dim Sum Stories: A Chinatown Childhood provides an intimate look into the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

On the raft I reminisced with Dr. Henry Yu, a mentor and MA supervisor of mine, about the rich array of seafood our families were regularly gifted with from local First Nations customers who went to our parent’s stores. Ever since I began working with Henry and learning in his class “Asian Migrant Communities in Vancouver”, he has encouraged me to trace my ancestral roots and learn the stories of how my ancestors reached and settled on the lands of Northern B.C.

Collecting these stories is a moving and transformational much like the river-rafting expedition has been for me. It deepens my connection to the land and its vibrant layers of intercultural exchanges and alliances that have been suppressed by colonial legislation and institutions.

Now I have returned to the mouth of the Fraser River, where I live and learn at the village site of xʷməθkʷəəm (labeled as Musqueam Indian Reserve 2). The Musqueam people have a long history of good relations with Chinese market gardeners and their families from Guangdong, China.

The Cedar-Bamboo River Rafting Expedition was a wonderful way to expand my experiential knowledge of the many communities that are sustained by the Fraser River. While I’ve been deeply engaging with this topic as a master’s student at UBC, learning this history is so much more than the typical academic notion of “research.” It’s an intimate experience – learning the language and histories of the land, forming and strengthening relationships, participating in community events and practices that help me connect deeper with those who walked and worked the land I’ve settled on, and reflecting on the risks and sacrifices my ancestors and other early immigrants from Guangdong have made. 

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia (CCHSBC), who sponsored me as a student representative to be a part of this meaningful experience and partnered with the New Pathways to Gold Society to launch the expedition.

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