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Chinese chefs on Slocan Lake

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

I recently wrote about Holy Grail historical items — things I once saw somewhere and couldn’t find again. I’m pleased to report that I’ve rediscovered one.

I had a vague memory of coming across the names of some Chinese chefs on the SS Slocan and thinking it was an interesting nugget of information. But not, it seems, interesting enough that I bothered to note where I found it.

I thought it might have been in one of the civic directories, which did list crew members, or at least some of them. But re-checking every directory from 1897, when the boat was launched, through 1910, proved fruitless. Chinese citizens were listed only if they owned businesses, and even then I’m not sure how comprehensively they were enumerated.

The SS Slocan, 1912 or later. (Greg Nesteroff collection)

Despite the general contempt the Chinese faced in the Slocan from European settlers, the CPR did employ them on their lake boats. The Ledge of Aug. 12, 1897 reported: “The fact that the steamer Slocan employs a Chinese cook seems to disgruntle a lot of people who never eat a meal on the boat.”

We also know about a cook on Slocan Lake who met a tragic end. From the Nelson Daily Canadian of March 20, 1907:

Despite the newspaper’s date, Ho Gin Yuen’s death was actually registered as occurring on March 6, 1907. He was 45. He was buried in the Slocan cemetery in an unmarked grave — so far as I know, the only Chinese burial in that cemetery.

There’s a list online of personnel on the CPR’s BC Lake and River Service which identifies a few Chinese cooks: Din Lee and Lin Lee on Kootenay Lake aboard the SS Moyie, from 1928-33 and 1921-44, respectively; Ing Wok, also of the Moyie, but date unknown; and Woo Lee, ship and dates unknown. But none on any Slocan Lake boats.

And according to Al Craft:

Bruce Rohn’s recent book on the SS Minto also has photos of head chef Hoy Fat, who came to Canada in 1918 and joined the lake service in 1930. He cooked aboard the Nasookin on Kootenay Lake before transferring to the Minto on the Arrow Lakes. He worked on the latter ship until its retirement in 1954.

The SS Moyie, now a museum in Kaslo, depicts a Chinese chef in the kitchen.

It dawned on my recently that if it I didn’t see the names of the other cooks in the civic directory, it might have been on the census. Indeed, in 1901 Sam Gwong, 33, and Lee Chong, 22, were listed as cooks in Slocan City.

While their employer was not identified, they roomed with James Lamb, James Ferguson, and Winfield Lowry, whose occupations were given as fireman, deckhand and deckhand, respectively — likely aboard the SS Slocan. But I thought that whatever I came across stated more explicitly that the cooks worked on that ship.

Chong did not arrive in Canada until 1898, but Gwong came in 1885. Was he part of the Slocan’s original crew? Hard to say. Newspaper coverage of the boat’s maiden voyage identifies the captain (the appropriately named William Seaman), engineer (W.G. Christie), and purser (George Graham), but doesn’t mention the kitchen staff.

Finally, it occurred to me that if it wasn’t the 1901 census, perhaps it was the 1911 census I was remembering. And there, at last, I found the 18 members of the SS Slocan’s crew listed under Slocan City — including cooks Yup Hoy, Yip Mow, and Low Long.

I still don’t know much about them; Yup Hoy was 30 and came to Canada in 1898; Yip Mow was 32 and immigrated in 1911; Low Long was 26 and arrived in 1903. All three were married but their wives were presumably in China.

I also checked the 1921 census, the most recent one available, and immediately found Charlie Ling and Mah Ling listed as cooks at the Selkirk Hotel in Silverton. But no Chinese-born citizens were listed in Slocan.

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