The China House was a very mysterious place. As a "cannery kid" I had the run of the cannery property. I was a little more wary of the China House than other areas. The approach to the large white building with the red roof was along three hundred yards of railroad track. There was a longer route by way of the Indian Village but the tracks were more interesting.
Sunday was a day for exploration. No-one worked on Sundays unless there was an overwhelming run of fish. It was one of those rare Skeena River days. The morning sun came up over the snow capped eastern mountains casting a golden glow over the turbulent river. The presence of sunshine on a Sunday seemed to dispel all of those grey overcast misty days.
It was on such a glorious Sunday afternoon that I decided to visit the China House. To the right of the tracks there was the Chinese garden, an amazing patch of regularity in an otherwise chaotic community. The lettuce rows were exactly in line, like the lines on a ruled page. Much more amazing were the diagonal lines—nothing haphazard about that garden! I idly wondered as I stumbled from one railroad tie to another, why my mother always accepted gifts of lettuce from the Chinese foreman, but it never appeared on our table.
The ramp from the tracks to the bunkhouse passed onto a kind of porch, or almost a courtyard. Beside the rail hung a line of headless flounders, catching every ray of rare sunlight—winter fare for an enterprising Chinese fisherman. The courtyard served as a gathering place but also as the butchering block for the morning pig kill. By early afternoon it was drying from the recent scrubdown. It was here I caught sight of a smiling face—my friend Sung. "How would you like a tour?" he said with a huge smile. "Sure" I replied, feeling less certain than I sounded. We walked into the front room, passed through the kitchen and entered the dining area. There were several men around a table playing a game that looked something like dominoes. The sound of the men talking and laughing mixed with the clatter of the ivory pieces was like jumbled music. The light of the single hanging coal oil lamp was dimmed by the cloud of acrid cigarette smoke. The mixed odors of smoke, lamp, strange food, and foreign human bodies was not at all unpleasant. Sung explained that the men were gambling at Mah Jong, a traditional Chinese game.
I was offered and accepted a cup of green tea, which had a slightly bitter, but pleasant taste. Sung showed me through the rest of the living area. The rooms were sparsely furnished with home made furniture. Most rooms were doubly occupied, with very little space. On the wall opposite the door in most rooms hung a calendar in Chinese lettering, with a picture of a slim beautiful Chinese woman, fully clothed. On the way out we noticed a man sitting beside a bucket of water with a long tin tube protruding from the bucket. He would light a pinch of tobacco in a side tube with a burning stick and then suck the smoke through the water. I was fascinated with this strange way of smoking. Sung brought another cup of green tea with a rice cookie. We then went on a tour of the central patio area. I felt a sudden urge to pee and whispered to Sung. He showed me over to a corner of the patio where there was a tin trough sloping down to a bucket. Sung told me to pee in the trough. I watched the golden waterfall as the urine flowed into the bucket. Sung explained that when the bucket was full the gardener carried it out to the garden using a tin dipper to carefully pour the urine between the lettuce rows. I suddenly realized why we never ate Chinese garden greens. In spite of the different customs, the China House remained a favorite playground for a "cannery kid".
A long, long time ago in the early 1950's I spent about three weeks at the cannery. It was summer and my parents were heading off on a road trip across North America with a couple they were friends with. I was given the choice of traveling with them or going to stay with Uncle Oli and Aunt Karla at North Pacific Cannery.
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I had never been to Prince Rupert or North Pacific Cannery before but it sounded better than being trapped in a car with four adults for three weeks so off I went. It was all new to me and I had a fine time. Uncle Oli even put me to work helping staple cardboard boxes for the cans of salmon to be packed in.
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I think I was paid about 20 cents an hour for that. Cousin Alice came over from Osland and we managed to entertain each other. She and I were assigned to do dishes and clean up the kitchen after Karla prepared and served meals. Karla was an excellent cook and I was a very scrawny kid so while I was staying under her roof she did her best to fatten me up but after watching me devour all the gravies, mashed potatoes, pies, cakes and other high calorie foods she could come up with I think she gave up. She also stopped giving my mother advice about how to put some weight on Joanie.
Fast forward to 1962 and the “Call of the Cannery” came again. I was living at UBC with my husband, who was studying there, and our young daughter. My husband was looking for a summer job and Uncle Oli hired him as “dock boy” at NP. I was teaching in Vancouver but as soon as school was out I packed up the Austin Mini and drove north with 18 month old Diane happily bouncing around on a crib mattress I had placed on the back seat along with some of her toys and a supply of snacks. Car seats hadn’t been invented yet! Alas, I was not to live in the Manager’s house on this visit. Our dwelling was a small cottage further down the ‘pecking' line and beyond the houses with grass.
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It was built on piles with the boardwalk in front, the river beneath and train tracks in back - not the safest place to spend the summer with a toddler. When the trains went by the shack shook and you could almost high five the engineer through the back window. Then there were the rats that liked to visit in the dark of the night. One memorable night I witnessed my husband running about trying to kill a large daddy rat with the small wooden hammer that was part of our daughter’s “hammer the pegs” toy. Guess who got away through one of the many holes in the woodwork to return again and again bringing all his family with him. I haven’t been back to North Pacific Cannery since the summer of ‘62 but I have tentative plans to take a tour in September of 2018 that includes a visit to NP as part of the itinerary. Whoever knew it would become a Museum!
About the author
Joan was born in Lytton, BC and moved from there with her parents to Williams Lake and then Campbell River where she graduated from High School. From there it was off to Victoria College (later University of Victoria), Vancouver, Eugene OR and back to Vancouver and Victoria where she raised three daughters. Joan retired from teaching in 1997 and is currently living in Nanaimo, BC. Interests include family history and travel - always curious about what is around the next corner.