GUEST POST. The Cannery Kid: The China House
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".