#874 Keeping company at Fort Hope

Potlatch Blanket for a China Man
by Mei-Li Lee

Victoria: Printorium Bookworks, 2019
$19.95  /  9780991808410

Reviewed by May Q. Wong

For a complete list of BC booksellers that stock this book see here. It is also available from Amazon.

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Mei-Li Lee draws the reader into her novel through a potlatch ceremony, where a boy’s special abilities are recognized and he is bestowed the name of Shxwmót’estel. In this place by the Fraser River, the Indigenous people of the Sto:lo Nation have kept their ancient traditions, despite the many changes that have been wrought by the coming of the white fur traders, the place they have built called Fort Hope, and the shiploads of gold seekers. The year is 1859.

During the ceremony, Shxwmót’estel foresees the coming of a seeker, Tew Kin Lee (the main character). Seventeen-year-old Tew Kin Lee wanted more in life than the safe, scholarly path his father had prescribed for him. His classical Chinese education could have brought him, and his family, honour, prestige, and greater wealth. Instead, he left his privileged life and his home in China and sailed to San Francisco, to “explore, satisfy his curiosity and along the way learn to be a good man (p. 178).” He chose to start his new life in Fort Hope in what had once been known, broadly, as New Caledonia, because “hope” and “new” reflected his dreams.

R. Brown, “Grand Potlach (or distribution of blankets, guns and money) at Fort Hope Rancherie, Fraser River 1859.” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Courtesy Azimuth Books
An early view of Hope. Courtesy Quesnel Museum

At the gift-giving portion of the potlatch, Tew Kin is recognized as a kindred spirit by Elder-Grandmother, and is honoured with the gift of a rare, thick, soft, white blanket. It is this blanket, which travels with Tew Kin from Fort Hope, west to Fort Langley, and north to Barkerville, that is passed down three generations, and its worth and meaning are fully appreciated.

Tew Kin had hoped to receive a red blanket to keep him warm and also because “[r]ed was the colour of happiness (p.19).” When he reflected on the colour of the one he had actually received, Tew Kin thought:

Curious how colour made things desirable or less desirable. His mother and elder sister had always selected silk brocades in jewel tones. Yet the rich White woman whom he had served in San Francisco had been obsessed with the whiteness of…all laundry…. White was a colour of death and mourning in Guangdong. But here, white was a colour of privilege…. In the Colony of British Columbia, the people whom he encountered so far, other than fellow China men and Indians were less white. It was the frontier and they were outdoors more. Still, underneath that whiteness seemed to hold. White was more than a colour in the new land (p. 24).

Potlatch Blanket for a China Man reminds us that the gold rush in British Columbia attracted people from all over the world, and not just those who sought the elusive metal. The story is told through four additional points of view, including Corbin, a saloon- keeper and entrepreneur; Nohea Palakiko, a Hawaiian stevedore; Mei, Tew Kin’s daughter, and; Ruth, Tew Kin’s granddaughter.

W.G.R. (William) Hind, “Bar in Mining Camp, B.C.,” 1865. Courtesy McCord Museum, Montreal
Detail of Gustavus Epner, Map of the Gold Regions of British Columbia (Victoria, 1862)

At Fort Hope, Elder-Grandmother introduces Tew Kin to Corbin, who demands civility among the men who drink at his establishment and refuses to serve those who speak “any ill of Indians or China men (p. 66).” In return for shelter and safety (“Keep your knife close. Some men don’t like China men (p. 32),” Tew Kin takes on the role of servant and errand boy, but also learns to speak English.

Corbin has dark skin and wavy hair, but passes as a White man. He struggles with his identity as a person of colour. Corbin asks himself “Were goods and appearances to be his measure? Pa and Ma were devoted to family. Where was his loyalty?…. Hubris — a man’s character could not be cleanly apportioned into public life and private life” (pp. 38-39).

Tew Kin is forced to leave Fort Hope when the bodies of two white men are discovered. His friends know that his involvement will not be treated fairly or impartially by the law because he is Chinese. Heading north, he meets a group of men (among them, an Italian, two Mexicans, a Black, a Chinese, and a Hawaiian) who work on a mule pack train. They shuttle various goods to distributors supporting miners and new settlers along the Fraser River. Tew Kin’s knowledge of sums, reading, and writing keep him employed and take him as far north as the gold rush town of Barkerville. Through his friendship with Nohea Palakiko, the Hawaiian, Tew Kin is chosen by Nohea’s sister-in-law to father her child. With the birth of their daughter Mei, Tew Kin’s story continues into the future.

William Hind, “Chinese Gold Washers on the Fraser River,” circa 1864. Courtesy McCord Museum, Montreal
Mei-Li Lee (Dr. Mary Lindsay)

From the first few pages of Potlatch Blanket for a China Man, I was immersed in the vivid scenes and intrigued by the initial characters Mei-Li Lee has sparingly and deftly created in this debut novel. The timely issues she introduces raise awareness of parts of British Columbia’s history that have not been widely written about, such as the diversity of the early immigrants. Perhaps more importantly, she writes from different points of view, from people whose voices have been marginalized.

For example, we see how the culture of the Indigenous peoples was impacted by colonialism through Shxwmót’estel’s eyes:

…his people’s stories told him relationships had been different. White men had been a curiosity to many in his clan. His people had watched, even helped, as trees had been harvested for lumber…. The rawness from clearing the land healed over. Nature reclaimed the edges with green. But soon, more White men came…. Their hunger for land and wood increased as the town site grew…. Trees, ancient trees, had become mere fodder. Only the river seemed to continue on as before and just when the boy’s people became used to the next change, another was upon them…. Xwelitems searched for gold and disrupted his people’s fishing places. Seeing the ease with which some miners prospered, some clansmen had been tempted to leave the old ways behind…. Yet from what Shxwmót’estel saw at this potlatch, his people held fast to some traditions (pp. 11-12).

“Chinamen washing for gold near North Bend,” 1891. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives
Mei-Li Lee

But much of the book deals with the universal struggles individuals face in being true to self, family, and culture, and how to be a good person. This was, after all, Tew Kin’s reason for leaving home and exploring. People leave their families for different reasons. By the end of the book, though, other than his understanding of how much grief he had caused his family in China, I was still looking for clues as to how Tew Kin had changed to become a better person. Corbin’s reconciliation with his identity as a person of colour was only resolved in his private life. Nohea left a wife and family in Hawaii to find work in a new land, and has a family in his adopted homeland. But when he loses his job and has to depend on his wife going away to work, he struggles with who he has become: “On the outside, you can seem strong but inside, you’re weak (p. 196).”

I am of two minds regarding Potlatch Blanket for a China Man. The story has the makings of an epic saga, and I wished Lee had explored these issues and her characters in greater depth. Many of her observations are insightful, and as I mentioned earlier Lee has a deft touch with language. The ending was too abrupt, with too many issues unresolved. The book left me with more questions than answers; perhaps Lee had intended the reader to contemplate those questions and come to their own conclusions? Potlatch Blanket might be relevant for middle and high school students to learn about British Columbia’s diverse history, and the classroom would be a good venue to discuss the issues the book raises.

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May Q. Wong. Photo by M. Guan

May Q. Wong researches and chronicles the extraordinary in ordinary people. She is a graduate of McGill University and holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Victoria. May started writing for publication after retiring from the BC Public Service in 2004. A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada (Brindle & Glass, 2012), offers a glimpse into the lives of a couple separated for 25 years of their 50 year marriage, and the impact of Canada’s discriminatory laws on their family. City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past (TouchWood, 2018) (reviewed by Tom Koppel in The Ormsby Review, no. 513, April 2, 2019) is a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse range of immigrants and their contributions to our community. In addition to reading, writing, and speaking to groups about her books, May creates useful and beautiful things with knitting and sewing needles – the latest being hand-beaded face masks. Editor’s note: May Wong has also reviewed Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, by Catherine Clement, and A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung, by John Price with Ningping Yu.

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Mei-Li Lee at Cumberland Museum and Archives, November 2019. Photo courtesy Facebook
Display at Munro’s Books, Victoria. Facebook
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