The North Island’s history contains a number of stories of First Nations and pioneers who lived very interesting lives.
In the 1800s a number of First Nations people from the North Island, perhaps most notably the Quatsino, established a connection with Asian countries like China and Japan through their involvement in the sealing and whaling industries. Prized for their skill, First Nations sailors were recruited by ships that would come to the North Island and take the locals away — sometimes for more than a year at a time.
A number of Chinese Canadians left their legacy closer to home, here on the North Island.
Jim King emigrated as a young boy from China to Vancouver in 1882. After working at low-paying, unskilled jobs for a number of years he decided to set off up the coast to try his luck in the logging industry. King worked as a boom man, camp cook and sawmill labourer before ending up in Alert Bay in 1910.
The local Indian Agent, William Halliday, befriended King and helped him to start a small store in Alert Bay. King originally sold tobacco and then branched out into a dry goods store.
Dong Chong left Hong Kong in 1922 aboard the “Empress of Asia” and landed in Vancouver at the age of 16. Chong started off selling fresh vegetables at a grocery stand, and then expanded these sales into a successful wholesale business based in Vancouver’s bustling Chinatown.
In 1928 Chong got married, sold his business, and travelled up the coast in search of a job. Unfortunately, he found that many businesses on the coast would not hire Chinese. At this time the Head Tax had been implemented, and many Caucasian British Columbians were vocal in their discrimination against Asians, who had come in large numbers to the province to work on the Canadian National Railway and in many of the area’s coal mines. Stopping in at Alert Bay, Chong met King, and decided to buy his store.
Chong would deliver goods to his customers by row boat and wheelbarrow. When the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch Chong would always be one of the first to know if there was an illegal potlatch going on because the hosts would order huge quantities of goods from his store. He never reported these goings-on to the police, and noted that in Alert Bay everyone got along at that time: white, Asian, and First Nations.
Chong was known to help out locals by extending credit to those could not pay their bill. At one point he ended up taking over part ownership of a logging company from a customer who couldn’t repay the loan. Ironically, it was illegal for Chong’s logging company to employ Chinese workers.
In the 1960s Chong purchased land in Port Hardy, and built a number of successful commercial units. His business eventually included grocery stores and commercial holdings all over British Columbia. Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island is named after this North Island pioneer.
In more recent history, Dick Wong was well known for his café in Echo Bay, and later his restaurant, the Pagoda Gardens, which was established in 1961 in Port Hardy. The building on Granville Street was a landmark in the community until it was destroyed in a fire in 1991 (by the site of the town clock). The curator at the local museum published a multi-instalment biography on Wong in 1998 in the Gazette.
Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.