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Play re-examines Canadian province's dark past

By by Al Campbell (Xinhua)

08:31, August 26, 2011

VANCOUVER, Aug. 25 (Xinhua) -- A dark part of British Columbia's (B.C.) history is revisited in a new play, which re-examines the Canadian province's booming salmon fishing industry of the early 20th century.

The two-hour play, "Salmon Row", is performed by the Vancouver-based Mortal Coil Performing Society. It covers the years from 1895 to 1941, a period that brought great wealth to the province's captains of industry who ran the forestry and fishing sectors, two staples of B.C.'s early economy, but at the same time discriminated against many of those who labored in the fields.

Starting in the mid-1880s, Steveston, southwest of Vancouver, became the epicenter of the world salmon industry. With 15 canneries working round-the-clock to process the fish, each season about 10,000 people would descend on the tiny village to find work in what was essentially a Wild West town.

Peaking in 1901, when 7.25 million kilograms of salmon were processed by the canneries, the town featured hotels, saloons, restaurants, gambling houses, prostitutes, opium dens and even an opera house.

While such establishments and services were largely patronized by the majority white British society, toiling in the background was an army of aboriginal, Chinese and Japanese workers who kept the salmon fishing industry going with their sweat and blood.

In "Salmon Row", which requires the audience to move through five outdoor stages set up in an old shipyard area along the Fraser River, the production demonstrates how those discriminated against banded together, despite their own prejudices toward one another, in an act of survival, according to director Peter Hall.

"The major themes were dealing with is racism sure, but also it is respect for one another and respect for the resources that brought people here," he said. These issues are still going on to this day. So I think it is very important to look back into our history and see how it reflects on us and how it continues on.

One of the sets is a Chinese bunkhouse depicting a drunken gambling scene among single Chinese men. The men are single because the laws of the day cut off Chinese immigration, thus preventing families from being reunited until the law was repealed in 1947.

Ronan Wong, one of the actors in the drama/musical, said Chinese workers were prominent in Steveston but little has been written about them, mainly because they didn't fish. This duty was largely the preserve the experienced aboriginal and Japanese fishermen.

"Mostly the Chinese men were present in the canneries, especially butchering. So they were a big part of butchering the fish that came along until they were replaced by mechanization."

The mechanization came in 1913. A machine cynically named the "Iron Chink," a mechanical fish butcher was introduced and could gut and clean salmon automatically for canning, thus eliminating the jobs of many of the Chinese.

Hall said many of the Chinese came into the fishing industry from building Canada's railway. They saw in it an opportunity to stay in the country with the limited job opportunities available to them.

"They came here, and they weren't so much fishermen as they were cannery workers, and also they ran businesses down here, the bunk houses...but after a certain point there isn't that much in terms of their presence there and I think that had a lot to do with the mechanization of the line," he said.

The Hong Kong-born Ronan Wong added: "But there was also a spirit of working together at some point. During the tough years, all the various groups sometimes had to work together to survive, otherwise you just wouldn't survive."

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