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Golden Miles of History

The Chinese in Lillooet

The Chinese became part of the recorded history of British Columbia during the earliest days of the sea otter trade when they helped independent merchant John Meares build the first trading post on Vancouver Island in 1788. With the market for the valuable pelts in China, British Columbia was part of the Pacific Rim long before it became part of Canada.

Thousands of Chinese nationals flooded into California when gold was discovered there in 1848 but when stringent laws were passed against them many of them headed north to the new Colony of British Columbia where their rights were protected by British colonial law.

As well as being miners, they built roads & wooden flumes, grew vegetables and opened shops, restaurants & laundries. Many were also employed as cooks and housekeepers including by the prominent Phair family here in Lillooet.

While they were criticized for accepting low wages, sending their earnings back to China and importing their own specialized supplies, the Chinese were also respected for their hard work and massive contribution to the development of this province.

When B.C. became part of Canada in 1871, one of the conditions was that the Federal Government would connect it to the rest of the country with a new cross continental railroad. Work started on the railroad in 1881 with most of the tens of thousands of workers needed to push it through the rugged B.C. landscape recruited in China by Chinese labour contractors.

Once the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1884, many of the Chinese workers came to the Lillooet area to re-work tailings left behind by miners who went north to richer strikes in the Cariboo. The Chinese miners patiently sifted the sand & gravel and washed boulders seeking any remaining flakes of gold. Ridges of the piled rocks they left behind can still be seen throughout the District of Lillooet.

In 1884, Chinese miners discovered that Lillooet's Cayoosh Creek had been overlooked. Over the next three years they mined it to a depth of fourteen feet beneath its surface taking out millions of dollars' worth of placer gold.

An estimated six hundred Chinese miners worked the Cayoosh while living in rustic cabins along the creek leaving behind the ruins of traditional Chinese cooking stove in the Seton Lake Campground.

Wo Hing was a prominent Chinese citizen of Lillooet who owned the largest store on Main Street and raised pork at his ranch on West Pavilion Road. A Chinatown sprang up in Lillooet behind his store at the entrance to Fraserview Street opposite Downton Park on Main Street. By the 1930s, most of the merchants on Main Street were Chinese but the boom and bust economy of Lillooet did not translate into a continuous presence here.

It didn't have any monetary value to the other nationalities, but there was another treasure found in the Lillooet area by the Chinese miners – B.C. nephrite jade and they shipped many tons of it back to China. Cut and polished to perfection, Lillooet's Jade Walk displays the beauty and variety of some of the boulders they left behind.