Between Breath

Life only exists between every breath we take.

Bone House, Harling Point, Victoria, BC, Canada

I started my research at Harling Point, just outside the city of Victoria. Facing the Pacific Ocean on the point, there is a Bone House by the water. In the past, when Chinese immigrants pasted away in Canada no matter where they were buried, after 7 years, their bodies were unearthed and shipped to the Harling Point Bone House. This was a common practice from 1800s -1900s. In the Bone House the remains were cleaned and wrapped, and put into a wooden box then shipped to China to be buried in the village the person originated. This ritual comes from a Chinese tradition stemming from a thought that people are like falling leaves and their final resting place is atop their roots, where they came from. This custom was brought to an end with the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. There were around nine hundred skeletons that were not shipped back to China because of the war, and so, were buried at Harling Point. The stone tomb faces the Pacific Ocean, looking out to the direction of China.

Last year when I was conducting my research, I happened to be at Harling Point the night of the Chinese Moon Festival. The festival is a time families come together to celebrate. As I walked around the point, the sunset and the bright moon rose illuminating the dark blue sky. Family members placed flowers on graves, remembering past generations that were not able to complete their journey home to China. The high moon and peaceful cemetery were enhanced by the meditative sound of the repetition of waves crashing upon rocks. It sounded as if the bodies in the Bone House were calling across the ocean to their families, “We are coming home, we are coming home.”

Through my exploration, I have discovered that if you want to learn about Chinese immigration history in BC, many of the stories and historic sites are connected to cemeteries, this is why I started with Harling Point. To me, the Bone House has become a symbol of the traditional Chinese concept of home.

After Harling Point, I was reminded of Cumberland’s abandoned Chinatown, now a field and forested space, once a full thriving town. I thought of the importance of isolated histories; buildings unmaintained with little but memory that lingers now. This idea is further exemplified on D’Arcy Island, once a leper colony for Chinese men constructed by the Provincial Government, now a provincial park. I started gathering history of the Island and wanted to visit the place. It started to become clear to me that Harling Point, D’Arcy Island and Cumberland were the three key components in the building up a full history of Chinese immigrants on Vancouver Island, and I wanted to explore.

Leper Colony, D’Arcy Island, BC, Canada

I heard about D’Arcy Island a long time ago when I had first started to focus on Chinese immigrant histories. At the time I did not think of pursuing the topic because the history was long over, unlike in Victoria and Vancouver where new immigrants kept arriving and there seemed to be a clearer link from historic immigration to contemporary life. After my experience researching and visiting D’Arcy Island, this thought was completely contradicted. Not only, was this history still transforming through the new visitors remembering, experiencing and interacting with the Island, it seems to possess a larger history, not only of Chinese immigration but also of human connection to land.

From the dock we could see D’Arcy off in the distance between two larger islands, all I could make out was its outline. It looked like a like blurry blue-grey line my eyes could not focus on. When I began to distinguish the island’s features I started to imagine the men abandoned there so long ago. How had they felt when they took the similar journey I was taking now? I filmed our path to the island, as it got bigger and bigger we got closer and closer.

As we came up on the island from the water, we could see arbutus and Douglas fir trees. The first sign of the colony we saw from the boat were the cement walls of the caretaker’s house. The sunlight was illuminating it perfectly, with a single arbutus tree right beside it. It seemed to be a signal showing us there used to be people who lived here. As we continued to the boat-landing beach we saw a newly built lighthouse, from my readings I understood the ruins of the men’s house to be behind it. We reached the landing site and were greeted with a beach covered in driftwood logs, a low tide, provincial park signage and split rail fences. On the beach there were several colorful kayaks, and campers came out of their tents to see who the new additions to the island were. As soon as I stepped onto the island, everything seemed to hold meaning; the rocks and the grass processed this air I could not identify. I walked around reading the displayed panels. One entitled “A Sad Story,” told the history of the D’Arcy Island leper colony and there was a plaque of known and unknown names of men who had died here. To me, the stones and old wooden logs were more important, I could imagine the men sitting on them, thinking about their homes and faraway family members. I began to look for evidence of people who lived here, I found rusted metal scraps and wondered what they were for.

At the information board I found a tiny map of the island that indicated trails that once existed from the boat-landing site to the colony ruins. Some friendly kayakers said I should follow the trail marked with the red rope. I attempted to follow but after a while the markers disappeared and I decided to walk along the coast, feeling I could navigate better keeping the ocean on my left and the forest on my right. After awhile I finally reached the lighthouse and walked into the forest searching for ruins and remnants. Instead I found myself engulfed by trees. Alone in        -­­­

the forest, I began to hear a voice, it followed me around as I walked in the tree covered area, I could not decipher what it was saying. I expected myself to be frightened but I wasn’t, I was driven by my desire to find evidence from the past. I lost my feet with every step I took; I did not know what I was going to touch because the earth was so wild. I had never been in this situation, where I was walking on ground that looked as if no human being had ever touched it before. I then imagined the Chinese men who lived here for years, everyday discovering things like this. Did the place look the same? Was the nature more over grown? After a while, I figured the unknown voice was guiding me through the forest. I did not find the house foundation or anything else other than wild foliage. As I emerged from the forest I saw a large haring flying off the beach into the sky.

On my walk back, when I looked at the forest and the driftwood, I felt like I was following the footprints of the men there before me. The driftwood itself looked like bones, all pale white in their beached resting place. They once had a life where their roots grew and now have been cleaned and smoothed by the salt water like the bones in Bone House. I wonder where they came from but I am unable to know their journey I can only see their destination.

Leaving the island, I felt like I just started to get to know it and I was sad to say goodbye, however I left knowing that I would come back again. On the ride home we took an alternate route so we could see the other side of the island. Now I have a full image of D’Arcy in my mind. It is now inside me and is linked to my knowledge of the Chinese men that once lived there and my own experience. I left my footprints there—linking to the other imprints, layering the history of human contact with the island.

By interacting with history, I feel I am able to discover something greater, as if I was able to pass a message to the historic men on the island that this is not a sad place anymore, we remember you and what this place was and enjoy the place for what it is now—a place of human connection. Stories have the ability to transform places—this is their power and why we must continue telling them.

Abandoned Chinatown, Cumberland, BC, Canada

Cumberland had one of the largest Chinatowns on Vancouver Island. From 1888 – 1968 there were over 3000 Chinese mining workers that lived and worked there. After the mine closed in the early sixties and a destructive citywide fire, there was not much reason for residence to stay. We said goodbye to D’Arcy and drove two and a half hours to Cumberland on the north end of Vancouver Island.

When I arrived in Cumberland the historic site was distinguishable only by an information board and a small wooden house. Down from the entrance, trees crowded the road. The only features indicating this was not a typical forest were two wooden poles on either side of the path that said “Cumberland Chinatown” in Chinese. I stopped there for a few minutes and tried to imagine the immigrants that

had settled here, in this area now completely forested. At the beginning of the site there are several steal commemorative picnic tables constructed by people of newer generations to remember their parents and grandparents who once lived and worked here. Beside the tables, there was a plaque on a stone that read in English and Chinese, “The four seasons are peaceful.”

The main gravel road was bordered by several waist-high wooden displays with information and photographs of the buildings that used to be where the forest was now. I looked at all the buildings in the photos and tried to visualize them behind the displays, looking for evidence of the town. I found remnants of house structures, rusted metal and enamel bowls, parts of wooden tombs and small bits of coal. I also discovered broken old ceramic jars, and gate fragments buried in the long grass. There were green apples trees; I could imagine the fruiting trees when the community was full and thriving. I came across piles of cold burnt charcoal— evidence of the burning buildings so long ago. I walked down the road into an empty clearing that was once part of Chinatown and now a field surrounded by a forest. In the grass fields there were so many yellow flowers, I later found out they were called Common Tansy’s. I looked at the flowers for a while and confronted this empty space. It was full, though not as it once was; instead of people and activity, with grass, charcoal, flowers and fragments of the town all rich with memory. The history had seemingly vanished but the yellow flowers remain as a vision of the Chinese immigrants who worked here for a time.

Finding plants like morning glory and skunk cabbage as well the remnants of enamelware—things I would often see in my hometown—connected me to my own experiences in China. Though I never saw this place when it was a bustling city, I can imagine it through my familiarity of China. I drew a picture of what city life was like through my knowledge of its history and my own experiences here and in China. I felt the buzz of memories within me, and I left them in the space adding to the history of remembering here.

I left Cumberland and drove three hours to Swartz bay to take a ferry back home. On my way home, I compiled a complete vision of the three historic sites I had visited. They have become three objects floating on the water, far away, and then close, and then they leave me again. They are always somewhere, never too far away from me, waiting for more visitors, for more remembering and new memories made.


These three historic spaces are linked by their connection of memory and place. Though the Bone House, Leper Colony and empty Chinatown do not physically exist anymore, the memory is present waiting for people to discover, to reflect and to make new memories. With these new memories, people actively gather new thoughts that link the past to the present and give new consideration and hope for the future.

The notion of memory is seemingly invisible, yet it is always surrounding us existing in virtual places we cannot see—but how can see? Visiting these remembered places and seeking out histories and intergenerational memories is how we access them. I am not the only person to research these locations or Chinese immigrate histories but what I am trying to do is, to link memories and collect a full and resolved vision to inspire people. For me, when I think about these three sites, a feeling of excitement grows within me and the places become objects I carry with me that are complete and meaningful that trigger my imagination.

When I first thought about the Harling Point Bone House, I imagined the light spilling out though the wooden slats of the house while people worked to clean and wrap the bones at night. I imagine the house in a dark place, with illuminating light that guides me through the night.

With my first thoughts of D’Arcy I concentrated on its isolation. When confronting isolation one might first think about desperation and loneliness but for me, it carries a lot of mystery and has the ability to make people stronger. I try to imagine the dreams the men might have had about one day returning home to their families. I think about them walking the perimeter of the island making footprints while they dreamt about going home. They waited there until the end; everyone waiting then passing away, waiting until the last man was there alone. He lit their house on fire with him inside, lifting his spirit into the sky to meet the others. This kind of isolation has created a new place that people now come to visit, witness and discover these stories and appreciate what they themselves have. A was reminded of a very essential feeling here, that life only exists between every breath we take.

Thinking now about visiting Cumberland’s empty Chinatown, I was confronted by my own visual shock. There was almost nothing physical left of the community where so many people lived and worked. Four words ruminant in my head: people left, buildings disappear. The memory of this place still lives and is passed on through generations.

This emptiness and shock is the power of this place now, for an object cannot exist forever but a memory can—it holds infinite possibilities. To reiterate, for me, the most important attributes of a place are the memories that liger. In Cumberland’s Chinatown they are the memories of people who went there in search of a better life and worked hard to achieve it. This spirit remains in all immigrants, not only Chinese, this never-give-up-hope drive is added to the culture little by little. Each singular immigration story adds to the collective memory all different but all connected. This is how memories become so extremely powerful.

I return to a thought I often have about the Fraser River salmon run. Salmon leave their birthplace only to make their way back there to spawn and die. As human beings, we live in a similar cycle, though we do not always return to the beginning, we continue to move beyond and beyond.


Gu Xiong                                                                                                   
Summer, 2016