It’s a now familiar story: during the Cariboo Gold Rush, thousands of people from all over the world stampeded up the Fraser River to Barkerville in search of gold. Less well known is that between 1858 and 1923 a large number of those people migrated to Barkerville from China’s Guangdong Province; in fact, they were the largest ethnic group to enter the region1.
Today we are more aware than ever of what a treasure trove we have in Barkerville’s beautifully preserved Chinatown and extensive collection of archival records, photographs and artifacts—the largest (we believe) existing collection of pre-1900 written Chinese documents specific to North American activities. This collection, which reflects the pioneering life and times in the Cariboo and demonstrates global connections, is playing an increasingly important role in building bridges between cultures and linking our past to our future.
With more than fifty years of research—building and site histories, archaeological excavations, biological studies of plant remains, interviews, photographs, continual gathering of information—we have begun to build a picture of a diverse and complex population. It consisted of far more than just labourers or sojourners and was intrinsically involved in the community right up to the development of Barkerville as a heritage site.
As part of the Chinese Legacy Initiatives, Barkerville was invited to take part in the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project (CCAP). Our goal with this project was to create a more complete inventory of our Chinese documents collection and to place it online in a format that could be more easily accessed by researchers from around the globe. While Barkerville has had its collections database online for a number of years2, this was an opportunity to compile and specifically showcase these important parts of our collection and to link with other institutions working to further research the participation of Chinese Canadians in the development of western Canada.
The Chinese language collections at Barkerville consist of many types of documents including formally bound and sewn booklets, receipts, correspondence and slogans. Many of these documents were recovered during building restorations, such as the many pieces of data that archaeologist Dr. Ying-ying Chen was able to obtain from the wallpaper that lined buildings such as the Chee Kung Tong, now a National Historic Site. Among these documents we have counted over 11,000 pages of handwritten Chinese script and, with help from the BC History Digitization Program in 2014, we were able to digitize most of these pages.
Participating in the CCAP involved creating a comprehensive list of all the record groups (fonds) in the Barkerville Archives that contain Chinese content. This included compiling ‘finding aids’ and research about the material that may be helpful in representing the information within the digital system. Information about this material exists within Barkerville’s collections database, but the level of description varies from record group to record group. Some of the larger record groups have finding aids but are unable to be searched digitally as they are, for the most part, typewritten photocopies made decades ago. Converting these finding aids to digital text using optical character recognition software (OCR) greatly helped to speed up the process.
With the exception of the Lee Chong Company papers3, rather than being comprehensive records of an organization most record groups are largely a mishmash of documents recovered from abandoned buildings or family collections. To further complicate matters, the documents were originally collected and arranged by English speakers who were unable to read them. Fortunately many of these works have now been researched and partially translated so that a basic idea of their content is understood.
To date, Barkerville has uploaded basic descriptive information about the 26 Chinese record groups in our collection to the CCAP database, including a sampling of digital images to provide a sense of the items described. As a side benefit of the project we have been able to improve our arrangement and description of the materials, including updating information that has been learned since the material was first collected.
Barkerville has long honoured its Chinese pioneers and participating in the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project has been a welcome opportunity to connect with other museums and archives with the same goal.