JM: [laughs] I knew that was why you asked me to bring the jam [all laugh]. But it’s such a nice story.
KG: Can you tell that story, Joan?
JM: [Michael Abe] came about three years ago, and his mother was with him. They wanted to see where they had lived before the war, and their name was Toyota. I knew where the Toyota house had been because that’s where Mrs. Yano lived. So, I took them down there and was trying to show them—the trees are all grown up now—and Wayne Baylor who now lives next to that property and has a machine shop there, he called out to me and he said, “What are you looking for?” And I said, “These people are trying to find the home where the Toyotas used to live.”
“I can show them exactly,” he said. “I did the bulldozing there.” Now every year they come to Mr. Baylor’s house and they get Japanese plums from him. He told them that I even dug up one of the little Japanese plum trees and I’ve got it in my yard. The tears were just running down her face, and so he comes every year now.
KG: I think for me one of the reasons why that’s so compelling is that it’s just an example of what it meant to be in a completely foreign country. You’re from another place. You’re in a completely foreign country and you have something to connect with—
JM: I hadn’t realized until he and his family came that these Japanese plum trees were anything special. And now I know.
KG: Now we know.
JM: We have some in our yard, too. I let them strip them. I got just one good batch of jam and one second batch that’s a little bit runny. I let him have all of them.
The context for the above exchange was deliberately omitted. The excerpt comes from an oral history interview I conducted with Paldi historian Joan Mayo on December 3, 2018. Anyone reading it, however, can immediately detect the importance of place and the connection we can have to a site that has significance for us. The Paldi Gurdwara, a Sikh temple celebrating its centenary in July 2019, has become a meeting place for people who have a connection to Paldi, or really, any Punjabi wishing to connect to their historical roots; there is no other place to meet in this once thriving logging town, because everything else is gone.
Paldi was the first stop for many new Sikh immigrants to British Columbia in the early twentieth century. The generosity of the town’s founder, Mayo Singh, was well known, and anyone who needed a job was given one, regardless of race. Distinct cultural enclaves formed that included people of Chinese, Japanese and European ancestries, in addition to the Sikh community: the town became a model of multiculturalism long before the term was coined. Many families from Paldi produced community leaders and attained enormous success. But in 1945 a disastrous forest fire destroyed 27 million feet of felled timber destined for the Paldi mill, and the mill ceased operations. Most of the employees moved to the mill in Honeymoon Bay. The town went into decline. The gurdwara, however, remained a meeting place for many community members.
A goal of the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project (PCLP) was to identify stories the community wished to tell. The next step involved going out to speak to community members and document their stories in oral history interviews, like the one above. For those unfamiliar with the significance of this type of interview, once it is recorded and deposited into an archive, it becomes primary source material for researchers. It becomes part of a historical record that previously did not exist, often because in the past it would have been deemed unimportant by historians.
The community consultation workshops organized by the PCLP allowed a small community like ours to participate in a project that has both provincial and national significance. The first workshop was held in 2016 at the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives (CVMA), housed in the heritage-designated Duncan Train Station. The second workshop, held at the Paldi Gurdwara in 2017 and co-hosted by the CVMA and the gurdwara, drew even more people from the community. Stories emerged, moving and informative, and as with stories that are shared by community members—especially those who have lived through discriminatory government policies—it is essential that their generous and often courageous participation be honoured. The goal of workshops like these is to facilitate an environment that allows stories to emerge, stories that the community wishes to share.
The next step, and one of the most fun for me, is working with the community to determine how the stories will be told. What messages do the community want museum visitors to take away from the exhibit? What should they know about Paldi? A short documentary film about Asian Canadians in the Cowichan Valley, on view in the museum, was informed by interviews undertaken before and after PCLP workshops; it was created through a partnership between the CVMA, André and Associates Interpretation and Design, and Langara College student Alexandra Sia. Funding was provided by the research project Asian Canadians on Vancouver Island: Race, Indigeneity and the Transpacific (University of Victoria), with which the CVMA has partnered since 2014.
A new permanent exhibit about Paldi was created at the Cowichan Valley Museum using the Joan Mayo fonds, Paldi-related archival material transferred from Simon Fraser University to the CVMA, and a few artifacts as building blocks. But it is the inclusion of the community’s stories—in the people’s own words—that brings the exhibit to life. These stories provide local perspectives on world events, such as the effect of the internment of people of Japanese ancestry on their friends and neighbours during the Second World War.
I was delighted to be invited by the Paldi Temple Heritage Committee to participate in the planning of commemorative activities for this year’s centennial celebration of the first Gurdwara. We’re discussing potential interpretive signage for the exterior of the temple, a commemorative booklet and ideas for the small on-site museum.
There’s a continuing fascination with Paldi’s history, evidenced by the many people who visit the gurdwara and by the researchers who contact the CVMA seeking information about it. “Visitors show up and are amazed at how welcome they are made to feel. They want to learn more about the gurdwara,”as Joan Mayo said during the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project Community Consultation in October 2017.
The excerpted interview was co-conducted, recorded and transcribed by Annie Smith, Vancouver Island University (Cowichan Campus) Librarian and Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives volunteer.