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Our History: The Chinese secrets of Tod Inlet

In the four decades that I’ve walked the trail to Tod Inlet, I can’t pretend to know the place. Its apparent stillness mocks me.

In the four decades that I’ve walked the trail to Tod Inlet, I can’t pretend to know the place. Its apparent stillness mocks me. I can name a plant, sit in reverie on one of its banks or be in awe of a leaf shot through with sunlight, but the pervasive intelligence of this place is rooted in centuries of being. Tod Inlet has been a place of refuge for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but few are aware of its history. Six years ago, I began a photographic homage to the inlet and its surroundings. Initially, its beauty and serenity were all I needed to keep me focused on my project, but its history kept intruding and I finally began to tell its story. This is an excerpt from Tod Inlet: A Healing Place.


I look up from mushroom hunting and realize I’m at the estuary. The trees here are mostly alders, indicating an old clearing. I see a shard of white glass, pieces of tin, half a cylinder of ceramic tile and another cylinder of solid concrete that may have served as a foundation support. This is the edge of the former housing area for the Chinese workers of the cement plant, and I decide to backtrack slightly to investigate this trace of a village.

Every footfall bears witness to this small community’s existence. There are several holes dug in the ground, four feet deep and almost as wide. An outhouse? A root cellar? I step gingerly, hunching under long branches of ocean spray, but my boots slip on the thick, green shards of ancient beer bottles, my ankle turns on a camouflaged brick and I look up just in time to find that a branch across my path is actually a length of rebar.

Metal fencing wire, heavy iron struts, wire mesh, tin roofing, even crockery peek through the forest debris. As I skulk, I’m constantly stepping on the rusting corrugated roofing buried under the leaves: it prangs and crackles, making disconcerting sounds in the otherwise quiet forest. I’m shocked to find a glazed ceramic bowl and a pig bone. Did Yat Tong eat a meal from this bowl? It has been said that he was the only one who knew how to make the flower pots properly when the cement plant became a tile and pot factory, in business until the 1950s.

Yat Tong is one of the most memorable of all the Chinese workers, having spent about 50 years at Tod Inlet. He arrived in Canada in 1912 aboard a ship that was supplying construction workers for the Canadian Pacific Railway. No doubt becoming appalled at the number of his fellow countrymen who were dying on the railway, he made his way westward and somehow landed at Tod Inlet working for the Vancouver Portland Cement Company.

After the close of the company in 1921, he stayed on and worked with Dem Carrier, the village superintendent, and others in a scaled-down operation that manufactured tiles. He spent his final years working for Jennie Butchart as a gardener and was still living in an old cabin in the Chinese village as late as the 1960s.

The company employed almost 200 Chinese men in the early years, and gradually tapered to a steady crew of about 80. These men built their own buildings, probably with lumber offered by the cement company. The area above the estuary had a semicircle of four cabins and a communal cook shack. A large dormitory was built farther away in the clearing where a small concrete structure still stands.

It would have been a grim life for these Chinese workers, but hardly different from the plight of most immigrant workers in Canada at this time. They worked long hours for low wages and fended for themselves domestically: raising livestock, growing vegetables, cooking and doing the laundry in this bachelors’ village. Tuberculosis was common in this dusty, gritty environment, and diseases spread quickly due to crowded living quarters and lack of proper sanitation.

Some of the workers’ social outlets might have included playing games such as mahjong and fan-tan, or indulging in an opium pipe or beer procured from Victoria’s Chinatown. But as isolated as they were at Tod Inlet, some respite could be had if they managed to travel to the city: the interurban electric rail line stopped at Lime Kiln Road (today’s Benvenuto Road).

In Victoria they might have made contact with friends from their home province, attended a funeral, gambled the evening away, sent news or money home, picked up mail or even visited a brothel. From 1900 to 1910 Victoria was home to the largest Chinatown in North America. In 1911, the Chinese of Victoria numbered 3,458 — about half the population of the city at that time — and their town covered six blocks.


Little Guangzhou, as it was known, was anything but a shantytown. Well-heeled merchants and their families owned dry goods, grocery and produce stores. There were tailors, herbalists, teahouses, gaming rooms and joss houses (Chinese temples). An impressive cemetery was established at Harling Point in 1903, and in 1909 the Chinese community built its own school, where Chinese and English were taught, as Chinese children were not allowed to attend the colonial schools.

The European families who lived at Tod Inlet did interact with some of the Chinese workers, and relations seemed fairly cordial. Mary Parsell, who raised a family here, spoke of the kindness of the Chinese cook, Mr. Losee, whenever she was in need. She was unused to getting provisions only monthly and often ran short. On occasion, Mr. Losee would give Parsell a much-coveted loaf of bread that was intended for the workers.

But Mary’s son, Norm, remembered children throwing snowballs and rocks at the Chinese workers and occasionally yanking on their long pigtails, although the workers made no move to retaliate. This small village, although not ideal, was unique due to the close proximity of the two communities. In other areas, such as Vancouver, racial tensions were rising and riots were evidence of the animosity felt for the Chinese.

In 1906, 40 Sikhs came to work at the cement plant. Living conditions were as basic for the Sikh workers as they were for the Chinese, but the isolation must have been even more acute, as no established Sikh community existed for these men. In the early years of the plant, the Sikhs were the stokers and firemen.

Each time the bricks in a kiln became exhausted, the stokers had to replace them. The old bricks were tossed into the water and can still be seen on the shore adjacent to the stacks of unused concrete pilings. After discarding these firebricks, the men entered the still-warm kilns to reline them, using pieces of lumber strapped to their feet for protection.

The rotary kilns were thick steel tubes, seven feet in diameter and 70 feet long, and were heated to a temperature of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in order to fuse the powdered limestone and clay. It must have taken many hours for the bricks to cool, and production time was lost until the kilns could be relined.

By 1910, these Sikh workers had all moved on after witnessing the deaths of Chinese workers due to tuberculosis caused by dust and typhus carried by lice in overcrowded living quarters. But the death of one of their countrymen was probably a deciding factor. Tar Gool Singh had caught a cold that developed into consumption, no doubt exacerbated by his living and working conditions.

When the cement plant owners discovered his plight, they offered to pay for his stay at St. Joseph’s Hospital, but he refused, as eating from the plates of white people would cause him to lose his Punjabi caste. When he was close to death he was taken to the hospital, but his co-workers and a brother wanted to cremate him on a traditional funeral pyre and send a bone back to India to cast into the Ganges to ensure his passage to paradise.

A large wooden pyre was built in the forest at Tod Inlet, and on an April morning, Tar Gool Singh’s last rites were honoured. The descendants of many of these men live in the Victoria area. Some family names include Wirk, Singh, Johal, Dhillon and Jawl.

From Tod Inlet: A Healing Place ©Gwen Curry, 2015, Rocky Mountain Books.

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