A piece of home: MCpl Windy Lafreniere

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In Steveston with Lydia Luk

The following interview is a result from my participation in Journeying through Chinatowns: a photography exhibit at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver, B.C. This exhibit looks at the present-day conditions of historical Chinatowns in Vancouver, New Westminster, and Steveston. I was asked to document Steveston, a historic fishing village located at the south tip of Richmond.

As someone who only visited Steveston as a child with my family on occasion to eat fish and chips, I had little knowledge about the village's connection to Chinese Canadians. When I've visited in recent years, the focus has been on learning Japanese Canadian history.

In a tour of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery earlier this year, I learned of the work Chinese Canadians contributed to Steveston's original fishing canneries. Apparently, most Chinese migrant workers commuted from Vancouver for work and they were often given more dangerous, yet lower paying, jobs. When the Chinese head tax was implemented, it made it increasingly difficult for those of Chinese descent to come to Canada. In turn, dwindling the number of Chinese workers in the area.

Journeying through Chinatowns runs from April 30 to September 1, 2019.

Lydia Luk, 35, lived in Steveston with their family when they first immigrated to Canada in the 1980s from Hong Kong.

Name: Lydia Luk
Age: 35
Photo location choice: Timothy's Frozen Yogurt

KI: Tell me about your connection to Steveston.

Lydia: Steveston is actually where I grew up. My family and I came to Canada when I was 5 years old so back in 1989. I don't even know why we ended up in Vancouver or Richmond, but we did. We didn't really have any family here, but [a relative told us] there was really cheap property in Steveston and my mom was like, 'Okay, it's what we can afford.'

The whole idea of owning a house was such a dream for my parents so they put a down payment on this place in Steveston by the dyke. It was the most amazing home because it was a split level home, but the coolest part for me was there were five cherry trees, there was a tree house, and there were chestnut trees. We came from Hong Kong and I just remember feeling like Canada is the land of abundance because we were like, 'We can feed ourselves from our garden!' But none of the things were edible. Our neighbours warned us, 'Don't eat the chestnuts because they're poisonous' when me and my parents had picked buckets. And then the cherry trees, they were all sour, like super, super sour.

So my connection to Steveston is deep.

It's the one place I see as home. I grew up here, played here, worked here, cried here, fell in love, broke my heart, scuffed my knee, all the things.

What made you leave?

I lived in the Steveston area until I graduated high school, then we moved closer to the centre of Richmond, but I lived in Richmond until I was 30 so I've only been away [from Steveston and Richmond] for like five years. Financially, we decided to downsize because [my parents] were getting ready for me to go to college.

What was Steveston like when you were growing up?

It was a fish town so all [the newer] apartments were not there. It was a cannery.

When I came, the cannery was still running. I think it was one of the last canneries though. I remember very distinctively that Wednesdays was when they would clean out the cannery and the whole village would just reek of dead fish. It was the worst. I was like *vomit sound*. Usually there were two different smells you would get: you either got the dead fish smell or the farm smell because of the fertilizer. You just smelled farm or fish.

What else do you remember?

It was such a great place to also grow up in as a little kid where you can go to your neighbour's house and just run. There were these two kids, and I was in between. They were two siblings and we shared a yard so I would go over to their house and we would just play.

My other fond memory is peach yogurt. I'd always go over there and eat tons of peach yogurt and that was the greatest thing. That was the most Canadian thing. It was a great place to grow up.

Were there many other Chinese families around?

There weren't. I don't think there were any other newcomer families. If I think about the first three years when I was growing up in Richmond, any other Chinese kid I met was like third generation. Then any kid I thought was Chinese turned out to be Japanese and they were like fifth generation so I was definitely the FOB (fresh off the boat). I always got mad because people called me the FOB all the time and I was like, 'No, I came on a plane. You came on a boat, I came on a plane. I'm a FOP.'

What was that like for you, as the 'FOB?'

Being one of the few Asian kids, I remember I was so excited to start school in Canada. My mom brought this kit—I think it was Hello Kitty—but it was this cute Asian cartoon chopstick kit and I got in trouble for having it. I wasn't allowed to bring it because chopsticks apparently were a weapon. It was stupid. And then in Grade 3 some other random white kid started chasing me around with- you know those things that help you draw circles and it has the needle? So in Grade 3, this kid ran after me trying to stab me with a compass and I was like Canada's a fucked up place.

Wow.

I didn't think of racism [as a kid], except I experienced it left, right and centre. 

When I hit high school, that's when everything changed. That's when a whole other wave of new immigrants, specifically from Hong Kong and China or Taiwan came. That's when I experienced a different kind of racism.

Like what?

When I first came to Canada, I experienced racism as, 'Oh my gosh, you're Chinese' or 'What are you? What do you do? What are those two pointy things that you're eating with?'

There was no Chinese food. Definitely sushi was not around, no rice around. Do you remember Chees Whiz? Yeah, Chees Whiz on a saltine cracker was like the snack of choice and I was always like, 'What the hell is this plastic thing?'

I have so many stories, like my mom trying to be really, really Canadian. She would try and make a salad. It would be cubes of cheese and cubes of ham and cubes of carrot and cucumber, and lettuce that was cut in half, then put in a bowl and that's a salad.

By the time I hit high school though, it was a different kind of racism.'There's too many Asians around.' I remember in high school, I had an English teacher. I used to get into detention all the time. I don't know why. Maybe I was just a bad kid. But one time I got into detention and I was arguing with her. She was like, 'Your father is the reason my husband lost his job.' I looked at her and I was in Grade 8 at that time. I was like, 'Is your husband an insurance claimer?' Then I realized in a split second... 'Oh wait, you mean my people stole your job opportunities.'

Yikes.

I felt disconnected from the newer wave [of immigrants as well.] I think we just came five years earlier than the first or second wave so I  felt disconnected from these ppl who knew how to read and write and speak fluent cantonese, and I wasn't Canadian enough. And then I wasn't Japanese so I was this in between.

It's strange trying to find your identity in a town where it doesn't make sense.

I can resonate with that.

Growing up in Richmond, I was called 'chink'* all the time. When I learned that the word 'chink' came from the canneries in Steveston, my mind was blown. I couldn't believe it. This is a direct history and 40 years coming here as a new immigrant and being called that, experiencing that, and linking it, it was mind blowing. Some of my other friends didn't care. They were like, whatever, but for me, I was like, 'Can you not see the direct impact of this word that came from the canneries in Steveston?'

Yeah. I recently learned they only stopped using the name 'Iron Chink' on the machine at the Cannery in the '70s. So what comes to mind when you visit Steveston now?

Pretentiousness? It really is a tourist town, but when I was growing up here, I didn't think of it as a tourist town because I lived here. Now it's changed so much.

What I thought was really cool was meeting those fourth generation families. They have deep roots in Steveston and that was some of the things I thought was cool. For example, there was a restaurant that was owned by somebody I went to high school with's parents.  She was one of three Greek families and they all ran Greek restaurants. Now that restaurant's not there. The hardware and marina shop is gone. Those pieces are kind of gone, so I can only say it's a façade of what used to be.

It's kind of sad actually and I think there was a lot more sense of community back then. I think because it was more intergenerational, maybe there was lineage between the other families. Even though I didn't have that, I could sense that from other people and that's kind of cool, but now everything's like... I remember when the Starbucks opened. That was a huge deal when there was a Starbucks and a McDonald's.

And McDonald's doesn't even exist anymore!

I think that's because of the people who are living in this area now. It's not necessarily family-oriented, it's more like young couples or old couples or single people. It's meant for that type and so I think then it also caters to a certain type of lifestyle. Fast food is not seen as healthy or desirable. I think fast food chains reminds us of working class places even though they're not affordable. McDonald's is so expensive, but I think that's what happened.

When McMath was built, that's when all of us, there was that influx of all these kids. The baby boomers had kids and their kids were reaching an age where McDonald's could make money off of, but then those kids didn't have kids in that area and didn't stay in that area. After McDonald's, there was a Taco del Mar that tried to open. It opened and it closed and now you have Steveston Pizza Co. that sells lobster on pizza. None of the families that lived here could have afforded any of that.

I heard Steveston Pizza Co. is the most expensive pizza joint in North America.

It's definitely made for a wealthier [demographic.] It's even touristy for the wealthier. Maybe when I was growing up, it felt like touristy for the working, middle class folks.

The photo portion of this project is about a place connected to your memories in Steveston. Earlier on the phone we discussed Timothy's Frozen Yogurt. Tell me about Timothy's.

Timothy's is my go-to. I always thought the coolest kids I went to high school with worked at Timothy's.

Timothy's was the place that my dad and I went on the one day he had off when it was summer season I guess. My dad and I would rollerblade or bike to Steveston, and we would either get fish and chips from the wharf or we would get Timothy's Frozen Yogurt, and I really, really loved Timothy's. I'm obsessed with it.

I love the waffles. I love the frozen yogurt. I love being able to pick the fruit that you want and I love the imperfections of it. What would happen is that they would make somebody else's frozen yogurt and sometimes if you got yours right after, you might get some of theirs too. I'm such a person that likes to try different things so I'm like, 'Ooh I got extra. I got someone else's frozen yogurt.'

Now there's a huge long lineup usually, but it was the place to go, and I thought it was healthy. It's such a lie. I'm getting my daily serving of fruit and fat and sugar and dairy.

Do you have a favourite flavour?

My go-to right now is blackberry. I love blackberry. Also blackberries remind me of Steveston. It just grows wild. The last place I lived in Richmond it just grew out of nowhere. Once again, Canada...

The above interview was edited for clarity and length.


*The 'Iron Chink' was a butchering machine introduced to Steveston fishing canneries in 1906. It was meant to replace the Chinese butchering crew due to their dwindling numbers in migration. The term is meant to refer to folks of Chinese ethnicity, but is considered derogatory and a racial slur.