Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lost, Found: A Haunted Island in the River

In 1979, the Chinese Old Man's Home was a frail and lonely sky-blue building in the classic Chinese frontier architectural style, in a grove of wild bamboo, at 825 Agnes Street, New Westminster. It was built a century earlier as a smallpox hospital; Chinese people at the time were not allowed into the city's "white" hospitals. Over the years, the Chinese Old Man's Home served as a school for Chinese immigrant kids, a social centre, then an old folks' home, and in 1979 the surviving members of the Royal City's Chinese Benevolent Association offered the keys and the title to the building to the city. Sort of a gesture of goodwill, or forgiveness. Within two months, New Westminster' engineering department declared the building a firetrap, and city council had it bulldozed to smithereens.

I was reminded of the Chinese Old Man's home, and the grotesque contempt for the history of ordinary people that has so marked urban "planning" in Greater Vancouver, when I was writing my Chronicles column this week. The column is about Poplar Island, a lush island of cottonwoods and wild cherry in the Fraser River between Mainland New Wesminster and Queensborough, my old neighbourhood, on Lulu Island. Poplar Island was turned into a smallpox quarantine for the aboriginal people along the river, around the same time the Chinese Old Man's Home was built. Aboriginal people weren't allowed in white people's hospitals, either.

In cheerier news, two of our comrades have come into some deserved fortune this week.

John Vaillant, author of the Governor-General's award-winning The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, won the Pearson Writers Trust prize for non-fiction at an awards ceremony last night in Toronto. Here's a review I wrote of his book.

Also short-listed for the Pearson prize was J.B. MacKinnon, for Dead Man In Paradise. Only two days earlier, at another Toronto awards banquet, J.B. won this year's Charles Taylor prize for literary non-fiction. Chronicles readers were introduced to J.B. here.


Blogger Annamarie said...

Terry, your hauntingly moving writing shows your deep compassion and empathy for humanity and the natural world.

I've also read your insightful review of the "Golden Spruce". In writing it, your connection to--and love of-- nature speak behind your words.

I will definitely go out and find your book, "Waiting for the Macaws" very soon. Do you think it is available at Chapters yet?

You are a truly gifted writer. A rarity in these times of terse, succinct writing styles.

Congratulations to your two comrades.

Very best regards,

9:35 PM  
Blogger Annamarie said...

P.S. I just noticed that you are with the Sierra Club. So am I, being a member of the Ontario-Peel Chapter, which started fairly recently.

Keep up the wonderful writing! Your posts are a breath of fresh air.

(Mine have been terrible lately, mostly excerpted re-posts of some acquaintances and organisations I support. I haven't had much time for original thought. We're fighting against a proposed nuclear waste dump in my town of Brampton, among other things... Lots of activism, little time for anything else.)

Take care.
All the best,

9:46 PM  

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