A sudden death, a family under duress and a group of friends arriving on the doorstep.
The setting is Salmon Arm 95 years ago.
Thanks to a group of caring women, two little girls grew up with strong sisterly bonds and a connection to our community, and their family story continues today.
The story begins with Mah Yick, owner of the laundry on Hudson Street. He married Jean Ing, the only Chinese woman in town. Jean gave birth to her first child, Helen Mah, on Feb. 20, 1918. By all accounts, baby Helen was treasured. For five-and-a-half years she was an only child. Her parents took photographs of her. Multiples of course - she was their first child!
When Jean died shortly after delivering a new sister for Helen, a community of women came to the family’s aid. Many were members of the Methodist church. Jean was their friend. She had left a husband, an infant and a preschooler to care for, and her husband had a business to run. Little Helen’s life changed dramatically. She had gained a baby sister but lost the mother who had doted on her.
Mah Yick struggled as well. He thought about giving the girls away. Other widowers in the settlement would have relied on family support or hastily remarried, but Mah Yick did not have those options.
With the Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants, and then the outright prohibition of Chinese immigrants, there were very few marriageable Chinese women in the province.
Margaret Springer (nee Reid) and other Methodist women convinced the widower the best option was to send his girls to the Oriental Home & School established by the Women’s Missionary Society in Victoria. By sending the girls to the school, he could maintain contact with them, and the girls would grow up together. Just before the girls left for Victoria, Springer threw Helen a party to celebrate her sixth birthday. Springer and her cat were dear friends of Helen.
Helen died in 1976. Her sister Laura died in 2016, but their stories survive.
With the construction of the Mah Yick Laundry exhibit at R.J. Haney Heritage Village in 2016, their stories were told once again, bringing Helen’s daughter, Janet Bradley, from Ontario to Salmon Arm to establish connections, old and new.
Join the celebration marking the ties that bind during Heritage Week. To see displays courtesy of the Salmon Arm Museum at R.J. Haney Heritage Village and others, visit the Mall at Piccadilly between Feb. 18 and 23.
Deborah Chapman is the curator of the Salmon Arm Museum.