British Columbia

Early Chinese Canadian gold miners remembered for their contribution to B.C.'s Cariboo communities

Ah Bau and Chew Nam Sing were among the estimated 5,000 pioneers from China who came to B.C's Cariboo region to prospect for gold in the late 19th century.

Many places in the Cariboo, Prince George named after early Chinese Canadian miners Ah Bau and Chew Nam Sing

Chinese miners Ah Bau, left, and Chew Nam Sing both came to B.C.'s Cariboo region from China in the late 19th century to prospect for gold. (Royal B.C. Museum)

For May's Asian Heritage Month in Canada, two historians in B.C.'s Interior are remembering the legacies of two early Chinese Canadian miners.

For more than a decade, Lorna Townsend in Quesnel and Richard Wright in Kamloops have both studied the history of Ah Bau and Chew Nam Sing, two of the most well-known pioneers among an estimated 5,000 people who came from China to B.C.'s Cariboo region in the late 19th century to prospect for gold.

The Cariboo Gold Rush from 1861 to 1867 attracted thousands of prospectors from other parts of Canada, Britain, the United States, Latin America and China. The Royal B.C. Museum says many Chinese prospectors chose to make the Cariboo their new home and ran farms, grocery stores and other businesses to serve local communities.

Townsend, who volunteers with the Quesnel and District Museum and Archives, said based on her interpretation of census data, mining records and newspaper articles, Ah Bau was born around 1840 in China, and started mining in the North Cariboo as early as 1862 in what is known today as the Ahbau Creek watershed between Quesnel and Hixon. 

Places named after Ah Bau 

Ahbau Lake, Ahbau Creek Falls and Ahbau Creek Bridge are other places north of Quesnel that are named after the gold miner. There's also Ahbau Street in Prince George, about three kilometres west of the city hall.

Townsend said she doesn't know why the Prince George street is named after Ah Bau, but surmises people associate the lake and creek with him solely because he claimed and lived in the isolated 50,000-hectare watershed area for decades.

"There weren't a lot of people living in that area, and he spent 40 years there," she said. "I think the pioneers at the time would have associated that area with the man during those years, and so that was just perpetuated after his death."

The Ahbau Lake recreation site pictured in 2013. Lorna Townsend says several places in the 50,000-hectare Ahbau Creek watershed are named after Ah Bau, because he was one of few people living there in the mid-to-late 19th century. (Parks Canada)

Generous man who loved poker and whisky

Townsend said Ah Bau died in the spring of 1902 at his cabin located near Ahbau Lake. He was in his early 60s.

She said during his heyday from 1864 to 1876, Ah Bau managed a team of 700 Chinese labourers to extract more than a million ounces of gold from the fields he claimed. She describes him as a "versatile" worker who also trapped for fur in winters, and served as a river pilot, steersman and a chef for merchants in the Peace River region.

Townsend said Ah Bau befriended mostly Indigenous men and those of European descent, who all loved him as a big-hearted, cheerful man.

"He would have died a very wealthy man, if not for his generosity — he was always helping other people, and he also had a penchant for poker and whisky, so he often lost a lot of money," she said.

Ah Bau, centre, pictured around 1858 with a white man and an Indigenous man. Townsend says Ah Bau's best friends were either local First Nations people or those of European descent. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Chew Nam Sing: a driven entrepreneur 

The Quesnel Museum says Chew Nam Sing, born in 1835 in China, spent some time mining gold in California before arriving in B.C. in 1858. Up until the 1870s, he bought up land on both sides of the Fraser River several kilometres north of Quesnel to raise livestock and grow vegetable crops with his wife and children.

The site, named Nam Sing Ranch, was sold after the Chinese miner died at 75 in 1910. Now the land is divided between the Quesnel airport and a family ranch.

The Quesnel airport sits on part of the Nam Sing Ranch site. (City of Quesnel)

Wright, who made a 12-minute documentary about Chew's legacy two years ago with the New Pathways to Gold Society, says he isn't sure how long Chew prospected in the Cariboo, but he ran a very successful business of freighting products from Quesnel to Barkerville, about 86 kilometres away, where residents suffered a shortage of fresh produce.

Wright says Chew hired many Indigenous people and those of European descent as packers and cowboys.

"He was obviously a driven and determined individual," said Wright.

Chew Nam Sing, left, pictured with three children, was a determined entrepreneur who ran a very successful business of gardening fresh produce in Quesnel and freighting the produce to Barkerville, according to Richard Wright. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Besides the places named after Ah Bau and Chew, the B.C. government designated four other places in 2015 as locations of historical significance to Chinese Canadians, including Barlow Avenue in Quesnel.

The CBC's Winston Szeto digs deep into the history of Ah Bau and Chew Nam Sing, two Chinese Canadian gold miners in the late 19th century whose names have been forgotten by many people in northern B.C.