British Columbia

Celebrated Last Spike photo appears to feature only white men, but historians believe Wing Chung was there

Wing Chung achieved remarkable success as an entrepreneur in Revelstoke, B.C., after arriving in Canada to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Renowned Revelstoke entrepreneur attended famous ceremony in 1885 when he was railroad labourer, obituary says

A vintage black and white photo of a man in a suit on the left and a man holding a hammer with a crowd behind him near a railway track.
A descendant of Chinese labourer Wing Chung, left, was surprised to learn from an obituary that he was present at the Last Spike ceremony symbolizing the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, right, which was portrayed as a mostly all-white affair. (Revelstoke Museum and Archives (1796), Library and Archives Canada)

Christine Theriault has always taken great pride in her great-grandfather, who achieved remarkable success as an entrepreneur in the Interior of British Columbia after arriving in Canada to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

But her admiration for Wing Chung grew even stronger when a museum in Revelstoke, B.C., told her that he could have been present at the Last Spike ceremony, which symbolized the completion of Canada's first transcontinental railway — even though Chinese labourers were omitted from photographs of the event. 

"That was new information, and I was quite taken aback from that — I was like, 'Wow, that's a very huge moment in history,'" said Theriault, 52, who lives in Abbotsford, B.C. 

The Revelstoke Museum and Archives says Wing Chung was among the 17,000-plus labourers from China hired by Canadian Pacific to work on the western section of the railroad between Port Moody, B.C., and Craigellachie in the province's Shuswap region during the early 1880s. 

The museum has been showcasing artifacts from his life, including a cash register and banner he used at his store and dolls and tapestries that were part of his stock as he grew to become a successful member of the community.

A red brick building with a columned entrance and a sign reading 'Revelstoke Museum and Archives.'
The Revelstoke Museum and Archives displays historical artifacts that preserve Wing Chung's legacy. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

Chinese labourers went unrecognized

But Wing Chung, born Sham Wah Ging in Enping County in Guangdong province in 1863, initially came to Canada at age 16 to work on the CPR's construction.

Chinese labourers were recruited for the railroad project due to the shortage of domestic workers in Canada. They worked in harsh conditions, and many were assigned perilous tasks like handling explosives to break up rocks while receiving less than half the wages of their white counterparts.

Hundreds of Chinese labourers lost their lives during the construction. But none of them were recognized for their efforts upon the completion of the project on Nov. 7, 1885. 

A line of men working along a track with mountains and trees around.
Chinese labourers are pictured at work building the Canadian Pacific Railway in an unspecified location in 1884. (Library and Archives Canada)

They were conspicuously absent from the now-iconic photos of the Last Spike ceremony, which depict CPR director Donald Smith driving the final iron spike into the rail track at Craigellachie — a moment that has come to be considered a symbolic representation of national unity.

But Wing Chung was there, according to his obituary published in the Revelstoke Review on Jan. 5, 1956. 

Cathy English, curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives for four decades, cautions that the information in the obituary can't be verified, and the article doesn't provide further details.

"There's nobody that appears to be of a different race in the photograph, but the newspaper account says that he was there," English said. "Wing Chung certainly wouldn't have been included in the ceremony even if he was present there."

English says newspaper accounts and other documentation about Canadians of colour at the time are often sketchy because of prevalent racism and bias and a lack of acknowledgement of their presence.

"There were so many comments in the early newspapers of the day about wanting to keep British Columbia … [and] Revelstoke white, so when you have that kind of attitude being presented in the newspapers ... you have to filter it through that lens and understand something has been misrepresented," she said.

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Lily Chow, a Victoria-based historian appointed to the Order of Canada last October for her contributions to promoting early Chinese Canadian history, says other newspaper articles from Revelstoke confirm that Wing Chung was standing behind the crowd during the ceremony.

Chow adds that there might have been other Chinese labourers present at the event.

Successful entrepreneur

While Wing Chung's attendance at the Last Spike ceremony can't be conclusively confirmed, what's well known is how successful he would become in the community of Revelstoke, which lies about 400 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

After leaving the railway company, he adopted the name Wing Chung for business purposes and started running an Asian grocery store in Revelstoke in the late 1890s, according to the Revelstoke Herald.

Advertisements in the Revelstoke Mail Herald from 1906 describe Wing Chung's shop as a treasure trove of imported goods from China and Japan, including cane chairs, silk handkerchiefs and candies.

The story behind the photo of the last spike. A Revelstoke historian is highlighting the story of a chinese labourer on the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885.

In the 1910s, local newspapers reported that Wing Chung operated a strawberry farm near what is now the Revelstoke Golf Course and served as the secretary for the Revelstoke chapter of the Chinese Freemasons Society. This association played a pivotal role in funding the revolution that overthrew China's imperial regime in 1911.

English notes that Wing Chung received more favourable media coverage compared to the other 100 or so Chinese residents in Revelstoke due to his wealth.

"The racism was not as overt ... because he was seen as successful," she said. "If you're successful in business, it gives you an aura of respectability that wouldn't be afforded to other people."

Emotional connection to ancestors

Wing Chung eventually moved to B.C.'s Lower Mainland, where he resided with his third son, Sham Lai Mee, who also had a distinguished life — being the first Chinese Canadian to join the B.C. Dragoons in 1941, and being named Chef of the Year by the B.C. Chefs' Association in 1972.

Wing Chung died at 92 in Vancouver on Dec. 29, 1955.

English says over the years, his descendants have travelled to Revelstoke to view their family's historical artifacts housed in the museum. Among them is a cash register bearing initials hand-scratched by Mee's second son Lyle when he was a young boy.

Theriault, the daughter of Mee's daughter, Catherine, says she has learned most of Wing Chung's stories through her aunt Georgina, who was the wife of Mee's eldest son Donald. She says she still has fond memories of Mee taking her to participate in the Lunar New Year parades in Vancouver's Chinatown and having family dinners with her during her childhood.

She says she has visited the museum several times, and each visit has evoked a profound emotional connection to her deceased relatives.

An older man is holding a baby while sitting with three children on a sofa inside an apartment in this black and white photo circa 1955.
Wing Chung in Vancouver circa 1955 with son Sham Lai Mee's children, from left to right, Lyle, Catherine, Shirley and Donald. (Revelstoke Museum and Archives, 1799)

She's already looking forward to her next trip to Revelstoke so her grandkids can learn more about Wing Chung's legacy.

"Embrace every moment, celebrate your heritage and be immensely proud," Theriault said.

A woman with a baby in a stroller in front of museum exhibits.
Christine Theriault with her granddaughter in front of a banner retrieved from Wing Chung's grocery store on a visit to the Revelstoke Museum in March 2022. (Submitted by Christine Theriault)