I had a lovely visit this month. Janet Bradley, granddaughter of Mah Yick, came to Salmon Arm from Ontario after reading my blog about the opening of the Mah Yick Laundry. Janet was on a mission. She wanted to see the museum exhibit about her grandfather, reconnect with Judy Tweeddale Birkhiem – the daughter of a friend she last saw in 1964, see her niece Amanda Miller, and visit the Springer cabin on the Shuswap where her family celebrated her sister’s 16th birthday. She also wanted to meet me. She said my research into Salmon Arm life in the early 20th century and the laundry exhibit gave her a glimpse into the life of a grandfather she had never known.
I had a list of things to do as well. We had to see the exhibit, Janet had to meet my cultural advisor, Eugenie Mah, and figure out if they were related by marriage, we had to have Chinese food in honour of the special meals Mah Yick ordered when his daughters returned for visits in the 1940s, see the original location of the Mah Yick Chinese Hand Laundry on Hudson Avenue, and have brunch with Judy since she was connected to the story as well.
Janet confirmed the museum version of the story of Mah Yick and her grandmother Jean (Ing Loiew How). She had letters from Elsie Tweeddale with the details. Elsie was Judy’s mother and had been a friend of Janet’s mother, Helen, since they were teenagers. Janet had kept in touch with Elsie after her visit to Salmon Arm in 1964. Elsie was also a good friend of Mrs. Springer, who was a good friend of Mah Yick’s wife and Janet’s grandmother, Jean. There were just three degrees of separation.
Janet and I “met” by email after the museum exhibit was launched and she arranged a visit. She flew into Kelowna with her husband Don, rented a car, and drove to Salmon Arm with a memory stick of digital images of her mother’s days in Salmon Arm.
The images on the stick showed their 90 plus years. Their surfaces were cracked and there was evidence of lots of handling. All archivists go nuts over this stuff. We ignore the flaws and look at the images as precious records. The scans were a delightful connection to our community’s history. They showed the affection of a group of women who had no cultural boundaries and the love they had for their friend’s two motherless children.
Janet’s story was confirmed by several sources. The Salmon Arm Observer reported a birthday party Mrs. Springer threw for Helen when she turned six. Without Mrs. Springer, Janet’s mother, Helen, would not likely have had a party. Her mother had died in January.
By the time the candles were lit, there was a plan afoot. The Methodist women of the community had convinced Mah Yick to allow his children to be taken to the Methodist-run Oriental School in Victoria. He was not able to look after a newborn and run his business.
We know now that there were no other women of Asian descent in Salmon Arm. He must have struggled. Who would care for his children? The Observer reported when Mrs. Jessie Browne took Helen and her sister Laura to Victoria.
A photocopy of the school records show the date of registration in Victoria. Jessie Browne was a member of the Methodist Church in Salmon Arm. The facts lined up.
When Janet saw the exhibit I could tell she was touched. Her eyes filled with tears. Janet talked with museum carpenter Nev Whatley who created the set used to tell the story. Nev told her about the dyes he used to age the wood in the reproduction artifacts.
Janet also spoke to Eugenie Mah about the Chinese artefacts Eugenie had brought in, including the jars of Chinese herbs and dung choy (preserved cabbage) which reminded Janet of home.
Like sight-seeing anywhere, we ran out of time because each stop took longer than expected. There wasn’t a tour guide to keep us on schedule. I called Phil Wright and found out where the cabin was located on the Sunnybrae Road, but Janet had a flight at 7 p.m. We didn’t get to visit Eugenie Mah in her home, but Eugenie came out to the village to meet Janet. It turned out that their families were from the same area, but not the same village in China. We didn’t get a photograph of Janet in front of the dollar store on Hudson Street that once was the location of her grandfather’s business.