The majority of Chinese who emigrated to British Columbia during the gold rush came from Guangdong Province where they spoke Cantonese. That region had a long history of emigration and as a result, was used to establishing settlements and societies abroad to help provide support for each other.
Chinatowns, known as ‘tong yahn guy’ or ‘tongyan gai’, were established. ‘Tong yahn’ referred to a Chinese person of the Tang Dynasty and ‘guy’ or ‘gai’ meant the street where they live. The reference to the Tang Dynasty refers to a more prosperous era when Guangdong province became incorporated into the greater Chinese culture.
After the First Opium War (1840-42), China was forced to trade with western countries. In the Pearl River delta in Guangdong Province, many rice fields were changed to plant tea, mulberry, tobacco, sugar cane and fruit. This caused an increase in the price of rice. Many people lost mortgaged lands, houses and livestock. Hong-men societies led several rebellions in the Guangdong region with the goal of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. These revolts seriously impacted the citizens and many were killed by government troops.
The first Chinese Society in Canada was established in Barkerville in 1864 by Hong-men members migrating from the California gold mines. Under the general title of Hong-men, the Barkerville branch called itself Hung Shun Tang. Around 1882, the society changed its name to Chee Kung Tong. In 1945 the society changed its name again to Chee Kung Party. This name was used until 1947 when the branch was dissolved. The last master of the Hong-men society was Dear Song, who died in 1950.
The society occupied a two-story building located in the central area of Barkerville’s Chinatown.
The concept of birthplace weighed heavily on the minds of gold seekers coming from China. The old adage, “Fallen leaves will always go back to the root of the tree” served as a reminder that they must return home at some point, whether in old age or after death. It was common for the deceased to be interred and then exhumed at a later date and the bones would be transported to Victoria, then to Hong Kong where the remains would be picked up by relatives from Guangdong.
The Barkerville Chee Kung Tong building is unique in North America, as it is the only one to be recognized as a national heritage site. Each year, Chee Kung Tong members gather for a ceremony to celebrate its history. In 2014, the Chee Kung Tong will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in British Columbia.