The town of Quesnel was originally called Quesnelmouth and then Quesnelle. Gold seekers travelling up the Fraser River in 1859 came to a fork and set off in the direction of the Quesnel River (named for fur trader Jules Quesnel) in their efforts to find gold. Chinese merchants arrived two years later and within a short time about 500 Chinese settled there. By 1863 a white settlement sprung up around the cluster of Chinese stores and residences. A dozen buildings stood on the narrow strip of flat land along the river. Steamships brought miners and supplies to the region from Soda Creek.
On April 4, 1864, the Colonist reported:
“…there are twenty-nine business houses on the main street facing the river, including a couple of capital hotels…There is a first class sawmill on the river bank capable of turning out a large quantity of lumber. Farther back from the river several houses are dotted about here and there, and about a mile from town there is a Chinamen’s camp of some size…from its geographical position it appears to be the most important commercial spot in British Columbia. It is, in fact, the natural distributing point for a very large tract of country, including the whole Cariboo region…”
By 1869 the first Chinese herbal store, Yan War, was established in Quesnel. In 1870, another Chinese store, the Wah Lee company, was opened in the block between Carson and Bowron Streets. Chew Wah Lee came to Canada in 1869 and was described as a typical Chinese man with a queue. This store supplied Chinese groceries, herbs, tobacco, and clothing to miners. He sponsored his son Chew Guo Xiang to come to Canada and upon his arrival was registered as Chew Lai Keen. Although Chew was his last name, he became known as Mr. Keen.
Keen worked in Barkerville as a cook and a restaurant worker. Once, Keen drove a herd of pigs from Ashcroft to Barkerville in ten days. Similar to cattle drives, pig drives to Barkerville were not uncommon occurrences, except they were done on foot. In the early 1900s, Keen learned to read and write English from Mrs. Earley, Quesnel’s first school teacher.