Salmon Row history still speaks to our times

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      With recent news of the federal government once having used First Nations kids for nutritional experiments, companies importing low-cost temporary foreign workers, and people marking the 70th anniversary of Japanese internment, you could easily have a “back to the future” flashback watching the latest version of Salmon Row.

      The first production, mounted in 2011 at the Britannia Shipyard National Historic Site in Steveston, struck so many chords past and present that the entire run sold out in four days.

      Now Salmon Row is back for an encore, thanks to $100,000 in funding from the City of Richmond. With a bit of fine-tuning it’s more timely than ever, telling a tale that’s been quietly ignored for decades: how a rich resource—salmon—attracted people from all over the world to the banks of the Fraser River, triggering enormous conflict.

      “It always really surprises me that we don’t know our history. These stories are so dramatic and, as Canadians, we just don’t mythologize ourselves,” says playwright Nicola Harwood by phone from her Vancouver home.

      Commissioned by the Mortal Coil Performance Society, the theatre company known for site-specific, multimedia productions like the Stanley Park Ghost Train and Bright Nights events, Harwood spent two-and-a-half years researching and writing the script.

      Salmon Row follows the complex narratives that unfolded along racial and gender lines in the canneries and on fishing boats from the late 1800s to right before World War II and the Japanese internment, as people struggled to make a living off the salmon.

      When pressures on the resource increased, so did the conflicts, especially given legislation that blocked First Nations from fishing—their traditional livelihood—and restricted where Chinese and Japanese could live and work.

      Allegiances could come and go, too, sometimes as slippery as the fish. “There were strikes, huge strikes, between the cannery owners and the fishermen, and between the cannery owners and the cannery workers,” says Harwood. “With very strong, discrete communities out there—the Japanese, white, and aboriginal men fishing, the Chinese and aboriginal women primarily working in the canneries, and the European workers and cannery bosses—the ethnic divisions would be used in labour conflicts to whoever’s advantage they worked the most.”

      Discrimination, mail-order Asian brides, drugs, union-busting: the fallout of the realpolitik that still haunts life in resource-rich B.C. plays out among the empty buildings and creaking floorboards of the abandoned shipyard.

      The earthy smell of the river and running lights of passing fishing boats add authentic notes to the production, as do the costumes, which earned a 2011 Jessie nomination, and the characters—some of whom are based on real-life individuals.

      Donna Yamamoto’s Sumi is drawn from Asayo Murakami, a “picture bride” ordered from Japan who refused to marry her intended. The Murakami House still stands near the shipyard, part of the careful site restoration the City of Richmond has been doing for the past 20 years.

      Jim Preston plays Ling Lam, who came to Canada as penniless as anyone and eventually opened the first general store in Steveston. (You can see a replica of his store at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, just down the road from the shipyard.) Ling eventually became a “China boss”, helping Chinese immigrants when he could, but also a businessman who was hard on employees.

      “As I read the character, I felt a real kinship with him and wanted to make him my own,” says Preston by phone from his Vancouver home.

      “The Chinese half of my family came to Canada about the same time Ling Lam would have,” he adds. “My grandparents both worked on the railway and my parents served in the Second World War, so I feel like I’m telling their story when I work on this.”

      Salmon Row takes place at the Britannia Shipyard National Historic Site from next Thursday (August 15) until September 1.




      Aug 7, 2013 at 9:48pm

      Superb site from the feds, generous civic money, local story told by great local actors and what sounds like my kinda playwright. I hope the province put up a couple $$, too. I haven't even seen the show and I want it back for a longer run next year! The Steveston story is one of our great ones. And my my you take an evocative still, Tim Matheson.
      Break a leg! beautiful ghosts...

      ...11 yr old deckboy...gillnetter Usona Queen, out of Finn slough...1963...