Robert Ashton kindly sent me this photo of hundreds of Chinese men standing on a hill with rows and rows of white army bell tents in the background.
He also found a 1920 copy of Pacific Marine Review with this story.
“During the last five months, almost 50,000 Chinese coolies have passed through the port of Vancouver on their way from work in the European war zone back to their homes in China. At times the congestion at the Williamshead quarantine station has been very great. For instance, at the end of the second week in March there were over 8000 coolies housed at that point. On March 14 the steamer Ixion sailed with 3625 of these Chinamen and during the same week the steamer M.S. Dollar took 4300 and the Bessie Dollar took those remaining or about 1400. As the steamship companies got $55 each for transporting the men across the Pacific, it can readily be seen that these vessels will net a nice little sum out of this work.”
Robert wanted to know if anyone knew where the photo was taken. And, so did I.
William Head, it turns out, is in Metchosin, just outside of Victoria. It was a quarantine station from 1872 to 1959 designed to stop the spread of smallpox, leprosy and meningitis. The station was equipped to handle 800 people in a 42-building, 106-acre facility.
Between 1917 and 1920 more than 84,000 Chinese were held there in quarantine.
The men were part of the Chinese Labour Corps, a secret division formed under the British Army during the First World War. More than 90,000 “volunteer” workers from China and Mongolia were told that they were being recruited to work as labourers in non-combative roles.
The Chinese boarded ships in eastern China, crossed the pacific and were quarantined at William Head. After a brief stay they were put on guarded trains and taken to the east coast where they sailed to France.
According to author, Peter Johnson* when the Chinese landed at Dunkirk they were fired at, gassed and thrown into whatever war-time horrors were happening on any given day.
The former quarantine station and some of the buildings were incorporated into the William Head Institution—a minimum-security prison that opened in 1959 and houses 180 inmates.
*Peter Johnson is the author of Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station: 1872-1959, Heritage House Publishing, 2013.
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