A book about the history of a local general store and the family of one of the immigrants who owned it recently won an honourable mention in the British Columbia Historical Federation’s annual Writing Competition.
From China to B.C., author Liping Wong Yip traced the history of a man known as Wah Lee, a major shareholder in the Wah Lee Store which opened in Quesnel in 1867, for her book From Wah Lee to Chew Keen.
From Wah Lee to Chew Keen traces the history of Yip’s in-laws and their family, who came from China to the U.S. for the 1849 gold rush in San Francisco before moving to Quesnel following the 1858 gold rush in the region.
Yip, who says she considers herself more of a storyteller than an author, says she was “totally surprised” when she won the honourable mention.
Yip attended the awards gala last weekend.
“The people there were real authors. I’m an accidental writer,” she says.
Yip, who is from China but has lived in Canada for the last 35 years, says English is her second language, so she didn’t expect much to come of the competition.
The B.C. Historical Federation’s annual Writing Competition recognizes books that make a significant contribution to historical literature in B.C. Only non-fiction books based around B.C. history are eligible. The books must have also been published within the last calendar year.
From Wah Lee to Chew Keen started out as genealogy research following the death of Yip’s mother-in-law, but it quickly became something more.
Yip says the younger generations of the family didn’t know many details of their history.
“So I thought, OK, I am going to do some family research.” Yip says the family history was so complicated that eventually, she had to write it down.
The book took her five years to write, four of them dedicated to research. Whenever she went back to China to visit her family, she would visit the village where her in-laws’ family was from. When she returned home, she would pull together all of her research.
The process was made more tedious because the search engines that she would use to verify her research were not available in China, so she would have to wait until returning to Canada to connect the dots.
Yip did much of her research in the archives of the Quesnel and District Museum. Elizabeth Hunter, the museum and heritage manager, encouraged her to enter the competition.
“Obviously it’s a story that’s really significant for our community, because that family came here so early and has maintained businesses in Quesnel through the generations,” says Hunter.
Mick Keen, one of Wah Lee’s great grandchildren, owns Keen’s Sports in Quesnel.
“[Yip] sort of wrote the story as the mystery of how she pulled the links of the story together.”