Every spring I create a new exhibit for the gallery space at the Salmon Arm Museum. Most years the idea for the exhibit is inspired by an artefact. This year it was a large artefact that demanded my attention, a  mangle once used to “wring” wet sheets and tablecloths free of excess water.mangle.jpg

The artefact also demanded research. Who would have used such a large piece of machinery? It was too big for Mrs. Haney’s kitchen, so it wasn’t a household item. It seemed obvious that its first owners worked at laundries contracted to do dirty hotel and hospital linen, but who exactly were the community launderers? 

The easily accessible 1921 Wrigley’s directory listed Chong Kee and Mah Yick as owners of Chinese Hand Laundries in Salmon Arm, but I knew there were more.  When Rex Lingford took a photograph of the first Presbyterian Church, he accidently “shot” the laundry businesses too: Yip Yen and Sam Kee had advertising signs on their unpainted buildings. The photo also showed that the men hung their laundry out-of-doors on Beatty Street in what locals called Chinatown.

I turned to the newspaper. There were several references to the laundrymen in 1913, but one man, Mah Yick, stood out. He challenged community-held stereotypes.   Not content to remain west of Finn Hall with the other Chinese laundries, Mah brought his business to the attention of townsfolk when he moved it to Hudson St., smack in the middle of downtown Salmon Arm.

A hundred years later, it is clear that Mah made an astute business move. He seized an opportunity to offer his services in close proximity to hotels Montebello, Empress and Alexandra and, in the move to the downtown core, he pushed back at local barriers to Chinese-run businesses. Aldermen Bruhn and Connelly cited sanitary reasons for wanting all hand laundries to stay in Chinatown, west of Shuswap.

But how was I to go about telling this story?

A good exhibit uses artefacts, graphic images, and a compelling story. An even better one helps set the stage with smells and sound. All I had was a mangle and a few scrub boards, basins, and sad irons.  I needed the context of a bigger picture.

I turned to photographs as reference materials. They tell a story without words. After searching my own archives, I asked the regional museums for help. They didn’t have interior shots of laundries either. Then I hit gold. Calgary’s Glenbow had several interior hand laundry images in the right timeframe and Archivist Doug Cass was willing to help with the project.

With the Glenbow’s print-offs in hand, R.J. Haney Heritage Village’s carpenter Nev Whatley built a scale model wooden washing machine and sink. Then he created a new room for Mah to live in. Nev's washing machine.jpg

Nev and I were getting the laundry business under control, the setting for the story, but something was missing. To put the finishing touches on the exhibit I asked Salmon Arm’s Eugenie Mah to be my cultural advisor.  Eugenie is Cantonese, like Mah, and a retired business woman. She agreed to help make the exhibit feel right. Eugenie also enlisted her sister, Benedicte Lee. The two women started gathering household items to share.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Mah Yick’s granddaughter, Teresa Bradford, shared her family records and images. The story expanded. Laura, Teresa’s mother, a W.W. II veteran, was one of first Canadian-born  “Chinese” residents to receive her citizenship in 1947. Laura Mah’s story had to be told.

More graphic images arrived from the Women’s College in Toronto where Helen Mah, Laura’s older sister, attended nursing school. Then Canadian Chinese Military Museum in Vancouver helped with a good image of Laura Mah. The Oak Bay High School donated a copy of Laura’s graduation certificate, something that was supposed to be issued in 1944. Laura had to wait until 2008 to receive it! The story was growing.

Finally, photography buffs Ian and Wendy Clay graciously agreed to reshoot several images that Rex Lingford took of “Mah’s town” a hundred years ago. The Clays discovered first hand how much the views have changed. Trees are in the way, buildings are taller, and, thankfully, the City of Salmon Arm’s ethnically designated business areas are gone.

I’m very excited to share this new exhibit with you. The grand opening takes place June 24th.  Meanwhile, it is business as usual at the Mah Yick Laundry at R.J. Haney Heritage Village.