Indigenous & Chinese couple talk Chinuk Wawa & pidgin English

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The writer J.H. Grant contributed a good number of Chinook Jargon-related human-interest pieces to British Columbia Magazine

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…Today I want to guide you to an article by him that gives us a view seldom seen, of marriage between Canadian Indigenous people and Chinese immigrants.

(“Where East Meets West” by J.H. Grant (British Columbia Magazine (“formerly Man-to-Man“), VII(8), August 1911, pages 829-833).)

The husband, Wing, was from southeast China near Guangdong (Canton), as were almost all such immigrants. The wife, Zena, is said to have spoken “Zamaliach” (Sm’algyax Tsimshian), which suggests a north coast origin, although reference is also made to her relatives from the Cheewasin (Chawathil Stó:lõ) reserve near Wing’s house on the Fraser River Delta. So we’re reminded of actually known people, such as Musqueam elder Larry Grant; there are documentaries that discuss his mixed Native and Chinese ancestry, such as this one.

Such a household would be just the place for the blend of Chinese Pidgin English (West Coast variety) with Chinuk Wawa that we keep coming across in old documents. This couple’s children are in fact said to have grown up speaking fluent Jargon.

Some of what’s quoted in this story that Grant insists is factual may have been heard by him; other portions would have to be secondhand or imagined by him.

Not only is Grant a sympathetic and observant writer, but also very many details in today’s piece correspond with facts we know from independent sources.

  • For instance, Wing’s fellow immigrants teasing him as a “Siwash” (from the Jargon for ‘Indian’ and regional English for an Indian-lover) matches up with the use of saywášìʔ in a Chinese-Canadian family that I’ve reported on here.
  • There’s also Wing’s way of comparing himself with White people by speaking of “Mellican man“. It’s notable that he doesn’t say “white”, nor does he speak of the “Canadians” he lives among. It may mean something that his reference to Americans parallels a regional usage in BC Chinuk Wawa, in which “Boston” means not just Americans but all Whites.
  • Also a match with BC Chinuk Wawa is Wing’s steady use of “ketchum”. I find that exact word to be characteristic of Chinook Jargon north of the Columbiar River, especially on the Canadian side of the border. (See here and here.) Since Wing speaks good Chinese Pidgin English, we would expect him to be saying “catchee“!

Read on and observe. Because Chinese Pidgin English is fairly intelligible to most English speakers, I won’t translate every word Wing says. (Unless readers request it — you can comment below.)

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I asked Wing why he didn’t keep an ox on his farm here, and he said, “China ox heap good, quiet, all sam’ cow. Blitish Columbia ox no good; all sam’ bull, makum hiyu [‘much’ in Jargon] noise, bleakum plow and killum Chinaman.

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But you can see for yourself that his eye lingers more lovingly about a remote corner where he grows some “vegetable all sam’ China.”

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With a sad countenance Wing will tell you “Licee no can do, him all tam ketchum too mutchee watel,” which by interpretation is to say, rice will not grow here for it requires too much water.

Wing Fong’s story sounds like fiction, but it isn’t. It is something like a quarter of a century since he came to the Fraser. Almost his first work in this land of the fan quai (foreign devils) was in a salmon cannery. Here he met a few of his countrymen and a great many uncouth-looking beings, whom he heard the white men of the place call Siwashes and klootches. [DDR note — regional racist English for ‘bucks’ and ‘squaws’.] He didn’t like them. The size of the women’s feet shocked his Chinese tastes, and the savage aspect of the men frightened him. He learned the Chinook jargon, however, and then he changed his attitude. He became quite friendly with Zena, the dark girl who stood beside him at the sliming tank. She was not altogether like the rest. Her head wasn’t flattened and her feet were not so large. She had come down from the north and she spoke a strange, soft language called Zamaliach. When she turned her dark, passionate eyes on him and smiled, he felt a strange thrill. He smiled back and helped her with her work, despite the jeers of his countrymen, who called him “Siwash.”

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He disposed of his stuff rapidly and called at an hotel to take an order for the following week. While he talked pigeon English to the cook in the kitchen someone who had been washing dishes in a corner by the stove turned about and said, in a soft, familiar voice, “Klahowyah, Wing.” It was Zena; but how different she looked! Dissipation had left its dire records. Her clothes were shabby, her cheeks hollow, and her eyes unnaturally large and bright. Wing gasped out some word or two in Chinook, and left hurriedly. That night his pipe and opium lamp worked “overtime.”

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The next time he went to [New] Westminster he walked up to the poor, fallen and ostracised girl as she washed stacks of dishes in the big sink. “Me tinkee,” he said softly, “you heap sick — too mutchee wolk no good. You mallah me allite. Me ketchum you good home.

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By-and-bye their children came. Wing rejoiced. He rented more land and worked longer hours. Often as he dug in the rich, dark soil he sang the high-octaved songs of a far country.

Odd little brown urchins were these in whose bodies blended the blood of ancient East and Far West. The eldest was a boy, and he had two sisters. They were exceptionally bright children. While they were yet tiny tots, they could speak both Chinese and English glibly. They knew the Chinook jargon, and often they talked and sang to their mother in her own sweet native tongue.

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Then he showed me a photograph which he had just received of a strapping young man with a rather pleasing cast of face and an American-tailored suit, “Heem my son,” he said, with a look of pride that was eloquent; “I ketchum hiyu lettle flom heem today.

The letter was written neatly in the Chinese characters, and with much pigeon English, Chinook and pantomime, Wing interpreted its contents for me.

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Heem heap good boy,” said Wing, after folding the letter carefully. “One tam’ I tink I lak heem come beeg man China politic; but China king no good now. Heem killum too mutchee good man. I tink mebbee my son an’ me ketchum hiyu beeg falm all sam’ Mellican man. Den my gi’l come flom China too. What you tink?

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What have you learned?