We’re at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site, situated on the picturesque Steveston waterfront in Richmond. For today the year is 1914, and our guide for the afternoon is John Thomas, a humble fisherman, full of passion for the local area, its history, and its food culture and industries.We’re about to head out on the Steveston Heritage Experience, an interactive walking tour, of four of Steveston’s key historic sites, that uniquely combines storytelling, history and interactive performance. Did we mention the food? Carefully chosen food and beverage tastings will be served, offering a taste of life in the early 1900s and some favourite treats of today. It’s the perfect way to travel back in time while keeping your taste buds fully entertained.Our knowledgeable fisherman guide, John Thomas, played by Richmond-resident Andrew Wade, begins the tour at the Shipyards, launching into an in-depth look at the fishing and canning industry that was the backbone of the Steveston economy for so many years. A running theme of the Experience is salmon and the way it brought together diverse people who tirelessly worked to catch and prepare the fish for consumption.
At the Shipyards, Thomas takes us to an Indigenous bunkhouse, the charming Murakami House (a Japanese home from 1929), and the Chinese bunkhouse, which housed up to a hundred men in its crammed quarters. The tour doesn’t shy from presenting the hardships faced by these labourers in order to give a true sense of early twentieth century life in Steveston. At the bunkhouse, we’re given our first literal taste of the area’s history, with samples of rice, topped with smoked salmon lox, to mimic the diets of the workers after a hard day’s toil.
This confluence of history and immediate experience continues throughout the tour. Shortly after exploring the bunkhouse, we board a shuttle that takes us to the Steveston Interurban Tram (nicknamed “the sockeye special”) which efficiently connected the area with New Westminster and Chilliwack. After climbing the steps of tram car 1220, we’re transformed into passengers on the heritage train who are listening rapt, as Thomas regales us with his daily life in Steveston and some historical moments of the area. We later munch on Gary’s Kettle Corn and sip on Phillips’ vintage craft sodas, chatting and contemplating the speed of life in the 1900s.
Next, we’re a short stroll from the Tram to the Steveston Museum, housed in the former Northern Crown Bank, and the adjacent Japanese Fisherman’s Benevolent Society Building, which ran the Japanese Fishermen’s Hospital and the Japanese School. Thomas talks to us about the evolution of Steveston’s Nikkei community who faced racism, union pressures, and eventual internment during World War II. Our sips of sake from Richmond’s own YK3 Sake Brewery allow deep absorption of this fascinating history. We are free to try three different samples: the Junmai, which is dry, with a smooth finish; Nigori, a rich, milk old-fashioned sake; and another sake sweetened with blueberries and cranberries.
The grand finale of the experience takes place at the very impressive Gulf of Georgia Cannery, which earned the nickname “monster cannery” for being the largest cannery in the province at the time. It’s here that Thomas really comes to life, drawing upon his fishing background to walk us through the assembly line, from spearing and flinging the fish onto the dock with a pointed peugh, to the sealing of the cans of salmon after they had gone through various stages of processing, like butchering and sliming. Thomas’ insider perspective gives us a greater appreciation for the work that went into fishing and canning in his day.
Sadly, our time with Thomas comes to an end. He bids us farewell and then leaves us to fill and warm our bellies with a serving of delicious seafood chowder–packed with clams, cod, sockeye salmon, halibut, corn, and celery–from nearby Pajo’s Fish & Chips. The soup is paired with Britannia Brewing Co.’s Adrift Hop blonde ale, which is complementary to the Steveston feast.
Overall, the Steveston Heritage Experience is a dynamic and delicious tour taking you back in time to uncover the authentic stories and food that are part of the fabric of Steveston’s history, culture, and economy. Thomas energetically (and often comically) weaves together an informative tour that showcases the vibrancy of Steveston, both past and present.
The tour runs for approximately four hours and tickets cost $80 CAD per person. The inaugural experience takes place October 6, 2018, with a series of dates scheduled into 2019. Further information and tickets can be found here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/steveston-heritage-experience-tickets-49311557195