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Rural Chinese Communities

Mow, Chinese man working in ranch kitchen as a cook, ca. 1905-1906. Many Chinese worked as cooks at ranches in the southern Alberta foothills, but: "cooking was a small part of the job. They did the laundry for cowboys, looked after barn chores, raised chickens, planted gardens and looked after them." In at least on instance, notable creativity found expression in the course of routine ranch work by Chinese. "On the Hull Ranch along the Bow River, the indigenous Chinese cooks were credited with devising a unique system for serving a large crew of ranch hands at one sitting. A big round dining table was built, with another large, Lazy Susan style circle in the centre. Platters of food, salt, pepper, sugar, etc. were placed on the Lazy Susan and the diners helped themselves as the food came around."

A one-time resident of the Nanton area, in the foothills south of Calgary, recalled: "I remember the Chinese cooks we had each year. Nearly every ranch had one. Hired in the spring before haying began and kept until after the fall roundup, the cook took complete charge of the kitchen. He always had a list of groceries ready for any cowboy who might be going to town. If the cowboy forgot to bring flour, the shortage of pies and cakes was immediate and acute."

The narrator added that children tended to be deferential to these men; apart from other things, adults respected certain non-cooking skills of Chinese ranch hands. "Most of these men still wore hair in pigtails and some wore oriental clothing. Some were good horsemen and added to their prestige by their ability to 'skin' a four-horse team and a chuck wagon from camp to camp at roundup time. We children soon learned the penalties that could be levied for disrespect and the goodies that could be had for cooperating with this kitchen autocrat."

Reprinted from Moon Cakes In Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains by Brian Dawson with kind permission of the author.

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