The history blog for June is Every Place has a Story, a title that could be part of an elevator pitch for Heritage Fairs. However, it is the blog of Vancouver writer Eve Lazarus who has a passion for unconventional history.
Unconventional is the story of Inspector Vance and the Noir Magazines of the 1930s and ’40s. John Vance was a member of the Vancouver Police Department and on his retirement in 1949 the subject of several true crime magazines. According to Eve Lazarus, “Reporters were intrigued by this scientist who was able to convict criminals through the tiniest piece of trace evidence, or determine death by poison, or through his forensic skills in serology and firearms examination.”
Unconventional is the story of mountaineer Phyllis Munday (who has been the topic of a few Heritage Fair projects in the last few years). “A reporter once asked Phyllis Munday if she’d ever been really frightened during all her years of climbing mountains. ‘Thunderstorms,’ she told him. ‘I hated thunderstorms.’
What she didn’t mention was the time she saved husband Don Munday’s life from a grizzly bear by charging at it with an ice axe; when she regularly carted 60 pounds of backpack over flood swollen creeks; the times she had to avoid quicksand and avalanches and plunges into hidden crevasses.”
Also unconventional and almost forgotten is the story of the Chinese Labour Corps, a secret division formed under the British Army during the First World War. More than 90,000 Chinese and Mongolian workers were recruited to work as labourers in non-combative roles. They boarded ships in eastern China, crossed the Pacific and were quarantined at William Head near Victoria (shown in the photo). After a brief train they travelled by sealed train to the east coast where they sailed to France.
The Chinese Labour Corps supported the frontline troops by unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches, and filling sandbags. Others worked in factories and shipyards for a few francs a day. They were in Europe for cheap labour only and not allowed out of camp. When the war ended and other men went home, they stayed to clear live shells and dig up bodies from battlefield burials to move to the new war cemeteries.
Their contribution was barely recognized at the war’s end and almost forgotten. There is no tribute to the Chinese Labour Corps among Britain’s 40,000 war memorials and Canada’s 6,000.
Every Place has a Story focusses on heritage buildings, missing heritage (the demolition of historic buildings), Vancouver and Victoria history, and women’s history. (There is little on British Columbia’s North or the Interior.) Many of these stories – such as the story of the Chinese Labour Corps – link to larger narratives. If any of your students are searching for an engaging Heritage Fair topic or if anyone wants to explore the unusual corners of the past, this site is for them.