Photography

LOST PORTRAITS OF THE PAST

Chow Dong Hoy’s intriguing photos bring B.C, frontier times back to life

KEN MACQUEEN June 16 2003
Photography

LOST PORTRAITS OF THE PAST

Chow Dong Hoy’s intriguing photos bring B.C, frontier times back to life

KEN MACQUEEN June 16 2003

LOST PORTRAITS OF THE PAST

Chow Dong Hoy’s intriguing photos bring B.C, frontier times back to life

Photography

KEN MACQUEEN

THE PHOTOGRAPHIC NEGATIVES, more than 1,400 of them, kicked around various relatives’ attics and basements for 15 years in the leather suitcase where Chow Dong Hoy stashed them before his death in 1973 at 89. They are a reminder of Hoy’s lean early years in the Cariboo, the dusty wild west of interior British Columbia. In later life, as a father of 12 and a prosperous, respected merchant in Quesnel, his role as a portrait photographer was largely ignored. It was just one of the jobs he’d taken, from cook to fur trader to watch repairman, as a Chinese immigrant of extraordinary drive.

In 1990, Hoy’s family considered throwing them out, but then gave the negatives to the archives of Barkerville, the historic B.C. mining town that is the backdrop for some

of his work. In 1996, Faith Moosang, a young photography graduate, discovered the trove, sitting like a neglected nugget in a playedout mining town. “It was,” she says, “an absolute dream come true.”

Hoy’s work consumed her. Moosang has mounted an exhibition that is touring the U.S. and Canada. She’s written a book, First Son: Portraits by C.D. Hoy. And she’s co-directed a documentary, C.D. Hoy: Portraits from the Frontier, which has been shown at film festivals, the National Archives in Ottawa and on television.

The photos, most from the second and third decades of the 20th century, are a reminder that B.C.’s frontier past is not long over. At first glance, the subjects sit in genteel interiors decorated with books, tables

and plants. Most, in fact, were shot outside in better light. History leaks from the margins of the backdrop, where Quesnel’s straw-strewn boardwalks and muddy streets are visible.

The Cariboo is revealed as a mélange of race and culture: Indians in cowboy dress; cowboys and their women in Indian beadwork; Chinese miners posing in Victorian parlours—their scarred hands and frayed clothes betraying the lie of prosperity they were sending home.

These aren’t romanticized pieces of the anthropological record, says Moosang. “The absolute key is that these people went to Hoy; Hoy did not go to them,” she says. They are shown as they wish to be remembered—and history is the richer for it. 1?!