Chemainus: the little town that did

What does a small town falling into wrack and ruin do when all of its resource jobs are rapidly disappearing? Pull out the paint and brushes! This little town understood the concept of “build it and they will come.” They did, into the millions, from around the world, since the early 1980s. Which is how I first heard about this out of the way little town.

Named for a local Cowichan First Nations band, “Tsa-mee’-nis” that had been living off the land and sea for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in 1791. By 1858 settlers were felling trees to clear the land, within four years the first sawmill was up and running and took advantage of the naturally deep port to move logs and board. Although iron ore was mined in the area and fishing was important, the forests provided the majority of jobs. Until everything fell apart with the downturn of the markets. As this was happening I was moving to Vancouver Island. By 1983 the last sawmill in Chemainus had shut down. Five murals had been painted in 1982 as part of a revitalization plan. With the closure of the mill plans were put in place to keep on painting. The theme was the history of the area – trains, logging, the working man, the immigrants, the festivals. Although the mill did re-open in 1985 the locals had discovered a new way to earn money. Tourism.

Street heading to the docks from the main park.

My first trip to Chemainus was probably some time between 1986 – 1989, the murals were so fresh it seemed that wet paint would be left on your hands if you dared to touch a wall. Wood walls, brick walls, rough and smooth walls, were painted with stunning, and not so great, murals. They were impressive, present and approachable. These were our people depicted in giant form. Over the years I would return a few times, my children encouraging me to hurry up and look. They were always interested – and each had a favourite. They also had an uncanny memory for where to find the best ice cream cones.

check out the upstairs windows! This is a candy shop. I wonder if my children could find the ice cream store now.

It has been probably 15+ years since my last visit. My mission was to drive to Nanaimo, north of Chemainus, to purchase some wedding centrepiece items – the store would not send to the either of the Victoria stores. That accomplished, two hours from home to store and back on the road, I felt we needed a little adventure. I chose Chemainus.

I cannot swear to this however I am quite sure this building was a new build in the ’80s

Today was out of season, many shops were still closed, or only open Tuesday to Saturday. This gave my daughter and I the freedom to just wander without jostling elbows, avoiding tour buses and cars. We checked out the Chemainus Theatre, I have heard their shows are high quality. I finally picked up a list and schedule of the plays for this coming year – with a goal to see one. I love trains, so was quite happy to find some murals of various trains. Of course there were others, 44 is the number I read. We did not make a full tour of them, perhaps when it is less chilly.

Mural showing iron ore being mined. I do not see the hardship in this one. Perhaps the artist did not want to upset tourists

One I liked, not of trains, was of float festival winners from 1939. This was a Japanese float, all I could think of was if any of the people who had been part of the float were forced to one of the Japanese interment camps in Canada during the Second World War. I looked it up. Despite being Canadian citizens, even second or third generation, perhaps 200 were displaced out of Chemainus. Many never returned, their homes, businesses, property had been seized.

where else but on the wall of the Post Office

I bought a rather yummy sausage roll, an apple turnover and a coffee (except I think it had a different name) at Utopia Bakery, hidden around a corner. The sausage rolls, including the meat, are house made, beef and pork with a little spice for a bite. Warmed just enough rather than piping hot like many places do. The coffee was bold, probably because we managed to get caught in the only rain during the five hours we were up Island! I ended up not eating the turnover until I was home, it was quite good. Not overly sweet, always a bonus, and flaky, yet sturdy, pastry. (I never appreciate having pastry crumbs flying about)

Many of the homes built over 100 years ago are still in use, or sadly, sitting empty and looking rather forlorn. I was rather intrigued by Castle B&B, so much so I suggested we might want to rent the small ‘castle’. The rent was reasonable, Chemainus perhaps not so much.

There are some problems with living in a tourist town, particularly one that operates seasonally- what to do when the tourists leave. Of course there are still some mills. Outdoor activities are thriving, still mainly during warmer weather. Which is a pretty decent window – usually March to October. However, I could not help but notice the once bright yellow footprints showing the way are fading, the paint is chipping on a few murals, several shops have closed permanently.

We came across this and a similar one in the garden of a house. Look closely to see the white orchid

Once a shop filled with a variety of items to entice tourists. Now it sits unloved, draperies pulled tight.

Spectacular mountain, ocean and forest views

We left home at 7:30AM and were home by 12:30PM. A five hour trip up island and return with a wonderful little break in ‘the little town that did’ where we were refreshed, walked and enjoyed the art. It is suggested visitors stay a little longer. Perhaps I will when the place comes out of hibernation, to be drawn into the full magic of Chemainus just as my children were over twenty years ago.

Looking Back: Nov 26/11 Shanghai

This entry was from when I probably overstayed my welcome with a friend in Shanghai while waiting to fly to Taiyuan, Shanxi where I had a new teaching position. I thought it timely to include as I prepare for my upcoming trip back – again solely as a visitor. I have edited the post in an attempt to keep it more of a travel entry. Still no photos, this was so long ago that I do not have anything on my iPad. 

You Can’t go Home Again (or: Tides of Change)
I decided to walk from my friend’s at one end of Huaihai Lu to Ruijin Lu to seek out the new old town she had told me about. Along the way I could take photos, watch people, enjoy the lovely weather. Some of the changes I have really taken notice of are pregnant bellies and newborns. It is no longer just Chinese women who are showing off their pregnancies and proudly carrying their newborn. Now foreign women are doing the same. I saw two heavily pregnant women, two others with very young babies, plus another perhaps 6-7 months along with a child also. That was in the space of 4 hours!

I was also amazed at how many foreigners are riding fairly heavy duty motorcycles, as well as motor scooters. Three bikes with sidecars – three people on each. One group, yes a group, consisted of two touring bikes, the woman on one with flowing blonde hair streaming behind her; and the driver also seemed to have long hair – male though.

The biggest change though – for me, was to visit a small street I would frequent with my daughters for cong yong bing, sweet potato chips, (that is sweet potatoes, not sugared chips) and little trinkets. Back then we found some hidden gems of stores and even places for the girls to take kung fu lessons. I had not put the name of the place I should visit to the place we used to visit. Our little street, with its few hidden alleys has been discovered. 

All the quirky shops are gone – one whole side of the street was turned into a vast shopping centre, which means all the little shops on that side have vanished, along with where people lived above their shops. Now there is Tai Kang Lu: the old town. Fine, it was quite a discovery and excellent investment to open this area up for those living there to make money. It certainly draws the tourists. But the charm is gone unless you can get away from the crowds and look up – at the old brickwork, the old wood latticework, old doors and little balconies. Otherwise it is just another Yu Yuan, except nicer with more expensive stuff; or Xintiandi, but less expensive. So, I don’t know if this is progress or not. When I realized that the entrance to this maze of little alleys that twist in and around and out again was our special place I had to cover my mouth to hold back my shock. It would not have done to have this middle aged foreign lady crying at the entrance of a tourist attraction – the most likely thought would have been that I was robbed.

Which I was in a way – another memory stripped away. Perhaps why remaining in Shanghai, as much as I loved it before, is not a good idea. You can go home, but it will never be the same.

Next day I braved Yu Yuan – just as crazy as ever. Crowds dreadful, forgot this was a Saturday. I did not stay long after doing a quick check for silver bells. Headed for the foreign haven of Xintiandi. Still expensive, still clean, still full of lots and lots of restaurants that should meet anyone’s tastes. Simply Thai is still there, looking as calming and relaxing as ever. I wonder if it is the atmosphere or just how we expect all things Thai to be. 
I did not stay long there either. Thank goodness for all those new subway lines – took the number 10 each time. After two days of exploring and lots of walking I am utterly exhausted.

My best adventure was going shopping for some ingredients to make tomato sauce. I cheated a bit, bought tomato paste, canned black olives and feta cheese at the store friend goes to. But I did buy small tomatoes, bananas and oranges at one of the local markets nearby and two types of cong you bing. So, I feel as though I accomplished something. I even returned the adapter I do not need and got my money back!

Home cooking – not always easy in China. 

Looking back: time flies 

The following is an entry from 2014, I was in the throes of preparing for a trip across Canada. I have not yet figured out how to share the photos. As some may have noted, my writing style and planning have not much changed. 

Clock is ticking, pages on the calendar are fading – one month and we are off on our mother/daughters adventure! I believe nearly everyone I know thinks I am crazy, so that is still unchanged, and most of them think this is a brilliant plan. We shall see.

Item to add to our emergency list – Benadryl for Daughter 2.

Item to add to our main list – an emergency kit. Did I mention it is a month away?

In the next month I need to learn how to use this silly blog for silly photos with silly captions along with just regular photo posts. How else will I be able to show St. Louis de Ha! Ha! without a caption? It screams caption. A bit ahead of myself though, we haven’t even left the island.
Budget – I plan to do as I hope to do in China next year – a set figure per day to see if it is possible to live within those means. Nothing outrageously difficult, this is not a camping trip but it is also not a luxury trip. So, 45 days = $4500.00 to cover everything for me. This should be manageable as I will be sharing a room, gas and a coffee card with two of my intrepid daughters. They are also in the crazy category so all should go well.
Countdown Day One – talk about lists. Go for a walk.
Photo in memory of my mother. (Sorry, photo did not join the text)