Upstairs at Wah Lee’s provides a glimpse into a different time and place.
Wearing everything from sheepskin chaps to bearskin wraps and jackets and ties, the black and white prints present the multicultural milieu of Quesnel in the early 20th century.
Curated by Faith Moosang and organized by the Quesnel and District Museum and Archives, Upstairs at Wah Lee’s, Portraits from the C.S. Wing Studio, is on display at the Courtenay and District Museum until Sept. 29.
“The images are a beautiful example of the clarity of glass plate negatives and of the diversity of British Columbia communities at the turn of the 20th century,” says Deborah Griffiths, curator of the Courtenay Museum. “It is an exceptional exhibit.”
Chow Shong Wing was born in Quesnel around 1890. His family ran the Wah Lee Store.
When he was 17, Wing set up a darkroom and photographic studio upstairs. As the first professional photographer in the area, he documented the lives of the Caucasian, Chinese and First Nations residents.
Through primarily formal poses, the images capture the accomplishments, dreams, work and leisure time of the era. There is a stern-looking, or perhaps terrified, young bride, a mother and child and a young man on one knee holding a rifle. Then there are the cowboys relaxing in the Occidental Bar and two young men dressed in jackets, ties and fedoras smoking and drinking.
As well as being home to many cultures, it’s obvious that Quesnel also possessed a variety of socio-economic levels.
It’s also interesting to note that although there are numerous horses and dogs in the photographs, few children appear. And no one is smiling. Obviously having a photograph taken was a special occasion that required a solemn countenance.
The 30 images come from a larger glass plate negative collection belonging to the Quesnel and District. Over time, emulsion from glass plate negatives degrades, altering the image in various ways. The fact that the photographs in the exhibit have largely been reproduced as is, adds to the feeling of authenticity.
Wing’s studio had wide plank floors and rough finished wood walls. At times his backdrop curtain looks like an old wool blanket tacked up at the end of a hallway. Most of the settings are sparse but the details of dress and demeanor tell a thousand stories.
Summer hours at the Courtenay Museum are Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4. Admission is by donation.