Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tunnels of Moose Jaw

The wind is absolutely howling, but it's blowing towards downtown, so I venture out onto the street and allow it to blow me into town. The town map from the telephone book shows city buses, so I can get one of those back uptown if I find can't walk comfortably against the wind. Walk planning can be so much more spontaneous than flight planning.

There's an armoury on the main street (I'm in Saskatchewan now, not Alberta, so it's called "Main Street"). Outside the armoury, like pretty much every armoury in the country, and possibly the world, is a display of obsolete tanks, field guns and armoured personnel carriers. Some of them are painted in UN colours. They look ancient, from another era, but knowing our military they were probably parked there last week. A sign outside says they sell memorabilia, so I go in, hoping for postcards or pins for friends who collect them.

There's no evidence of a dispensary, just an assembly hall with some women at tables, and some kids assembling and disassembling rifles on blankets on the floor. One of the kids comes and asks me shyly if she can help me. I think it's supposed to be the sort of "can I help you?" that means "what are you doing here?" but she's so soft-spoken it doesn't really have the right effect. She doesn't know, but directs me to the rifle-supervising mom who says the sales have moved downtown with recruiting, so I go back out into the wind and continue down the street.

Downtown Moose Jaw is mostly two to four storey stone buildings, the kinds with little ins and outs, like turrets and columns and archways. It was common architecture in the early 20th century, but most downtown areas have been replaced with taller buildings but I guess there hasn't been a lot of demand for urban growth in Moose Jaw.

I never find the recruiting storefront, but I pick up some postcards at a drugstore. Half of the local postcards are advertising something called "Tunnels of Moose Jaw," so I asked about that. It's some kind of tourist attraction. The clerk shrugs when I ask if it's any good, but it appears to be the only game in town, so I check it out.

It's right on Main Street, and the lobby explains that history is brought to life in the underground passages of Moose Jaw. They have bios of all the actors up on the wall. They're students, some looking for acting careers, some business, some agricultural. It might be a bit like the Seattle Underground tour that Phil recommended. I went to buy a ticket, opting for The Chinese Experience over Al Capone, because I don't like gangster movies.

Everyone else must have liked gangster movies, because when the tours were called I was the only one who had signed up for the Chinese option. The guide introduced himself and I didn't remember his bio specifically from the wall so I guessed. "Or are you from New Brunswick?" He wasn't. He was local, studying business and tourism at the Bible college. His roommate was the one from New Brunswick. He led me outside and around a corner, and hadn't slipped into character yet, so I asked him what these tunnels were, where they came from.

In the old days, when Moose Jaw buildings were heated by individual coal-fired boilers in the basements, the engineers whose job it was to maintain the boilers didn't enjoy going from the sweltering basements, up to street level, crossing the streets in prairie winter weather, and then going below to do it again on the other side of the street. It was worth their while to dig passages that allowed them to go from boiler to boiler without stepping out into the freezer outside. These passages didn't have any official city planning behind them, so weren't on any city utility map, and when Moose Jaw businesses moved on to more modern heating technology, the tunnels were walled up and completely forgotten. Later other services went underground, but none of the new tunnels intersected the old tunnels so they continued a secret until one day a car dropped through the road into a hole that opened up underneath it, into one of the tunnels.

A bit of handwaving here from the guide. He couldn't tell me the year, or the sort of car or if anyone was hurt, just that the company he worked for was at least the second, possibly the third to run a tourism business in the tunnels. And then we went into an initially unremarkable basement and began the tour.

Moose Jaw is a railroad town. The trans-Canada railroad, as every schoolchild knows, was built principally by immigrant Chinese men. They worked for very little pay, much of which had to go into paying off the debt they had incurred getting here in the first place. Their agents controlled them until the debt was paid, so they could get no other jobs so were obliged to work hard and abide living and working conditions that more mobile Caucasian labourers would have refused. When the railroad was complete, they were all laid off. The tour consisted of what might have been my experience as a Chinese man laid off in Moose Jaw.

The first set was a large white-owned laundry where we could see customer orders all wrapped up in white paper awaiting collection and then the guide pushed aside a section of wall and we went into the back room where he became a foreman for the laundry owner, giving "us" a short tour of the facilities where "we" would be working. Clothes were laundered by hand on washboards and ironed with solid pieces of iron that had been heated on a stove (hence the name, eh?) The tour lost a bit of zing I'm sure with there just being one person for the guide to act to, but he gave me a few tasks like carrying a lantern through an unlit corridor. There was a film where a Canadian doctor described her grandfather's life in Canada. He had apothecary knowledge and after working on the railroad and in a laundry, where he used his knowledge to help injured and sick coworkers, he did set up his shop.

After the laundry, with the living and working quarters and the darkened tunnels, the rest of the corridors were set up not so much as a recreation of the tunnels, as just scenes from early Moose Jaw life. There was a Chinese restaurant, for example. Apparently such businesses were hampered by a fairly recently-repealed law forbidding Chinese entrepreneurs from hiring white women to work for them. And there weren't any Chinese women, because immigration was only approved for men. For a while no Chinese immigration was approved to Canada and then finally families could be reunited.

At the end of the tour an old photograph of downtown Moose Jaw shows that the town has hardly changed in eighty years. Most of the electrical lines are underground now and the cars and fashions are newer, but an early resident transported forward in time would be able to find his way around just fine.

I hope there has been more change with respect to racism. The actor/guide who pretended to berate me and list my inadequacies as a coolie didn't sound much different from what I hear frequently above ground concerning natives and others of discernible and non-European ethnic origins. I suspect Moose Jaw hasn't experienced much but cosmetic changes there, either, and I'm not singling out Moose Jaw, either. It's quite startling what humans can make themselves believe about others, and what humans can achieve, despite everything.

The wind isn't quite so bad as I make my way back uptown to the hotel. The Moose Jaw Comfort Inn front desk doesn't answer their phone. I started typing this as I picked up the phone to dial and I typed the first draft of this blog entry, with one hand, while the phone was ringing. By the time they answered, I almost forgot what I wanted. Oh yes: Internet access.

I check the weather. Here's a sample:


Translated into English, that means the wind was so strong that the anemometer at Slave Lake blew down, so they can't give me a prediction. I'm thinking it's a good thing I wasn't out there trying to land in a snowstorm in unknown winds.


Lord Hutton said...

Usual casual racism as practised in the empire. Exeter has underground passages which are probably a bit older

Anonymous said...

Went to Regina, red sister
Heard a cab driver say what he'd seen
"There's a grand place to eat out on Number One
All white ladies if you know what I mean"
- Bruce Cockburn, Red Brother, Red Sister (Circles in the Stream album)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aviatrix said...

Sorry dude, but you can't disguise your spam as a nice generic comment on this blog.