It was a warm day in Tucson when I came across what seemed like an impossible pairing: Chinese immigrants and Canadian Freemasons. In mask form.
I’d been poking around on the Royal B.C. Museum’s website to get acquainted with what exhibits they’d have on display during my upcoming visit to Victoria when I stumbled across the “100 Objects of Interest” collection–a list of 100 of the most unusual human artifacts ever collected on and around Vancouver Island. Of the over seven million items in the collection, the 100 featured pieces were some of their proudest residents in the archives. My eyes, always seeking beauty in some form or another, landed almost immediately on this part of the page:
Among the night gowns, paintings, and photographs, what in the world was that mask, nudged vibrantly and ominously among the rest?
I had no idea how big the mask was, what it was used for, or who originally owned it, but I was determined to find out.
I clicked on the image and learned that what I was seeing was an original paper mache ceremonial mask used by the Chinese Freemasons, a group of East Asian immigrants to British Columbia in the early 1900s who attempted to ingratiate themselves with the high-powered businessmen known as the Freemasons. In theory, it sounded like a strategic idea (why not ingratiate yourself to those in power upon your insecure arrival to a new part of the world?), but I couldn’t wrap my head around how these masks–which resembled, to me at least, the kind of facial costume one might imagine in a magnificent Chinese opera house in Beijing–were actually used. For a inquisitive writer like me who is also writing her dissertation on travel writing, this is the kind of colonial contact that has always fascinated me and my imagination.
I contacted the Royal B.C. Museum, got in touch with Delphine Castles, the Collections Manager for Modern Human History, begged her to let me see the masks (which are always off-display from the general public, she told me), thanked her profusely for accommodating my request, and got ready to fly out to Victoria.
When I got to the archives room, I had already imagined what the masks might look like up close: they were probably a little big larger than the size of a human face, probably painted with thick, smooth paint, and most likely chipping in a few places. When Ms. Castles walked me into a room full of rack upon rack of human artifacts, each catalogued with a small number and an identification code, pulled out a stool with rolling feet, and asked me to help her pull the mask off the top shelf, I figured I was probably only right on two counts: it was probably painted with thick pain, and it was most likely chipping. What I hadn’t imagined–and what photographs without context don’t always tell you–is that these masks are enormous.
I mean, they are really, really big.
I could not, for the life of me, imagine someone wearing this on their face. Surely they would topple over immediately. Take a look:
Here’s another picture for scale, with Ms. Castles:
And this was supposed to go on someone’s face?
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one who thought the masks should have been displayed in an opulent opera somewhere and not used in a ceremonial dance. According to Ms. Castles, Dr. Tzu-I Chung, an expert in human artifacts who works at the museum, knew almost immediately that the masks were not stage props when she got her hands on them, simply because they were too intricate for stage production and had been donated by Jack Tang, formerly Secretary of the Chinese Freemasons in Victoria. They also had an unusual attribute on the back: four small circles carved out that at one time, ostensibly, would have held a wire. But….there are no eyeholes.
Though nothing is certain, one aspect I was wrong about was the relationship between the Chinese and the Freemasons. “It wasn’t a contentious relationship,” Ms. Castles told me. “In fact, such organizations provided social welfare to immigrants in need and to the thousands of Chinese laborers thrown out of work after the completion of the railway.” She also mentioned that the Freemasons protected the Chinese against racism in an increasingly hostile white society and kept them from being the target of racist attacks and malevolent political acts.
We looked at the masks for quite some time, marveling at the reality that we might never know the whole story behind these fantastic, intricate, incredibly delicate remains from a people who are little understood.
Of course, like any human artifact, there’s always going to be mystery. I’m so grateful I got to be a part of this one.
Royal B.C. Museum
675 Belleville Street
Victoria BC V8W 9W2
Regular adult admission is $16 Canadian dollars. Seniors and youth tickets start at $11.
A special thanks to Tourism Victoria for helping me arrange my visit to the B.C. Museum. Also, heartfelt thanks to the museum for taking me on such an unforgettable tour.