HERN, Frances

Author Tags: Chinese, History, Non-Fiction

There are few better primers about Chinese Canadians in British Columbia than Frances Hern’s Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians (Heritage 2011 $9.95), a slim but extensive volume that uses the spine of Yip Sang’s biography to flesh out the social circumstances of racism and perseverance. Yip Sang was a Chinese-born merchant who became a prominent figure in early Chinese Canadian history. [See review below]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians


Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians (Heritage House 2011) 978-1-92693-690-1 $9.95

[BCBW 2011] "Chinese"

Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians
Review (2012)

The first Chinese woman known to arrive in British North America was Mrs. Kwong Lee, wife of the owner of the Kwong Lee Company in Victoria, in 1860.

The first known baby of Chinese descent to be born in Canada and registered as a British subject was Won Alexander Cumyow, born in Port Douglas, at the head of Harrison Lake, in 1861.

His father and mother had emigrated from Guangdong Province—across from Hong Kong—to San Francisco in 1858. They ran a restaurant and store that catered to gold prospectors before moving their family to New Westminster in the early 1870s where Alexander Cumyow attended school and became a bookkeeper. He later moved to Victoria where he studied law. Not allowed to be a lawyer due to racial discrimination, he became a court reporter for the Vancouver police, fluent in English, Cantonese, the Hakka dialect and the Chinook trading language.

First Nations and Chinese people had been stripped of their voting rights by the Qualification and Registration of Voters Act of 1872, one of the first acts passed by British Columbia after it joined Confederation. Having long worked to have the vote restored to Chinese Canadians, Won Alexander Cumyow was photographed casing his ballot in the 1949 federal election. He died at age 94 in 1955.

Also Guangdong Province, Yip Sang was born in 1845 in the village of Shentang. An orphan with no prospects, he managed to save enough money to make an 80-day journey to San Francisco in 1864, at age nineteen.

Befriended by a man named Mr. Ing, he found work in a restaurant and gradually taught himself English. At age 36, he put his belonging on a cart and trudged north through Oregon and Washington, eventually reaching Vancouver where he sold sacks of coal door-to-door.

There are few better primers about Chinese Canadians in British Columbia than Frances Hern’s Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians (Heritage $9.95), a slim but extensive volume that uses the spine of Yip Sang’s biography to flesh out the social circumstances of racism and perseverance.

At age 37, Yip Sang was hired as a bookkeeper and paymaster for Lee Piu, who oversaw the hired of Chinese labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Yip Sang was soon elevated to the position of superintendent, organizing as many as 7,000 Chinese workers who comprised as much as 75 percent of the CPR’s workforce.

Upon the railway’s completion, Yip Sang, at age 40, returned to China and took four wives—Lee Shee, Wong Shee, Dong Shee and Chin See. Hern explains, “When a Chinese woman married, she was referred to by her maiden name. In the case of Yip Sang’s wives, these were Lee, Wong. The term ‘Shee’ was sometimes equivalent to ‘neé’ placed before a married woman’s maiden name.”

Yip Sang’s first wife died after giving birth two children. After three years in China, Yip Sang returned alone to Vancouver in 1888 to start an import/export business. For his new Wing Sang Company (Wing Sang can be translated as ‘everlasting’ in Cantonese), he built his own two-storey building in 1889. This remains as the oldest building in Vancouver’s Chinatown, at 51-69 East Pender Street. Now owned and renovated by Bob Rennie, it was designated a heritage building in 1999.

Yip Sang became a naturalized British subject in 1891. He expanded his building in 1901 and arranged for his wives and children to join him. As a merchant, he was exempt from paying the dreaded Head Tax for Chinese immigrants--$50 per person in 1885, raised to $500 per person in 1903. He would have 23 children in total, resulting in 81 grandchildren.

After its initial shipment of 20 barrels of salted salmon, Wing Sang Co. legally imported and sold opium. But he kept expanding. Yip Sang formed the Nanaimo Packing Company in 1909 to export salmon and salt herring, leading to salted herring plants on Newcastle Island (Departure Bay) and Galiano Island.

Soon the Wing Sang building was the place to go in Chinatown for CPR steamship tickets. “As well as selling everyday items,” Hern writes, “customers wanting to send remittances or money to China could deposit it in the Wing Sang Company branch of a trust company based in Hong Kong. Labourers could do so on a Sunday, their only day off. This was very convenient because western banks were closed on Sundays…

“Yip Sang’s customers could also collect mail from China. The Canadian postal system was not able to deliver letters addressed in Chinese characters, so these were dropped off at the Wing Sang Building.”

By 1908, Yip Sang’s operations brought in $50,000 per year and his real estate holdings were worth $200,000. But he kept tight control of his fortune, sometimes to the disgruntlement of his many sons. With a burgeoning family, he built a new six-storey brick building behind the Wing Sang building in 1912. His three wives occupied different floors, undeterred by the stairs despite foot-binding.

Yip Sang wasn’t all business. Yip Sang’s lack of formal schooling was counter-balanced by his Confucian values, such as self-improvement. One floor of his building housed a classroom. He sponsored the Oy Kuo School for adult education and served as its principal for ten years. He wanted his own children to attend Canadian public school for integration purposes but he simultaneously hired private tutors from China and Hong Kong to teach them Chinese.

When Yip Sang died in 1927 at age 81, Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalist Party of China, sent a message of condolence. Unlike many early Chinese immigrants, Yip Sang did not wish to have his remains shipped back to China. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. Family artifacts have been donated to the Vancouver Museum (including Yip Sang’s ticket wicket), photos are stored at the City of Vancouver Archives and documents have been incorporated into the Chung Collection at UBC.

Yip Sang’s eleventh son, Yip Kew Ghim, became a medical doctor who established a free weekly health clinic in Chinatown and helped manage Mount Saint Joseph Oriental Hospital. His seventeenth son, Dock, graduated from UBC in 1941 and became Canada’s first Chinese Canadian lawyer.

Yip Sang’s sixteenth son, Yip Kew Quene, was a Vancouver track star who also led an all-Chinese soccer team to a momentous victory over the UBC varsity team in 1933, resulting in a triumphant victory parade in Chinatown. The following day was declared a holiday in Chinatown, with free tea and dim sum for all. Yip Kew Quene was inducted in the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

The context for Yip Sang’s life, as neatly described by Frances Hern, includes the Opium Wars, the Head Tax, the Pacific Scandal (CPR), Chinese history, foot binding, the Chinese Benevolent Association, the Chinese Freemasons Society, the so-called Chinatown Riot of 1907, philanthropy, Confucianism, the first World War, the Chinese Immigration Act, the Depression and ‘Equality at Last.’

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012]