Merritt BC-born Vivian Jung wanted to be a teacher but, in order to get certified back in 1945, she needed her swimming certification. There was just one big problem. Non-whites were not permitted in public pools. Denied entry to Crystal Pool, Jung’s classmates and instructor protested and refused to enter until she could join them. The courageous act signified a turning point in the desegregation of public places. Jung earned her swimming credentials and became the first Chinese Canadian teacher to be hired at the Vancouver School Board. She went on to teach at Tecumseh Elementary for 35 years. To honour her, the city declared a laneway between Harwood Street and Beach Avenue as “Jung Lane”.
Penny Tham is our longest-serving volunteer at the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the Chinatown Storytelling Centre. She introduced our team to the Singapore-style vermicelli at Ming Fong Fast Food, was and remains a pivotal figure in opening the Chinatown Storytelling Centre (find her at the front desk every Monday!), and is—above all—proof of the passion that we can foster to change the narrative of Chinatown and revitalize our beloved neighbourhood.
“I can still remember Chinatown when it was vibrant—subsequent generations don’t necessarily have that; they only know Chinatown as it is. But, if you’d like to be able to envision Chinatown in its glory days, we must do it now, otherwise it will never get done. And that is the thing—now is the time.”
Penny joined our volunteer team in 2017 when, after over 20 years abroad, she “came back to see the deterioration of Chinatown'' and wanted to help make a change. She began at the May Wah on the advisory committee and hasn’t lost that momentum and commitment to our cause. We asked about her journey and accomplishments as a volunteer in Chinatown, as well as her advice to those wanting to get involved.
How did you get involved with the Chinatown Storytelling Centre?
“I’m a retired lawyer, and I’ve worked at investment banks around the world, so I’m very much someone who has seen and managed projects with all of that corporate background. Which is kind of a perfect job for me, because I am a project manager at heart! So that’s how I became the Storytelling Centre project manager and helped write the initial application for the grant we got from Heritage Canada.”
“We are seeing a new focus returning to Chinatown—sometimes it’s positive but sometimes it’s negative. We’ve had all of the anti-Asian racism throughout the pandemic, all the graffiti… It’s very heartbreaking to read the recent story about the mural that has been defaced, again, after they fixed it. You just really feel for the people. If you can bring your skills, and want to help, we always need it.”
What has been your most rewarding experience as a volunteer?
“What I get from it is something really meaningful. I’m doing work about something I really care about, and it’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. Which I think is pretty special! I don’t think you can always say that.”
What advice do you have for other volunteers?
“What I’ve found through volunteering at various organizations, is that there are volunteers who don’t stay. There wasn’t that emotional connection for them. So, you have to care about the mission of what you’re volunteering for. That’s why I do it, that’s why I’m here every Monday. It’s so important to find something that you really care about. That will bring you the most satisfaction.”
“There is no shortage of causes and institutions that need your help and are worthy of being helped. But in order for them to get the most out of you so that you come back regularly? You have to get something out of it.”
How can others get involved?
“We are so lucky to have our events. That’s one thing that I’ve been really impressed with, with the team and with everybody here, is that during the pandemic we were able to do stuff. Like ‘Light Up Chinatown!’, that was so impressive! I was talking to somebody from Dress for Success and, that weekend, their family was in town from England and she took them down there. They were blown away!”
“And when you think about that, that came with a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ or, ‘That’ll never work because it’s Chinatown.’ But here we say, ‘Okay! Let’s do it anyway!’ It’s turned out now to be where people are saying, ‘Are you doing it again?’”
What are the first steps?
“I encourage people to check us out! Come to the Storytelling Centre, have a look, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Hopefully it’s something you care about. I think, if nothing else, it’ll be a learning experience to come and get to know us. There are so many stories here that have never been shared—I still haven’t listened to all 150 stories!
“There are all of these fantastic ideas, and there are different generations of people working here; that mix of energies and ideas is really quite appealing to me. Hopefully, I’ll continue to learn new things! I always am. For me, learning is a lifelong journey. If you want a place to get involved that challenges you as well, and is stimulating, I think the Storytelling Centre has certainly done that for me.
And the most important question… What’s your favourite place to eat in Chinatown?
“Ming Fong! I wandered over there and ordered their Singapore noodles, which is one of my favourite dishes. I would bring them back to the office and everyone would be like, ‘What are you eating! It smells so good!’ After a while, if people knew I was going over there they’d ask me to bring them back a box.”
“The owners became people I grew more impressed with because they stayed open through the pandemic. There are seniors in this neighbourhood that rely on Ming Fong and the other businesses here. I admire how they stayed open and ensured that those members of our community could still have hot, delicious meals.”
Penny, thank you so much for sitting down with us and sharing your experience and insight!
If you would like to get involved with the Chinatown Storytelling Centre, please find more information here.
Lily Chow embraced her new life in BC when she immigrated from Malaysia in 1967 and began teaching high school in Prince George. On retiring in 1998, she carved out a life as a scholar, historian and award-winning writer. Chow saw gaps in the historiography of the Chinese who lived in rural areas of the BC Interior. She dove into researching and documenting their lives, using connections she established when she was the president of the local Chinese Benevolent Association. Beyond her writings, Chow was a driving force behind the preservation of the gold rush town of Barkerville and co-founded the New Pathways to Gold Society, and has been awarded for her work on preserving the history of the Chinese and First Nations peoples. She was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2021.
In 2020, Chow received the "Cedar-Bamboo Heritage Award" from the New Pathways to Gold Society for her contribution to highlighting the friendship between Chinese and Indigenous peoples through researching and collecting oral histories in her books.
In 1948 my father Sue Yew Ming and his two brothers, two nephews and a close relatives went to the Chinatown Chow YuCho Studio for a group photo. I believed my father wanted a close family group photo to bring back to China the following year. In 1949 my father along with one of his nephews went back to his native village in Panyu Guangzhou to marry my mother.
This would be my father’s second marriage as he had married at the age of 15 yrs old before coming over to Vancouver BC in 1918. At that time he had to pay the Canadian Government imposed $500 Head Tax. Life in the new country was rough for him with the language barrier and going through discrimination in his new environment. He was working a lots of odd jobs such as gardener, cannery in North Van and farming. My father also received news that his wife and children had either died or separated during the war with Japan. In 1949 my first cousin Soo Bing Cheong then convince him to go back to China to find another wife.
Therefore after marrying my mother in 1949 my older sister Janice was born in the Pon Wu Panyu village. Afterwards he spent most of his earning in Canada to built a nice big house for his wife and daughter before returning back to Vancouver to officially sponsor them over. My mother finally arrived with my elder sister in March 1956 and the following year I was born , followed by my younger sister Sherry Ann [Soo] Babcock and little brother Walter.
In sadness my siblings and I only got to enjoy our father for a few years as he passed away in 1962 when I was five years, my elder sister 12, younger sister 4 and my younger brother only 3. That 1948 Chow YuCho Studio was passed down to my younger sister Sherry to safeguard and preserves it memories. On November 8th, my younger brother Walter and I visited the Chinese Storytelling Centre and noticed the replica Yucho Chow Studio. Therefore in paying homage back to our father and his dear relatives we both decided to take back a photo to honour and respect these six precious gentlemen 47 years later. I sincerely appreciate the Chinatown Storytelling Centre for that opportunity.
In the 1948 Yucho Chow photo - Seated left to right - Soo Fook Jun, Soo You Quai [2nd Uncle] - back row standing left to right Soo Kung [1 st cousin], Sue Yew Ming [my father], Sue Yew Quan [3rd Uncle] & Soo Bing Cheong [elder 1st cousin].
Inset photo: Randy Sue [seated] Walter Soo [standing]
Submitted by Randy Sue
Our father came to Canada January 17, 1919. At that time the Canadian government required a head tax of $500. It was a small fortune in those days but our father wanted to go to "Gum San"-the land of golden opportunities. He was very lonely in Canada and went back to China in 1920. However, he still believed that Canada was a land of opportunities, so he came back. Between 1920 and 1950, he went back to China four times. On one of his trips, he married our mother and had two daughters (my sister and I). After his last trip back to China in 1950, he came back to Canada and worked hard to save his money. By November 23, 1957, he saved enough money to bring us over to Vancouver, BC (my mom, my seven year old sister and I , age nine).
Our family lived and farmed in the Musqueam Reservation called Hong Kong Farm. Our father passed away May, 10, 1960 less than three years after we re-united. On June 22, 2006, the Government of Canada offered a full apology to the Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax.
Submitted by Wendy Low
King Wong was a business owner who fought for the rights of his fellow merchants. After coming to Vancouver from Hong Kong in 1967, he opened a pair of butcher shops, including the popular Dollar Meats in Chinatown. When city, provincial and federal health officials took issue with the way Chinese barbecue meats were sold in the late 1970s, he took a central role in fighting for the right to sell meats prepared in the Cantonese tradition. Wong later became president of the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association. He also chaired the Chinese Entrepreneurs Association of Canada and was involved in several community organizations. His dedication to helping others, and a reputation for honesty, earned him high regard in his community.
According to her meticulous records and notes, Madeline Chung delivered 7,226 babies during her career as BC’s first woman gynecologist. Her practice began in 1956, when the Shanghai-born Chung set up an office in East Vancouver while the rest of the city’s Chinese doctors, all seven of them, practiced exclusively in Chinatown. For a time, Chung was the only Chinese-speaking obstetrician in the city, and her ability to speak to patients in their language helped her break through gender and race barriers. Working by herself, Chung delivered up to 250 babies a year. It’s a point of local pride and history to be a part of the unofficial club of what are affectionately called “Chung babies”.
Just as the Chinese Freemason-owned building at the corner of Pender and Columbia stands as a Chinatown bedrock, so too does the life of Harry Con. The building is where Con and wife Lily operated their small souvenir store and Chinatown’s first Canada Post Office, but his contribution extended beyond their busy shop. Born in Coquitlam in 1922, Con served as a translator for Force 136 during World War II.
When he returned from the war, he volunteered tirelessly with the Chinese Freemasons, the Chinese Benevolent Association, Strathcona Property Owners’ and Tenants’ Association, the Canadian Citizenship Court, and the federal Liberal party. Con was honoured with many awards during his lifetime, including the Order of Canada in 1982.
“Food has always been my connection to my Chinese roots. Born and raised here in suburban British Columbia I didn’t (and still don’t) speak a lick of Cantonese. But food, food is a language I understand. It’s the language between generations, a sign of love that filled our bellies to the brim (nothing could ever go to waste). It was the meticulously cut and peeled fruit my po-po would quietly bring us as we played. The vast family meals that would bring relatives together around the layers of plastic tablecloths and big lazy susan.
Looking back at my childhood, there were times when I was ashamed and embarrassed by the food so lovingly packed in my lunch box. Opening a thermos of handmade dumplings was labelled ‘stink bombs’ by other kids. So out of the desire to fit in, I would throw away my lunch so I wouldn’t be bullied at school and so I wouldn’t be questioned by my ma-ma upon coming home. Mind you, I didn’t stop eating Chinese food entirely, but I also wasn’t trying to embrace it in the public eye.
It took some time, to come back to an identity that I had spent so much time resisting and distancing myself from out of the desire to belong. As I got older, I came to realize how special our food was, not just because of how delicious it tasted but also how it always brought family together. The shame that once swallowed me turned to pride—I would take on the role for placing orders when out with friends who were eager to try new dishes and try my hand (unsuccessfully) at replicating the unwritten recipes my grandmas would make.
When the lockdown happened, I yearned for dim sum and baos, I missed the bustle and commotion of crammed tables and efficient service. Now, on days when I find myself in Chinatown, I just pause to listen to conversations I can’t understand, buy myself some goodies from the bakeries or take-away from the delectable restaurants we used to go to. Seeing lineups outside the butchers and BBQs, and the liveliness of the fish markets and produce stores reminds me of how alive this community and neighbourhood is despite the hardships and adversity they face. Returning to Chinatown, I catch myself reminiscing on the family meals we would have every week and how lucky I was to grow up with my grandparents—How food and this neighbourhood still bond me to them and my Chinese identity.”
“My father always had a car. He drove people around and he delivered things. But more or less he translate[d] for anybody that’s coming and took them to the bachelors’ house of whatever last name they had. And one thing that my father was, to a fault, was that he would say 'If you don’t have the money, you don’t have to pay me. You pay me later.' ” - Mamie Fung on her father Dick Jong.
The granddaughter of photographer Yucho Chow, Mamie grew up during a tumultuous time for racial minorities in Canada. Born in Vancouver in 1924, Mamie witnessed the influx of Chinese immigrants looking for work in Vancouver. From a very young age, she experienced firsthand what it truly means to lean on one another as a community.