explorASIAN Festival Blog

Saturday, March 29, 2008

100 Influential Chinese-Canadians in B.C.

Meet some of the people of Chinese descent who strengthen our community

Michael Scott
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, October 21, 2006

The first Chinese newcomer to reach what would soon become B.C. stepped onto a Victoria wharf in the early summer of 1858. He had travelled north by steamer from San Francisco, in search of a golden opportunity on the sandbars of the Fraser River.

His arrival in the bustling colony was considered noteworthy enough to appear in the pages of the Victoria Gazette, as a harbinger of changes to come. And so indeed he was, followed close behind by a tidal influx of Chinese workers as the inhabitants of whole villages emptied out across the wide Pacific -- tens and tens of thousands, mostly men at first -- to pan the rivers, build the railways, stock the shelves and run the laundries.

History lost track of what became of that first "Chinaman," but his pioneering footsteps cleared a path for innumerable others.

Today, people of Chinese ancestry are the province's most populous ethnic minority, numbering almost 500,000 in the Lower Mainland. They wield immense influence on every aspect of our shared society. In field after field -- arts, politics, law, medicine, science, finance, business, religion, community affairs, philanthropy -- Chinese-Canadians have taken their rightful place as leaders and innovators.

In some ways, this is Canadian multiculturalism at its very best, a colour-blind gathering of talent and shared purpose.

There's just one problem: For most of our history, we have been anything but colour-blind. It wasn't the Anglo-Europeans of British Columbia who had to fight for the right to belong, or who endured a century of racism of the most despicable and institutionalized sort. It wasn't the Anglo-Europeans who were reminded over and over, for generations, that they were different, lesser than other Canadians: required to pay taxes but not allowed to vote.

These dark facts make the contemporary accomplishments of Chinese-Canadians in B.C. all the more impressive. Not only have they distinguished themselves in so many ways, but Chinese-Canadians have done so against a background of racism and discrimination that only just began to abate in the second half of the 20th century.

Prejudice has finally given way to politeness, but our divisive history lives on in the way the Anglo-European majority and the so-called Chinese community (actually not one homogenous group, but many sub-groups divided along linguistic, political and cultural lines) continue to conduct themselves as two solitudes: nodding acquaintances who sometimes still ignore one another.

Earlier this year, The Vancouver Sun's senior editors and writers began discussing new ways to reflect the depth and breadth of multicultural life in British Columbia. As a newspaper, we disagree with the old adage that good fences make good neighbours. In our experience, communities need ways to connect cultures, not separate them.

In multicultural Vancouver, bridges make better neighbourhoods than fences do.

With that in mind, we present this special tribute to the influence and contributions of our region's Hua-ren (meaning, literally, "China-people," regardless of whether they were born overseas and arrived a year ago, or are the Canadian-born great-grandchildren of 19th-century immigrants).

In the pages that follow, we profile 100 individuals whose talents and world views greatly enrich our shared life as British Columbians.

The Chinese character, Hua, which introduces this special feature, was brush-penned by Johnson Su-Sing Chow, 84, of Vancouver, specifically for The Vancouver Sun. Chow, who is revered internationally as a master painter and calligrapher, has lived in Vancouver since 1980.

His contributions both to world art and to Vancouver's cultural life are acknowledged more fully inside these pages. The fact that he has been here for a quarter-century and has never received a mainstream museum exhibition is one small example of the two solitudes in action.

To create our character, Chow used what is known as cursive or grass style calligraphy, an ancient brush style that prizes the free-flowing movement of hand and arm. While the original meaning of Hua is blossom, or flower, or flowering, nowadays it also usually connotes, in different contexts, the notion of China and of Chinese person, in the widest and most poetical sense -- including that of people from China, or people of Chinese descent, living abroad.

We felt that this character and its layers of meaning create an apt symbol for the blossoming of contemporary Chinese-Canadian influence in the Lower Mainland.

To create this special feature, we began by canvassing the newspaper's senior editors and reporters for suggestions of whom to include. Those preliminary lists were scrutinized by our colleagues at Chinese-language newspapers, who had many other names to add. We also consulted officials at the University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University, as well as trusted members of the community, who provided important counsel and advice.

One person who deserves particular thanks for his participation is Jan Walls, the director of the David Lam Centre for International Communication at SFU. Walls, whose profound understanding of Chinese language and culture regularly earns him the admiring sobriquet of "more Chinese than the Chinese," would certainly have appeared on our list in his own right, except for his Caucasian ancestry.

We do not intend the list to be a Top 100 ranking, or comprehensive in any hierarchical way. We see it more as an assembly of individuals who have made significant contributions in their respective fields. We have tried to balance the various areas of endeavour, gender and geographical origin. Where necessary, we opted to include people whose influence is already well-established, rather than younger individuals at the start of promising careers.

We opened the list to anyone living and working in British Columbia on a permanent basis, whether they are Canadian citizens, or longtime foreign residents.

Early on, we decided not to include the names of pioneers who are deceased. This was a difficult decision because it meant overlooking people such as Lilian To, whose humanity and drive made Vancouver's immigrant aid society, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., one of the largest institutions of its kind in North America; and Douglas Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament, whose valiant efforts as a Canadian soldier during the Second World War were partly responsible for Chinese-Canadians finally being enfranchised in 1947.

The list, in its final form, presents an astonishing array of talent and dedication. Here are history-makers like Dorothy Kostrzewa, the first Chinese-Canadian woman to hold elected office in this country, still serving her Chilliwack constituents more than 30 years later; David Lam, B.C.'s former lieutenant-governor, the first Chinese-Canadian to hold a vice-regal post; and Madame Justice Linda Loo, the first female Chinese-Canadian to serve on the B.C. Supreme Court.

Here are people who helped define an era, such as Roy Mah, the longtime editor of the English-language Chinatown News, and David Y. H. Lui whose passion for the arts persuaded some of the world's greatest performing arts companies to come to Vancouver.

We meet titans of business like the dentist-turned-developer Benjamin Yeung, whose modest personal demeanour belies a portfolio of current development projects worth $800 million; and humane financier Milton Wong.

Here are architectural giants, responsible for the new face of Vancouver, James Cheng and Bing Thom; as well as writers, artists, dancers, choreographers. Here are scientists, peeling back the mysteries of disease, including Weihong Song and Victor Ling; politicians, media moguls, athletes, essayists and philanthropists.

Attempting to identify only 100 luminaries in a community of nearly 500,000 people, is of course going to be dogged by omissions, whatever criteria are applied. With that in mind, we invite readers to nominate their own influential Chinese-Canadians. A factbox at the end of this story will explain how to do that.

In the process of interviewing the many people whose profiles are included here, one quality presented itself repeatedly. Perhaps it is a vestige of long-held Confucian principles, deeply laced into family memory; perhaps it is a result of personal style, but again and again our reporters noted the abiding humility of the people they were interviewing.

No matter the accomplishments, no matter the distinctions and honours, many of the people we celebrate in these pages present a very un-Western lack of pretense to the world.

Perhaps lawyer and vintner Eugene Kwan put it best. Formerly the managing director of the Hong Kong office of Stikeman Elliott -- one of Canada's leading law firms, senior counsel to some of the largest Asian investors in North America and a very active board member at VGH/UBC Hospital Foundation, Kwan was uncomfortable being part of this list.

"You want to put me on a list of the 100 most influential Chinese-Canadians in the Lower Mainland," he asked. "Gosh, I don't know about that." A long pause.

"If it were the 10,000 most influential, that I might just deserve to be on."

© The Vancouver Sun 2006