Chinese Canadian in Translation

HJ Seto

In Memoriam: David Chuenyan Lai

Prof. David Chuenyan Lai (黎全恩) passed away this June 15, 2018. Many memorials and dedications to this fine geography professor popped up all over the Internet and mainstream media. I first saw the front page coverage of his passing in a Chinese language newspaper a few weeks ago and felt sad at never having talked with him. We had exchanged a few emails on the Chinese in Victoria but we never met face to face. I felt a special connection to him through his writings on Chinese Canadian history. I let his fellow scholars and the media personalities offer up praises and homage to the scholar and to the man. Here in this blog, I share a few of my feelings about some of his published works.

Perhaps my most cherished piece of his writings is found in the scholarly journal BC Studies, under the title, “Home County and Clan Origins of Overseas Chinese in Canada in the Early 1880s”. Using documents from the Chinese Benevolent Association, interviews with Chinese old timers and data from Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration of 1885, he meticulously gathered and analysed the origins of early Chinese in Canada. He confirmed what I already knew from personal experience that the majority of the early Chinese in Canada were from the Sze Yap or Four Counties region in southern China, where my parents were born. Many new immigrants continue to think that what we Canadian born Chinese spoke was either bad Chinese or made up Chinese without realizing that a unique Chinese dialect was spoken in Canada, distinct and apart from the standard Cantonese or the national language of mandarin. Prof. Lai’s work proved our dialect in Canada went back to at least 1880s, the time frame of his study, and likely even earlier to 1858, the time of Canada’s first gold rush. Sadly, many of the Canadian born Chinese are now the “old timers” of today, possibly grandparents, who yet failed to keep up with their heritage language because they thought they can’t speak Chinese properly, because new comers tell them their spoken Chinese, like Chinese Canadian food, is not authentic. Prof. Lai’s research has given me another layer of confidence and pride in my spoken Chinese. (Most of the credit though for keeping my heritage language goes to my Mom, but Prof. Lai’s work certainly gave a scholarly foundation.)

Prof. Lai’s seminal work entitled Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada sits on my bedside as a ready reference text. It is one of those books that I do not read at long stretches but is extremely useful when I need to have a sense of place and architecture of the early Chinese in Victoria and to a lesser extent in other cities in Canada. Yes, this book makes for dry reading even though useful. It does contain the odd, memorable anecdote. I remember in particular about the interview he had with an old timer who recalled young Chinese men who called themselves members of the Sworn Oath Society, an organization of male students who were intent on over throwing the Qing Dynasty. They protested a meeting of Reformers, older businessmen who wanted gradual change from a dynastic government to a constitutional monarchy in China. The young protesters were fierce radicals in Victoria. According to the old timer interviewed, the police had to be called in to break up the potential fist fight. I give kudos to Prof. Lai for getting an interview with such an old timer. This particular interview by Prof. Lai of the witness who saw the Sworn Oath protest, illuminated the youthful but exuberantly radical side of three men who would become outstanding citizens in Canada and China. One became a local poet. Another rose to become an outstanding leader of Chinese community in Vancouver, who bridged the cultural gap between the East and West. (Mark Twain was wrong after all.) A third became a minister in the Nationalist government in Taiwan.

Although he was not the first scholar to interview local folks for local histories, Prof. Lai sure made effective use of interviews. Later, such interviews became the fad, young folks interviewing their relatives. I hear such interviews now have even become part of student projects, but they are not the same as Prof. Lai’s. Today, what we have interviews of are more of the post 1967 immigrants. Seldom have I read of interviewees who witnessed events at the turn of the early 20th century.

What I like about Prof. Lai’s published works are the many details and minutiae. An example of such a book is The Forbidden City within Victoria: Myth, Symbol and Streetscape of Canada’s Earliest Chinatown, where he devoted a section to the naming of Chinese businesses in Victoria’s Chinatown. In his Singapore published book Chinese Community Leadership: Case Study of Victoria in Canada, he included an appendix showing the English names of Chinese historical persons next to the Chinese names so that any historian, amateur or professional, can cross reference a person who might be mentioned in both English and Chinese language documents or archival material. This might even be useful for someone doing his or her genealogy.

In his later years, he co-authored two humongous histories of the Chinese in Canada. One was in Chinese with the translated title, History of Chinese Migration to Canada: 1858-1966 (加拿大華僑移民史: 1858-1966). This was the first comprehensive history of Chinese in Canada to be written in Chinese since David T.H. Lee’s A History of Chinese in Canada (加拿大華僑史), published in 1967. The other, co-authored with the journalist Ding Guo, was written in English, entitled Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966. It was published in 2016. The previous comprehensive history written in English about the Chinese in Canada was From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. That book was written by the late Prof. Edgar Wickberg along with four other authors and published in 1982. Yes, there were several other history books in English published during the intervening years that were purported to be history of Chinese in Canada but they were not as massive as those by professors Lai or Wickberg. Up to his final years, Prof. Lai published his two most massive books.

Early Chinese Canadian Poem

The Western stereotype of the Chinese in North America, during most of my life in Canada, is that the Chinese are good in the hard sciences and lousy in the arts. Even the Chinese themselves, both Old Timers and new immigrants normally nudge their kids in the direction of accountants and engineers. Of course, it is a pleasant surprise and a wonderful revelation to discover that the early Chinese were not all mathematics nerds or uncouth laborers in restaurants and laundries. Poetry played a huge part in the minds and hearts of the literate Chinese in Canada. From at least the late nineteenth century onward, there has been a passion among Chinese Canadians for the literary in the Chinese language. Over the course of about a century, various Chinese periodicals, in particular The Chinese Times newspaper (大漢公報), promoted many literary activities in Canada. Instead of the usual staple of current events, the front page of this newspaper featured from time to time literary or philosophical essays as its lead article. For example, a series on the Tang Poet Li Bai (李白 or Li Po in Wade-Giles phonetics, or Lei Vag in Hoiping phonetics) graced the front-page of The Chinese Times, beginning with the June 9, 1915 issue. A comparative critique of Western and Chinese sages from Socrates to Martin Luther appeared on another occasion as a front-page article. Regular columns on Chinese literature and poetry written by local personalities as well as fellow Chinese from as faraway as India have their own literary section in The Chinese Times. One such example of a column on Chinese literature is called Poetry World (《詩界》). Another example is called the Oceanic Multitude of Clear (or Qing) Recitations 《瀛海清吟》 appeared regularly on page five of the newspaper in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s on various pages. The contributing poets to that column belong to a list of Who’s Who of the Chinese in British Columbia along with contributors often from other regions of the Americas and occasionally from Asia or South East Asia.

Lai Fong Leung, Professor Emerita, University of Alberta has written several papers and recently authored a section of a book on Overseas Chinese Canadian literature, all in the Chinese language. One of her papers that was presented at the fifth conference of the World Confederation of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies (WCILCOS) brought to my attention a poem by a Chinese Canadian named Lhiu Hong (筱唐, or Xiao Tang in pinyin) which appeared the September 4, 1917 issue of The Chinese Times. The poem is entitled “Emotions Expressed in Writing to Leb Fon of Lawn Village” (《寄懷草坪立寬君》). Prof. Leung sees this poem as representative of the poetry being written in Canada (i.e., during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century) that melds together the personal hear-felt emotions of homesickness for the ancestral home with a strident nationalism for China.

My own observation is that the author of the poem used only first names including that of the person who is the recipient of the poem. A closer investigation into their backgrounds reveals that they share the same surname Lim (林). It is not unusual to see an author published with only his first name in The Chinese Times newspaper. There appears to be a close connection between the published poets and readers. The readership was assumed to be familiar enough with the writings of a poet to recognize him by his first name. Perhaps, the stature of the authors in the relatively small Chinese population in B.C. also promoted a familiarity with the authors among the reading public. Lhiu Hong (筱唐) is the first name of the poet. His surname is Lim (林). His full name then is Lim Lhiu Hong (林筱唐) in the Hoiping dialect. In the poem, he wrote a poem to a clansman named Lim Leb Fon (林立寬). Leb Fon’s village is named To Hen (草坪, meaning “lawn”) in Toisan County (台山). (Note: I use the Hoiping [開平 or Kaiping in pinyin] transliterations in this blog, which is almost identical to the Toisan dialect.)

In a nutshell, the poem is a melancholic lament of his own alienated state, homesickness for his native village, and a restrained but pointed diatribe against the precarious conditions of the world in general and in China in particular. It is as though just by being in this faraway place of Canada, the narrator (poet?) feels he’s allowed to stand at the edge of the universe and observe more clearly the evils of this world than he would have had he been at home.

The poetry of Lim Lhiu Hong appeared in The Chinese Times from 1917 through the 1940s. Invariably in his published pieces, he writes in a traditional and structured style that employs seven-character long verses. In the poem before us from the September 4, 1917 issue, he uses a form that requires eight verses of seven-character length each (七言律詩).  Since each character represents a single syllable then you might say this poem consists of eight Haiku verses, a Japanese poetic form somewhat familiar in the West. Furthermore, this eight-line form calls for rhyming on alternate verses. Lhiu Hong’s most prolific period for his published poems appears to be during 1917-1919.

I have found no poetry written by Lim Leb Fon, but he was a man of some importance in the Chinese community in Vancouver. In 1934, his clan association gave him a big send-off reception before he returned to China for a visit. Guests included members from the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Chinese Nationalist League. He is recognized as a business man with a large share holding in a local emporium (合益公司). As an important board director, he served his community through the Lim clan’s Lim Sai Hor Benevolent Association (林西河總堂). His funeral and burial was held in Vancouver in 1954.

Here is Lhiu Hong’s poem in Chinese, followed by the Romanization in the Hoiping (Kaiping) dialect and finally my rough translation in English:

《寄懷草坪立寬君》     (筱唐)





Kaiping Romanization:

Gei Vai To Hen Leb Fon Gun (Lhiu Hong)

voi xiu zung ngin gei- u teu.
gu hieng ngen lhu lui gao leu.

hin ngai man lei hu lhui lhin.
hoi ngoi gen nin ji du lheu.

lun o gog xieng sen van mung.
hon loi ngen o yed ham yiu.

gung vuo fan fug gun ji fao.
sai gai ngui gem mei lhed xiu.

Here is my draft translation:

Emotions Expressed in Writing to Leb Fon of Lawn Village (Lhiu Hong)

Return to the beginning of the Central Plains, how many autumns?
Old home village human affairs, tears exchanged.

The edge of the world, tens of thousands of miles away there is no need to envy.
Overseas year after year only self-shame.

Discuss until the national war dead become a fantasy.
It seems that the human way is also bleak.

The republic relapses to the monarch, be aware of evil.
The world nowadays has not stopped hatred.

Powerful Polygamous Chinese

Recent news of the trial in Cranbrook, British Columbia of Winston Blackmore, invoking a 127 year old statute which criminalizes polygamous marriages, brings to mind that some of the early Chinese in Canada were also practitioners of polygamy. Mr. Blackmore is a leader of a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church. This sect still carries on the practice of polygamy in which men would have more than one wife, but the wife is expected to have only one husband. Whereas the Mormon Church in its early years had carried on the practice of polygamy but no longer condones it. Mr. Blackmore is alleged to have as many as 24 wives. News reports claim that the current Blackmore trial is the first time the 127 year old law is used to prosecute anyone in Canada. The main thrust of the Crown attorneys is to show that polygamous marriages endanger the well-being of children. I find it also interesting that, as far as I have looked, there was never a Chinese charged with an infraction of the polygamous law of this country. It seems the 127 year old law was created specifically to keep Mormons from entering Canada. Canadians in 1890 appears to be more fearful of a white polygamous arrangement than a Chinese one.

There was one especially interesting case involving a powerful and prominent Chinese merchant and a fourteen year-old Chinese girl in the summer of 1900. The man was Sam Kee and the girl was Soy King, both residents of Victoria, British Columbia.[1] The girl ran away from the home of Sam Kee and took refuge in the Chinese Rescue Home operated by the Woman’s Missionary Society. Sam Kee applied to the courts to have the girl returned to him. He claimed that he was the rightful guardian of the girl. His case and his circumstances to retrieve the child were not unique in the experience of the women running the Home. What set this case apart from other habeas corpus cases involving a Chinese plaintiff was that Sam Kee presented evidence to prove that he had the legal authority to act in place of the girl’s father. Justice Martin heard the case and agreed that Sam Kee did indeed have the lawful right of guardianship over this girl. Sam Kee’s success for custody though was another matter and hinged on the judge’s views on how the applicant’s polygamous arrangement at home would affect the well-being of the child.

Although during the nineteenth and early twentieth century white folks were aware of Chinese men carrying on with multiple wives, Canadian law was never used to stop this practice. At the time, those Chinese who did practice polygamy were usually wealthy and powerful businessmen. Perhaps their access to Canadian law through hiring high-powered lawyers dissuaded anybody attempting to stop the Chinese practice of polygamy. It is also clear that not all Chinese favored polygamy. Other prominent Chinese, in particular Chinese Christians, lobbied against men having more than one wife. In any event it appears that despite their frowning on the practice of polygamy within the Chinese community, the Caucasian population simply grinned and bore it so long as the Chinese kept the perceived repugnant practice among themselves.

White women, particularly members of the Methodist Woman’s Missionary Society [2] denounced, often publicly, Chinese polygamous arrangements but especially those marriages that involved child-brides. The Methodist ladies sometimes even accused the Chinese businessmen of having “slave girls” as their wives. A safe house in Victoria B.C. for Chinese girls and prostitutes was established in 1886 by a private citizen named John Vrooman Gardiner along with the Rev. J.E. Starr, Superintendent of the Methodist Chinese Mission in Victoria. Mr. Gardiner was also a Christian evangelist and a fluent interpreter of Chinese dialects, employed by the Canadian Customs Office. His house of refuge was eventually turned over to the Woman’s Missionary Society to operate under the name “Chinese Rescue Home”. At various times it was also known as the “Chinese Refuge Home” and the “Oriental Home and School”. The eventual change in the organization’s name was likely a result of the Chinese businessmen’s indignation at the pejorative tone of the word “Rescue” which could be construed to suggest that there was something wrong in the Chinese community that requires rescuing. From its inception in 1886 through the early years of the 20th century, dauntless, the Methodist matrons and their staff at the Chinese Rescue Home had it in mind that their purpose was to rescue Chinese girls and women from their allegedly dire situations. There appears to be at least one instance when the staff at the Chinese Rescue Home threatened to have a Chinese merchant charged with a crime under the polygamy law, and he backed away from trying to remove a girl from the Home.

The women at the Home also had the objective of providing for the basic needs of food and shelter for runaway or homeless Chinese girls or women as well as giving them domestic skills and some formal education. There was no doubt the main motive behind this charity work was fueled by a zeal to evangelize the heathen in the Chinese community, who were generally assumed to be the majority of the Chinese. Initially the wards of the Home were indeed runaway Chinese girls and prostitutes, but later the Home’s objectives were expanded to include safe harbour for Chinese wives escaping unbearable domestic conditions, along with their children. In its later years the doors of the Home were also opened to Japanese girls and women.

The Chinese Rescue Home was involved in at least four reported cases of habeas corpus from 1893 – 1900. A typical habeas corpus action alleges that a party–in this case the Chinese Rescue Home matron and staff–is detaining a person against her will and is to be ordered by the Court to make the missing person appear before the Court. In each case, the initiator of the court action was a prominent Chinese or someone from an established Chinese family in Victoria. A Chinese applicant was successful in only one of the four cases. There seems to be a number of other similar cases that involved Chinese businessmen seeking custody of Chinese girls lodged at the Home, but these remain largely unreported or whose court documents have yet to be discovered.

The 1900 case involved the Chinese merchant Sam Kee of Victoria (not to be confused with another prominent merchant of Vancouver known by the same name). Sam Kee applied to the courts for an order to compel the Chinese Rescue Home to bring a fourteen year old girl named Soy King before a judge and have her be returned to Sam Kee as her rightful guardian. Sam Kee had documents stating the transfer of parental authority from the girl’s biological father in China. The Honourable Justice Martin ruled that Sam Kee indeed was the legal guardian of the girl, but the reason for denying Sam Kee’s petition to return the girl to his care was that Sam Kee was purported to have at least two wives. The question of the legality of the practice of polygamy was never raised. But the judgment did consider the pivotal issue of the immorality of the petitioner’s polygamous marriage and how harmful it could be to the moral upbringing of the child Soy King. Counsel for Sam Kee did not contest the allegation that Sam Kee lived with two wives. The judge took this to mean that Sam Kee in fact had entered into a polygamous marriage. He then ruled that the moral and religious welfare of the child Soy King superceded even the legal right of the applicant, a right which was equal to that of the biological father with regard to custody of the child. Justice Martin saw Sam Kee’s polygamous arrangement as living an immoral lifestyle. The judge concluded “that Soy King will be morally contaminated by a further residence under his [Sam Kee’s] roof.” The judgment was in favor of the Chinese Rescue Home by denying Sam Kee his application for habeas corpus.

The Sam Kee trial in 1900 and the current Blackmore trial both share one pivotal issue: the courts’ judgment depends ultimately on the best interest for the welfare of the child. In other words, is polygamy ultimately harmful to the child, or not?

[1] Here, I respectfully disagree with Shelly D. Ikebuchi, Professor at Okanagon College. She opines that the Sam Kee of the Soy King case described above is the same person as the Sam Kee of Vancouver whose actual Chinese name was Chang Toy. Although the two men shared the same English name “Sam Kee,” one lived Victoria and the other in Vancouver. The Sam Kee of Vancouver did live for a short period in Victoria, but he moved to the BC mainland as early as 1876 and later in 1877 moved to Granville before it was incorporated as the city of Vancouver. He eventually founded the Sam Kee business in Vancouver and was operating in the early 1890s. On the other hand, the Sam Kee of Victoria lived in the city of Victoria and never moved out of the city after he first settled in Canada. I intend to dwell more on the Sam Kee of Victoria in some future blog. See Shelly Ikebuchi, From Slave Girls to Salvation: Gender, Race, and Victoria’s Chinese Rescue Home, 1886-1923 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).

[2] Although it seems “Women” should replace “Woman” in the “Woman’s Missionary Society,” the singular is the historically correct name of this society.

Seto More Family in Canada Over 150 Years

Happy New Year!

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s birth as a nation in 1867. In 1858, soon after gold was discovered in the Fraser Valley, the Chinese had already begun to migrate from San Francisco to Victoria in what is today the province of British Columbia. They had the same desires for riches as that of the white migrants coming up north from the US, where there was an earlier gold rush in California, and from the lands east of the Canadian Rockies. It was gold fever that did not discriminate between races, and infected equally men of both Chinese and European origins. History shows that there were already Chinese in the land that would eventually become the Dominion of Canada, well before Confederation in 1867.

The year 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Seto More (birth name 司徒旄; generation/style name 司徒英石) on January 26, 1967.[1] His family history in Canada spanned more than 150 years in Canada, through at least six generations. He was born in Victoria, British Columbia on January 15, 1889. Although largely unknown today among new Chinese immigrants, and mostly forgotten among the Canadian-born Chinese and the mainstream population in British Columbia, he was a community leader extraordinaire, and in his day, a leading scholar of all things Chinese. He built bridges between two vastly different cultures. During the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, he moved easily back and forth between the English speaking world and the Chinese one. He lived most of his life in the upwardly mobile white neighborhood of the West End near Stanley Park in Vancouver, and visited Chinatown associations regularly, and rubbed shoulders with Chinese leaders from both North America and mainland China. Many of the Chinese visitors could be counted among a list of who’s who of China’s celebrities and respected public figures. After his tour of North America in 1930, the world acclaimed Beijing Opera singer Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳) would recall fondly how Seto More received him warmly in Victoria. The Harvard educated Hu Shih (胡適), philosopher and former diplomat, wrote appreciatively of the Canadian-born Seto More. Hu Shih was a leading figure in China’s rush toward modernity in the May Fourth and New Culture movements during early half of the 20th century.

Beginning in his late teens, Seto More became active in the revolutionary politics of China. Despite never having visited China, he along with a few young men established in 1907 the Sworn Oath Society in Victoria, British Columbia. The name in Chinese characters (擊楫社) means literally “Strike the Oar Society.” The goal of this society was the removal of the then ruling Qing Dynasty. The Society disbanded within a few years, and Seto More along with some of the former members merged with Sun Yat-sen’s organization, the Tong Meng Hui (同盟會), and by 1912 that organization would be known in Canada as the Chinese Nationalist League.

Both the Chinese and the English speaking communities held Seto More in high regard. He was the “go-to-guy” whenever Anglophones wanted guidance or an opinion on matters touching Chinese culture or social issues. Beginning in the 1930s, he gave informal lectures on Chinese history, culture and art to university students and anyone else on or near the campus of the fledgling University of British Columbia. He started giving these talks before the university even had an Asian Studies Department.

As a member of the Vancouver chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, he mingled with university professors for casual dinners at the campus cafeteria before walking over to the Hennings Building to discuss gas spectroscopy, planets, asteroids and star clusters, or any number of topics current in astrophysics or astronomy. Occasionally, he would give a talk on astronomy and take the opportunity to squeeze in comments about the heavens from the viewpoint of the ancient Chinese. He served a time as one of the Society’s vice-presidents. Some of his academic colleagues in the Royal Astronomical Society included mathematics professor Walter H. Gage and physics professor Gordon M. Shrum. Prof. Gage was one of the most beloved and successful teaching professors at UBC. Today three apartment buildings on campus for students are named the Walter Gage Residence. The annual football match-up between crosstown rivals, the University of BC and Simon Fraser University, is affectionately named the Shrum Bowl for the man who once headed the construction of the world’s largest electric generation station in the 1960s as part of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam project.

What I find amazing is how well his academic friends received Seto More as an equal, even though he was without university education himself, who belonged to a racial minority that was mostly excluded from entry into Canada by force of law. Interestingly enough, his wife Fannie Lew was among the first, if not the first, American-born Chinese, to graduate from a US university. Their son Wilfred and daughter Geraldine were accepted into different universities in China, but only due to the rise of Japanese Imperialist hostilities, they were compelled to complete their studies at home at the University of British Columbia.

When Chinese-exclusion legislation was being proposed in Ottawa in the early 1920s, Seto More headed a committee to study the anti-Chinese immigration bill. They came up with four proposals to oppose the harsher elements of the new Chinese exclusion law. During this time, Seto More also acted as a liaison between the Chinese Consul and the local Chinese Canadian community. Although the Chinese Immigration Act (colloquially also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act) eventually did pass into law, Seto More could be credited with helping to soften the outright exclusion of Chinese that was first proposed by Canadian law makers. The Chinese Exclusion Act effectively and broadly stopped Chinese immigration to Canada from 1923 – 1947, but the final form of the Act did allow a few categories of Chinese into the country that included merchants and their families, university students, diplomats, and native-born Chinese returning from study abroad.

Seto More was also a great fan of classical Chinese literature. He had amassed a large library of books and other materials in the Chinese language that was donated to the University of British Columbia by his daughter Geraldine and her husband Tong Louie. It is known as the Seto Collection. It covers a wide range of topics including Buddhism, philosophy, literature and history. Several modern day researchers in Overseas Chinese history such as Lisa Mar and William E. Willmott, as well as his contemporaries, view him as a scholar. As such I believe he would have had published plenty of scholarly or literary articles in his time, but as yet, I’ve only found a few. I suspect that he published far more than the ones I’ve found thus far, and he may have used a pen name(s). A number of Chinese authors wrote under pen names in those days, including his poet friend Chu Chi-ngok. Poetry readings were held in various venues in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Seto More could often be seen in the Bamboo Terrace restaurant on Pender Street along with fellow poets giving poetry readings of classical poems.

By the way, his day job was as the Asiatic passenger agent for the Canadian Pacific Ocean Steamships, a Canadian Pacific Railway subsidiary. The CPR was one of the largest, if not the largest company to have operated in British Columbia in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Chinese advertisements, one of his job titles in Chinese characters (總司理) can be translated as General Manager. This is a rare accomplishment for a Chinese living in early twentieth century Canada, to be employed in a high profile position of such a large firm in which English was the language of business.

Seto More’s father, Seto Fan Gin, immigrated to Canada from Hoiping (Kaiping in pinyin) County in the province of Canton (Guangdong), China, travelling in 1860 first to British ruled Hong Kong, and then to San Francisco. Fan Gin would have heard about the Canadian gold rush, and he eventually did land in Canada in 1865, well before Confederation. By the time Fan Gin opened up a tailor shop with a partner in Victoria, he had already crossed occupations from sail maker to tent maker and finally to maker of men’s suits.

Seto Fan Gin’s daughter Chang Ann Seto married Lee Mong Kow (李夢九), a renowned interpreter for the Canadian government and later employed by the CPR in their office in Hong Kong. Lee was also recognized for his work as an educator in Victoria and a founder of the city’s first Chinese language school. I suspect there might be many descendants of Seto Fan Gin now living in Hong Kong from the side of the Lee clan. It is claimed that Chang Ann gave birth to 17 children, although not all survived to adulthood. Lee Mong Kow and his wife Chang Ann moved to Hong Kong in the 1920s.

Seto Fan Gin’s other descendants include billionaire Brandt Louie, Chair of the store chain London Drugs and CEO of the holdings company H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd. Fan Gin’s granddaughter and Seto More’s daughter Geraldine Seto married Tong Louie, the founder of London Drugs. Geraldine’s brother was the World War II veteran Wilfred B. Seto, an officer of the Seaforth Highlanders. He saw service in North Africa and was later sent to Italy where the commanding officer there claimed that Canadian soldiers would not follow an officer of Chinese heritage and sent Wilfred packing back to Canada. A sad day for Canada was when even bravery and call of duty weren’t considered enough for a Chinese man to fight for Canada, his home and native land. Unfortunately, Wilfred passed away before his father. He was survived by his wife Patricia and his son and daughter. More than a hundred of Seto Fan Gin’s descendants gathered in Vancouver for a family reunion on January 9, 1988.

The year of Seto More’s death in 1967 ironically also marks the year that Canada finally rid itself of all discriminatory policies toward the Chinese. Although the last piece of racist legislation in Canada was removed already in 1947, the government practice of making policy that restricts Chinese immigration did not stop until 1967. After that year, a new wave of Chinese immigrants from mostly Hong Kong descended on Canada and brought with them their own stereotypes of the Chinese Canadian. Many of the new Chinese immigrants assumed the early Chinese in Canada were mainly uneducated peasants or that Chinese born in Canada were ignorant of the ways of Chinese culture and language. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of Seto More and his contemporaries.


[1] Seto More is best known by his anglicized name, but he is also known to a lesser extent by other names: Seto Ying Shek, Seto Ying Sek and More Seto. “Seto” (司徒) is one of the few two-character Chinese surnames in Hoiping (Kaiping) County. (Disclosure: To the best of his knowledge, this blogger is not related to the Seto More family, although they share a common surname.)

A Poem of Meng Haoran in the Hoiping (Kaiping) Dialect

We with roots from the early Chinese in Canada prefer to call ourselves “People of the Tang” (唐人) rather than the more ubiquitous moniker “People of the Middle Kingdom” (中國人). In other words, in the Hoiping dialect, we prefer to call ourselves Hong Ngen (唐人, in mandarin Tang Ren) instead of the more common term Zung Gog Ngen (中國人, Zhongguo Ren).

During my search to find out why the early Chinese in Canada refer to themselves as descendants from the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), I discover to my amazement that the traditional Chinese mind tends to be more literary rather than scientific. It’s a surprise to me because growing up in Canada, the Chinese are often pigeon holed as hard working but not necessarily creative, and as good with numbers but not with words. Throughout all my life, I encounter the stereotype of the Chinese as science nerd more often than as artist or poet. The Chinese themselves may be to blame as much as the Western media for putting the Chinese into these stereotypes. My father and his generation often steer us in the direction of a career in a practical field such as the hard sciences or finances.

It is during the Tang Dynasty (618 BC – 907 BC) that poetry flourished and infused every walk of life in China. Many Chinese readers who read poetry today would consider the Tang poets to be at the height of Chinese poetry. People from all walks of life during the Tang period composed poetry for all sorts of occasions and themes, including love, nature, sorrow and friendship. Perhaps what is even more astonishing to me is the thread of a hermit theme that runs through some of the Tang poetry, exhibiting a desire to escape from the hustle and bustle of urban society and live a quiet and anonymous life of solitude in the countryside, with only the occasional jaunt outside to renew old friendships.

A fine example of one of these hermit poets was Mang Ho Ngin (孟浩然 in mandarin, Meng Haoran). You might say he began life anew as a forty year old slacker. Early on, he had worked in hack jobs in the civil service. At around age 39, Meng was summoned to the capital of Chang’an (長安) by a retired minister to take the exam for the highest degree in the imperial civil service. This exam was the gateway to a high-level official position in the government and a stepping stone to the usual accruements of advancement: higher pay, prestige and property. Most Chinese would avail themselves of such an opportunity, even those who considered themselves poets would jump at the chance of a rise in their social and career status. Instead of making the best of the opportunity, Meng promptly failed the exam and simultaneously peeved off the reigning emperor. Not retreating with his tail between his legs, instead, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his ancestral home and embrace the hermit life. Possessing a keen sense of history, he built a hermitage on the same plot of land where another recluse had lived four centuries earlier.

Below is one of Meng Haoran’s poems in Chinese entitled “Spring Dawn,” followed next by its transliteration in Hoiping (Kaiping) phonetics, and finally my draft translation in English.


Cun Hiu
Cun min vud gog hiu,
Cui cui mun hai niu.
Yie loi fung yi sen,
Fa log ji u seu?

(I leave out the accent markers in the above transliteration.)

Spring Dawn
Spring sleep unconscious of dawn,
Hear birds chirp everywhere.
Sound of wind rain in the night,
How many flowers dropped?

(See Poems of the Master by Red Pine for another translation of the above poem.)

Normie Kwong – Canadian Football Star Passes Away

Hall of Fame football star Normie Kwong, affectionately known as the China Clipper to his fans, passed away in the city of Calgary, September 3, 2016 at the age of 86. He is a true legend in the Canadian Football League (CFL), setting numerous records and winning the Schenley Award twice as the most outstanding Canadian player. In 1955 he was elected athlete of the year in Canada, edging out over his team mate Jackie Parker and the hockey legend Rocket Richard. He played on four Grey Cup champion teams: the Calgary Stampeders in 1948 and the Edmonton Eskimos in 1954, 1955 and 1956. His post-football careers turned out to be also quite remarkable. In the 1980s he, as part-owner, brought the Flames hockey team to Calgary culminating in that city’s first Stanley Cup championship in 1989. He served in social, political and charitable causes. In 2005 he became the governor-general of his home province Alberta.

His Chinese name is Du Men (佐民) and his Chinese surname is Lim (林) [1]. I wonder, what did the Chinese language newspapers in Canada of his playing days have to say about him as a football hero? A search using his Chinese name on the digitized files of The Chinese Times web site resulted in nothing prior to 1955 about his football career. While admired by many football fans throughout Canada, it seems likely that he was not remarkable in the eyes of most members of the Chinese community in British Columbia during this time. Only after his monster success in setting new records during the 1955 season did he win the adoration of many more new Chinese fans. By this time, he was already a member of two successful Grey Cup teams.

There appears to be extensive coverage in the Chinese language media of Normie Kwong and his exploits on the football field after his team the Edmonton Eskimos won the Western Conference championship in 1955. It was a records-breaking year for Kwong. An article in The Chinese Times, published two days before the Grey Cup final, reported on Kwong’s family pedigree and the huge sums of money he’s making which probably elevated the stature of Canadian football in the eyes of the Chinese in Canada. Coincidentally, the Grey Cup final was held in Vancouver for the first time ever in 1955, which probably added to the hype of a Chinese star in the game, as Vancouver had the largest Chinese population of any city in Canada at the time.

My draft translation of this newspaper article from the November 24, 1955 issue of The Chinese Times follows.

Here is the text in the original Chinese language [2]:




佐民君在足球紀錄部。經被列爲唯壹中國人。以足球賽爲職業者。而今年又再立奇功。在二百四十壹次持球衝進敵方陣地。共佔得壹千二百五拾碼。為加之足球新紀錄。是星期六之比賽。亦乃林佐民君參與「故李 [sic] 銀杯全加冠軍決賽之第五次。據稱其母甚願他能早日離開球賽。因疑此等【欖】形足球。受傷甚易。但林君希望以目前代價。能繼【續】球賽三年。屆時當可執埋球靴矣。據点問頓隊某執事稱。佐民君每年球賽薪金約壹萬元。估計従球賽已得有五萬元薪金。而林君能將薪金部貯蓄。更爲難得。聞他已置有相當實業。開設運貨車生意。幷購新住宅為其父母居住。


Here is my draft translation:

“Chinese Football Star Acclaimed Throughout Canada: Lim Du Men Sets New Records”

This paper investigated into the Canadian Western Football Conference Champion Edmonton team. Teammates include a football star of Chinese descendent “Na Mei Gong” (transliteration of “Normie Kwong” using Chinese characters 那美廣). This newspaper explores all sides. In reality then he is the second eldest son named Du Men of a Calgary Overseas Chinese merchant Lim Gong Yeu, whose style name is Sun Ag. Sun Ag is a Toisan man. He is established in Calgary and operates a Chinese Western Region warehouse business. His [Normie’s] mother is Lee Lhui Hen the daughter of Mr. Lee Zen Men of Victoria. Because she loves to listen to the singing voice of the movie star Ed Powell, and when Powell had a son named “Normie,” his mother Lim Lhui Hen then took his Chinese name Lim Du Men and changed it to “Normie Kwong.” [3]

Du Men is in the football records, already lined up as the only Chinese to take up playing football as an occupation. And this year he established again unusual success. In 241 times carries of the ball rushing against enemy lines, his gained in total 1,250 yards for a new record in Canadian football. The match of this Saturday also is Lim Du Men’s fifth appearance in a Grey Cup all Canadian championship final. It is said his mother very much hopes that he can leave the ballgame soon, because she suspects this kind of football, suffering an injury is very easy. But Du Men according to present considerations hopes to be able to continue to play ball three years. When the time comes he will bury his football boots. According to the Edmonton team certain obligations are called for. Du Men’s annual ballgame salary is approximately $10,000. An estimate from ballgames already played, he has $50,000 in salaries. And Mr. Lim will be able to take part of the salary to save and invest. Even more difficult to do, it is well-known that he already put in place to a fair extent commercial enterprises, opening a transport freight truck business. At the same time he purchased a new residence for his father and mother to live in.

Mr. Lim is proficient in the empty fake ball carry, along with ball blocking skill. The Edmonton team last year in Toronto prevailed 26 points to 25 points over the Montreal team. And this year it finished as the Canadian Western Conference champions. It thus relied upon Mr. Lim’s strengths very much. He is acclaimed in the whole of Canada. Really it isn’t by chance, this stretches forward to the Toronto Star newspaper for raising charitable funds. Last year was the first time the Canadian Eastern versus Canadian Western all-star teams match was raised for discussion. This year it is scheduled to be held December 3rd in Toronto. Mr. Lim is already selected for the Canadian Western all-star team. We may expect Mr. Lim to be in Saturday’s final match. At that time he will display his talents. One who is in the circle of Overseas Chinese will go in person, or belonging to a minority, only may have a look-see from a facsimile, or listen to a broadcast station.


[1] In this article, I use Prof. Deng Jun’s Kaiping (Hoiping) romanization for Chinese names and I show these in italics. The exception being the surnames Lee (李) and Lim (林). These two surnames were common among the pre-1968 Chinese community in Canada and these localized spellings have entrenched themselves over more than a century history of the Lee and Lim clans in Canada. The Taishan (Toisan) dialect of Normie Kwong’s family background is very similar to the Kaiping dialect.

[2] The Chinese characters set between square brackets are those characters which are illegible in the original scanned image and I made my best guess at what they might be. If I can’t even make an educated guess, then the illegible character is represented by simply a pair of empty square brackets.

[3] The name of this alleged movie star in Chinese characters (迪跑路) is pronounced Ed Pao Lu in the Toisan dialect. I believe this is a transliteration of the English name Ed Powell. There was a music orchestrator in the movie industry of the 1930s named Edward B. Powell. More research needs to be done to verify this English name associated with the intended Chinese name.

Chinese Benevolent Association – Minutes of Meeting in 1928

Benevolent associations or societies in Chinatowns are often stereotyped as secret societies. As recent as last week during a radio talk show, a city councillor of Vancouver, the Honorable Dr. Kerry Jang, himself a third generation Chinese Canadian, referred to Chinese clan associations as secret societies descended from those of the Qing Dynasty. He is only partially correct in that the Qing Dynasty did give rise to the fraternal organization known as the Hongmen Society whose objective to overthrow the Qing compelled them to secrecy. A branch of the Hongmen appeared in Canada as early as 1863 in Barkerville known as Hong Shun Tang. Other branches in Canada include the Chee Kung Tong and the Dart Coon Club. The Hongmen Society and its branches are better known in the English speaking world as Chinese Freemasons. On the other hand, according to Prof. David Chuenyan Lai, “The clan association is founded on the assumption that all persons with similar surnames are of a common ancestry.” (Lai, p. 205) Such clan associations consolidate resources and offer social and welfare benefits to its members and act like an extended family. Nonetheless, based on my own personal experience, I would agree with Dr. Jang that even the clan associations of today behave in a secretive fashion. Monolingual English speaking Chinese Canadians are often left in the dark, as the Chinese speaking leaders would speak in only platitudes and generalities when giving speeches to an English audience. Try talking with a clan director in a Chinese, albeit “country-bumpkin,” dialect about certain specific matters and watch the grey coldness fill his face and listen to his vague replies, if he has any reply at all to give.

It is with such acknowledgement of the “secret societies” stereotype, that I found myself mildly surprised with a 1928 article in The Chinese Times that reported what appear to be the minutes of a meeting held by the Chinese Benevolent Association in Vancouver. Some of the matters discussed in this meeting called for an invitation to western organizations to attend and give speeches at Benevolent Association banquets. The meeting also covered criticisms of past electoral procedures. There was a request from the English language Sun Newspaper to be allowed to witness the election of a new board of directors.

Immediately following is my draft translation of the article from The Chinese Times, followed next by the Chinese text of that article, and finally some of my commentary on certain words.

Draft Translation:

“Local City News”

“Chinese Benevolent Association Records of Discussions”

“Chinese Benevolent Association last evening half past eight held a meeting. Premier Chairman Lhu Hu and Secretary To finished reading aloud every incoming letter, and then opened discussion on every item. (1) Election of new directors: There were comments on the old election method. “Beds piled up in a house” [i.e., superfluous]. A large number of that which was grotesque and improper got passed by the majority vote under the old way of handling the election. Until the strict deadline May 27th, Overseas Chinese clans were invited to introduce the candidates, to register with the Benevolent Association, and to publish the list of names. The public election is to be held on June 2nd from 1:30 PM until 8:00 o’clock. A separate envelope will be given to each voter of each county. (2) The Sun Newspaper asked for special permission to promote the event. People may use the event to focus attention on publicity to outsiders. Referencing from former days, the methods of the Diplomacy for Advancement Association [1], the board will conduct the allocation of the Association’s funds. (3) The Yi Hen Society Headquarters letter sought financial cost of $1,500 to be used for settling with an anonymous former friend. If people by means of the Benevolent Association withdraw these funds, then it will go bankrupt. The Overseas Chinese affairs of every ordinary stranger in all cases ought to be managed without money. Thus communicate with a reply letter to the Society. In accordance with the letter of August last year, let us request communication to the yamen to investigate the deceased’s native place. The above mentioned county benevolent hall is to take care of every expense. Moreover, also send back the skeletal remains to be buried in their native place. Honestly we do not fail to grasp the original intention of the former friend. For such person who is precipitous and without county benevolent hall to take care of him, the Association only then may make an attempt to raise funds for support. (4) The Japanese encroached on Shandong. The people by means of separate telegrams sent news of interior struggle to the northern and southern governments. Unite against the foreigners. (5) Prof. Die Ag Yi still delivered a speech to everyone, and moreover, to the former representatives who served our Benevolent Association. This time, we ought to have invited a westerner to come to [China] town. He suggested next time the Benevolent Association agree to gather together Overseas Chinese merchants to give a banquet for him, also to invite him to deliver a speech. Anyway, with regard to westerners’ organizations, the Benevolent Association [already] had invited them to make speeches on the evening of the 19th. Admission tickets were sold for $1.00 each. Because of national prestige and respect for Prof. Die‘s motive, the Chinese expatriates were accordingly eager to purchase tickets. The tickets were sold by the two representatives Mr. Lhuhu Mo and Mr. Tui Ngui Yod until 9:45 when the meeting then dispersed.”

Chinese Text from The Chinese Times May 11, 1928:



『中華會館昨晚八時半開會議 。司徒總理主席。。曹書記宣讀各來函畢  。乃開議各案。。(一)選舉新董值案。。有評論舊選舉法。。架牀叠屋 。怪誕失當者。。後多數通過照舊辦理 。限至五月卄七日止 。請僑氏介紹候選人。。報告會館。。刊印名單。。六月二號【下】午壹時半至八時。。舉行公選。。另函各邑選人。。(二)太陽報請津貼特升案。。衆以事【屬】向外宣傳。。參照往日外交協進會辦法。。【撥】該會存欵辦理。。(三)餘慶總堂函求支銀壹千五百元為收拾無名氏先友用。  衆以會館如支此款。 則要破產。。凡生人之僑【務】。。皆將無銀應辦。。乃通過復函該堂。。請遵照去年八月之函。。飭交際往衙門查明死者籍貫。。歸各該邑善堂支費。。且亦可使骸骨歸葬故鄉。。方不失執先友本意。。其磪無邑善堂料理者。。會館始設法籌支 。(四)倭奴侵犯山東。。衆通過分電南北政府訊息內爭。。合力對外。。(五)謝德怡博士乃演說大家。。且前曾代本會館服務。。此次應西人之請來埠。。議次會館應糾集僑商歡宴之 。並請其演說。。又西人團體十九號晚請之演講。 入場券每條售銀壹元 。僑民為國體及尊重謝[博]士起見。。宜踴躍購券。。該券由司徒旄。。徐如悅二君代售。。至九時三刻散會。。』

My Commentary on Some Words:

Some of the Chinese characters did not come out very clearly from the scan of the source microfilm. These characters I surrounded with square brackets, 【】, and I gave my best guess at these.

It is not entirely clear to me whether the request for $1,500 financial aid was made on behalf of the deceased by a “former friend” of the Vancouver CBA, or if there was a prior arrangement the deceased himself had assumed was agreed upon between himself and the CBA. In other words, the deceased was the “former friend” of the CBA mentioned in this text. I would think it was the deceased who had erroneously assumed an arrangement with the CBA that the CBA had never agreed to, but the deceased’s intentions were discovered when the deceased’s benevolent hall put in a request for funeral or other estate expenses from the Vancouver CBA. Out of respect, the CBA referred to the deceased as an “anonymous former friend” so not as to embarrass his surviving family and friends. Furthermore, $1,500 seemed rather high for funeral expenses. The $500 head tax paid just before the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 was more than the annual salary of an ordinary laborer. Therefore, the sum of $1,500 represents more than three years’ earnings of a typical Chinese worker. I have little experience with funeral expenses but three years’ earnings seemed an extraordinarily large sum to pay for the settlement of an estate.

The Hoiping pronunciation is used here when translating the Chinese names into English. With regard to the above text, I follow Prof. Deng Jun’s spelling. The actual local English names of early Chinese Canadians were usually based on some arbitrary transliteration of their Chinese names that eventually became an accepted local spelling. For example, Lhuhu is the Hoiping pronunciation of the double syllable Chinese name “Seto.” The latter spelling is likely derived from the standard Cantonese pronunciation of this surname. In English speaking circles, Mr. Lhuhu Mo is usually known by his anglicized name, “Seto More.” He was a Canadian-born leader of the Chinese community in Vancouver, well known for his political activism and scholarly studies in Chinese literature, history and culture. He was mentioned often in the Chinese newspapers prior to his death in 1967. His name is also mentioned occasionally in English in newspapers as far away as Toronto. Mr. Tui’s anglicized surname is likely spelled “Chu”, as the surname character 徐 used to be spelled this way among some of Seto More’s circle of friends who were from the Tui clan. Otherwise, I’m not sure who the person surnamed Tui in this article might be. As for the English spelling of Prof. Die’s Chinese surname, it is up for conjecture for now. Possible local spellings include “Dear,” “Der,” or “Dea.”

The Chinese word hong 堂 literally means a hall or large meeting place, but it also refers to the paternal relationship between members of a family or clan. Often it is translated as “society.”

The membership of a benevolent association (會館) consists of people from a common region in China, usually the same county. Much like the clan association it was organized for the social and welfare benefits of its members. Prof. Lai translates the term shantang (善堂) as “benevolent hall.” A benevolent hall is an affiliate organization connected to a benevolent association. The benevolent hall was responsible for caring for those members in need and returning the bones of deceased members back to their home counties.

The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver was an umbrella organization that purports to represent in Vancouver all Chinese from every county. The older Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association of Victoria once even claimed leadership over Chinese in all of Canada. The Victoria CCBA formerly did hold much clout among the early Chinese in British Columbia, most notably in their access to both Chinese and Canadian government officials. Still there were groups such as the Chee Kung Tong, the Freemasons, who refuse to submit to the CCBA authority due their differences in politics. The Vancouver CBA in contrast enjoyed much less influence among the Chinese than its Victoria counterpart. It is interesting to note that the Chinese characters 會館 from which “Benevolent Association” became the local translation really means a hall or building for an association at the provincial or the county level in China. In contrast to the early immigrants who mostly came from Guangdong province, more and more Chinese immigrants are coming from outside of Guangdong province. One can see the loss of relevance for such an association today in Canada.


[1] For an example of such as diplomatic associations, see The Chinese Times, March 16, 1927, page 6, row 4: 《律師地佛氏。請當近僑胞注意》。


Lai, David Chuenyan. Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia. 1988.

Bamboo Pole Revisited

A few days after I posted my blog “Bamboo Pole or Earth Born” on April 29, 2016, I discovered that The Chinese Times newspaper database link on the website now offers uncompressed image files of the newspaper. Until recently, image files of The Chinese Times were offered for download in JPEG format only. The JPEG algorithm can greatly distort some Chinese characters. The new format being offered is called TIFF and the resulting image files are clearly more legible than in JPEG format. I took the opportunity to review again the article by Uncle Rock (石公) published in the March 10, 1926 issue of The Chinese Times. The article is entitled “Taboo Words” (忌諱) and it explains the origin of the word jook-sing (竹升). The JPEG image shows a character with a lexically obscure meaning and pronunciation: 㡏. On the TIFF image, it is clear the actual character is 輸, pronounced xi, meaning “to lose.” (A reminder, I use the Hoiping phonetics here.) It makes sense now that since the word for “book” (書) is pronounced exactly like “to lose” (輸), it is considered a taboo word. Also, in my original post I had completely left out the phrase 『諱劏爲順』.

I revised the section on the Uncle Rock article in my April 29, 2016 blog and uploaded the revised blog today. For the convenience of my readers I reproduce here the revised translation as follows:

『粵俗於語言上。。諸多忌諱。。如諱輸爲勝。。則名通書曰通勝。。諱降爲升  則名竹槓曰竹升。 諱劏爲順。。則名飲湯曰飲順。。諱死爲生。。則名打死人曰打生人。。姓黃者。。呼黃牛曰』

A somewhat literal translation of this passage using Hoiping phonetics is:

“In vernacular Cantonese there are various taboo words. Such as the taboo word xi’ (輸 ‘to lose’) is replaced by sen (勝 ‘to win’), then the noun hung xi (通書 ‘almanac’) is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝). The taboo word gong (降 ‘defeat’) is replaced by the word sen (升 ‘to ascend’). Thus the noun zug gong (竹槓 ‘bamboo pole’) is instead pronounced zug sen (竹升) [i.e., jook-sing]. The taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’) is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). Thus the verb phrase ngem hong (飲湯 ‘to drink soup’) is instead pronounced ngem sun (飲順). The taboo word lhei (死 ‘to die’) is replaced by the word sang (生 ‘to live’). Thus the phrase a lhei ngen (打死人 ‘to beat someone to death’) is instead pronounced a sang ngen (打生人)….”

The above literal but rather cryptic translation lacks background information for the reader who is not familiar with a Cantonese dialect. A broader interpretation that includes some background information of this passage follows:

“In the Cantonese vernacular there are various taboo words. The Cantonese don’t like saying words that suggest something negative or that calamity might ensue. The offending taboo word is replaced by a less offensive word. In the Hoiping dialect (i.e., a Cantonese dialect), the word xi meaning ‘book’ (書) shares the same pronunciation with the taboo word xi (輸) ‘to decline or wane,’ and in a certain word combination, it is exchanged for sen (勝) which means victory. The lexically correct word for ‘almanac’ in Chinese characters is 通書, pronounced hung xi, but since xi is considered taboo in common speech, the word for ‘almanac’ is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝).

“The word gong (槓) meaning pole in the compound word for “bamboo pole” zug gong (竹槓) is replaced by the word sen meaning “to ascend” (升), because the character for pole (槓) is homonymous with the character for ‘to descend’ or ‘to surrender’ (降) which suggests something negative and therefore a taboo word. Therefore, the lexically correct compound word of zug gong 竹槓 meaning “bamboo pole” is replaced by zug sen or in standard Cantonese jook-sing (竹升) which avoids saying aloud the taboo word gong (降) meaning defeat.

“Another example is the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). The lexically accurate phrase ngem hong (飲湯) contains the word for ‘soup’ (湯) which is a homonym of the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). It is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). The phrase “to drink soup” ngem hong (飲湯) should be replaced by ngem sun (飲順) “to drink favorable.”[1] In the final example, the word lhei- (死) “to die” ought to be replaced with the word “to live” sang (生) in the phrase da lhei ngen (打死人) meaning ‘to beat someone to death’ and say instead da sang ngen (打生人), literally, ‘to beat someone to life.’…” [2]


[1] Why the phrase ngemhong’ (飲湯) is considered taboo is not entirely clear to me in the Hoiping dialect (also in Four Counties generally). People speaking standard Cantonese do not seem to have any problem with saying it when they want to say, “Drink soup,” except that they would say “tong” instead of “hong.” However, in my circle of Hoiping speakers in Canada, normally we use this phrase only sparingly among ourselves; we instead use the phrase ngemgang’ (飲羹). Gang’ also means soup and appears sometimes on Chinese menus, but rarely used in conversation in Cantonese or Mandarin. Is this a result of the earlier Four Counties speakers of the early twentieth century viewing the phrase ngemhong’ as taboo? My parents do not see any taboo in saying ngemhong’ (飲湯).

[2] Prior to reading this article by Uncle Rock, I have not been familiar with his examples of taboo words or phrases as he described them. I am familiar though with other taboo words such as the number four (四) pronounced lhei, a homonym of the word meaning “to die” (死). I guess the original taboo words were simply replaced with more pleasant sounding words and the origin of the change forgotten in Canada. I highly suspect this is the case with the term for “drink soup.”

Bamboo Pole or Earth Born

I have never heard of the term “jook-sing” while growing up in Canada until after the new wave of Hong Kong immigrants started to arrive and change the Chinese social fabric in Canada. “Jook-sing” is the Cantonese word meaning literally “bamboo pole” (竹升). In the Hoiping dialect, these two characters are pronounced zug sen. But I soon discovered that the word jook-sing is used more often than not in a derogatory tone to denote Chinese born in North America. It implies an ignorance of things Chinese. The current popular notion is that Chinese born in the US or Canada are hollow between the ears, like the hollowness between the joints in a bamboo pole. In contrast, the earlier Chinese in Canada use another term to denote a Chinese person born in Canada. In the Four Counties dialect of these early Chinese, a Canadian born Chinese is called a hu sang (土生) or literally “earth born”. In other words hu sang means native born. I like this term because it reflects a rustic nature of the Canadian born Chinese, like being the salt of the earth.

In the English speaking world, the spelling “jook-sing” or “jook sing” appears to be the most common transliteration of the Chinese characters 竹升, but it is a somewhat arbitrary spelling not based on any standardized romanization of Cantonese. According to Jyutping romanization of Cantonese it is spelt “zuk sing” and according to the Yale romanization it is spelt “juk sing.” (I am ignoring here the usual markings for tones.)

In this article, I examine the usage of this word “jook-sing” in Canada over the greater part of the twentieth century. A good source of how the Chinese language is used over almost a century in Canada is The Chinese Times newspaper 大漢公報. The Chinese characters of jook-sing 竹升 may be searched on the digital database of The Chinese Times found at The digitization of the hard copies and the microfilm of this newspaper is not entirely trustworthy as the scanning does not pick up all the characters accurately, but this database of pages from The Chinese Times does provide for a preliminary survey of the newspaper in order to confirm whether or not a page contains the search phrase, then the page may be examined more closely on a computer monitor or a microfilm copy. (I understand some of the original paper issues are still in existence but locked up in a vault on a university campus.)

The earliest appearance of jook-sing 竹升 that I have discovered in The Chinese Times is in a November 20, 1918 article about a man’s concubine using a jook-sing to assault his wife. It is clear in this article that a bamboo pole is used in the assault. But first let’s look at the literal meaning of each character of jook-sing. The first character 竹 means bamboo. The second character 升 means ascent or to rise as in the sun rising or a person being promoted. Despite the popular notion that Canadian born Chinese are hollow between the ears like the hollowness of a bamboo pole, it is not entirely clear how the meaning of “pole” could be construed from this compound word. Even more curious, how can this suggest something negative about the Canadian-born Chinese if bamboo traditionally suggest strength or resilience of the bamboo plant, and even more positive the second character suggest rising up the ranks.

A fellow under the pen name Uncle Rock (石公) wrote an article in the March 10, 1926 issue The Chinese Times entitled “Taboo” (忌諱) that explains the origin of the word jook-sing. He wrote:

『粵俗於語言上。。諸多忌諱。。如諱輸爲勝。。則名通書曰通勝。。諱降爲升  則名竹槓曰竹升。 諱劏爲順。。則名飲湯曰飲順。。諱死爲生。。則名打死人曰打生人。。姓黃者。。呼黃牛曰』

A somewhat literal translation of this passage using Hoiping phonetics is:

“In vernacular Cantonese there are various taboo words. Such as the taboo word xi’ (輸 ‘to lose’) is replaced by sen (勝 ‘to win’), then the noun hung xi (通書 ‘almanac’) is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝). The taboo word gong (降 ‘defeat’) is replaced by the word sen (升 ‘to ascend’). Thus the noun zug gong (竹槓 ‘bamboo pole’) is instead pronounced zug sen (竹升) [i.e., jook-sing]. The taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’) is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). Thus the verb phrase ngem hong (飲湯 ‘to drink soup’) is instead pronounced ngem sun (飲順). The taboo word lhei (死 ‘to die’) is replaced by the word sang (生 ‘to live’). Thus the phrase a lhei ngen (打死人 ‘to beat someone to death’) is instead pronounced a sang ngen (打生人)….”

The above literal but rather cryptic translation lacks background information for the reader who is not familiar with a Cantonese dialect. A broader interpretation that includes some background information for this passage follows:

“In the Cantonese vernacular there are various taboo words. The Cantonese don’t like saying words that suggest something negative or that calamity might ensue. The offending taboo word is replaced by a less offensive word. In the Hoiping dialect (i.e., a Cantonese dialect), the word xi meaning ‘book’ (書) rhymes with the taboo word xi (輸) ‘to decline or wane,’ and in a certain word combination, it is exchanged for sen (勝) which means victory. The lexically correct word for ‘almanac’ in Chinese characters is 通書, pronounced hung xi, but since xi is considered taboo in common speech, the word for ‘almanac’ is instead pronounced hung sen (通勝).

“The word gong (槓) meaning pole in the compound word for “bamboo pole” zug gong (竹槓) is replaced by the word sen meaning “to ascend” (升), because the character for pole (槓) is homonymous with the character for ‘to descend’ or ‘to surrender’ (降) which suggests something negative and therefore a taboo word. Therefore, the lexically correct compound word of zug gong 竹槓 meaning “bamboo pole” is replaced by zug sen or in standard Cantonese jook-sing (竹升) which avoids saying aloud the taboo word gong (降) meaning defeat.

“Another example is the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). The lexically accurate phrase ngem hong (飲湯) contains the word for ‘soup’ (湯) which is a homonym of the taboo word hong (劏 ‘to butcher’). It is replaced by the word sun (順 ‘favorable’). The phrase “to drink soup” ngem hong (飲湯) should be replaced by ngem sun (飲順) “to drink favorable.”[1] In the final example, the word lhei- (死) “to die” ought to be replaced with the word “to live” sang (生) in the phrase da lhei ngen (打死人) meaning ‘to beat someone to death’ and say instead da sang ngen (打生人), literally, ‘to beat someone to life.’…”[2]

To summarize then, Cantonese people do not like saying aloud certain words that rhymes with other words that mean something bad or unlucky. Such words are considered taboo to say aloud. In the case of jook-sing or “bamboo pole” (竹升) replacing the lexically correct compound word zug gong (竹槓), I suppose the seriousness of the taboo is also doubled, because the Chinese word for “bamboo” (竹) happens to rhyme with the word zug (祝) meaning to wish something on somebody. The dictionary correct term for bamboo pole zug gong (or “jook gong” in standard Cantonese) 竹槓 would sound like 祝降 meaning to wish defeat on the person you’re speaking with.

So it is evident in this 1926 newspaper article that the Chinese characters for “jook-sing” have come to mean bamboo pole. This is also clear in the subsequent news articles in The Chinese Times that this compound word is used in the literal sense of “bamboo pole” until the 1980s. After the shift of immigration from the original counties (especially the Four Counties) in China to that from the British colony of Hong Kong, “jook-sing” came to mean a Chinese person born in Canada (or America) with the emphasis that such persons have no or limited ability to speak Chinese, and therefore also lack any sufficient understanding of Chinese culture. Curiously, there is a fellow named 竹升炳 who kept cropping up several times in The Chinese Times in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, most notably under a column entitled “Chinese Famous Legends” (『中國民聞傳奇』) in the 1950s. I suspect it is coincidence that this person happened to have a surname “Jook” 竹 that shares the same character meaning bamboo, and one of his middle name happens to be 升 “sing.” It is just pure coincidence that his name is Jook Sing.

Most of the articles published prior to the 1980s that I have looked at use “jook-sing” 竹升 as a compound word. There is an interesting exception, in a sentence from the July 27, 1940 issue of The Chinese Times that uses the characters 竹升 in their separate meanings. The sentence is: 『我俾枝竹升你。』 Here the meaning is: “I use a section of bamboo to hoist you up.”

The first appearance of “jook-sing” in a derogatory sense in this search through The Chinese Times is found in the October 2, 1985 issue. The article is entitled 『陳欣健找來「竹升女」翁雅韻演唐人街故事』 or “Phillip Chan Finds ‘Jook-sing Girl’ Weng Yayun to Act in Chinatown Story.” The Hong Kong movie actor and producer Phillip Chan (陳欣健) casts a young woman Weng Yayun (翁雅韻) in a film entitled Chinatown Story. The young actress is a Chinese woman who immigrated to the US when she was a little girl. The reporter calls her a “jook-sing girl”. She was raised and educated mostly in America. There are a number of articles published in the rest of the 1980s that uses the word “jook-sing” in the sense of a young man or woman being born or raised outside of China or Hong Kong. Many of these articles are related to stories about the television or movie industry.

The perspective of how the Hong Kong native sees the Chinese born in North America can be gleaned from the January 29, 1990 issue. The article is entitled 『阿貞移民的故事,』 or “The Story of Ah Jen’s Immigration”. The journalist writes, “Ah Jen brought his children back to Hong Kong to live, with the hope the children would be in contact with the things of their homeland, study their national culture, and not become a jook-sing of ‘yellow skin and white heart.’” His sense of the term jook-sing is pejorative. A more detailed discussion can be found in the June 6, 1991 issue entitled 『美國社會中各式各樣的華人』 or “Chinese of Every Stripe in American Society”. A representative excerpt follows:

『老一代的華僑稱在美國出生的一代為「竹升」,這句說話的意思暗示這一群「竹升」兩頭不通,即不懂中國文化。但目前這個「竹升」綽號已漸漸被廢棄,這乃是因為土生的一代近年有幾會接受高深教育,而且還漸漸出人頭地,在這樣的情況下,又有誰人敢說他(她)們是「竹升」呢!? 』

“The Overseas Chinese of the older generation calls the generation born in America ‘jook-sing [bamboo poles],’ the meaning of these words suggest a group of bamboo poles plugged up at both ends. That is, the American (Canadian) born Chinese do not understand Chinese culture. But presently this ‘jook-sing’ nickname is already gradually being abandoned. This is so because the native born generation of recent years has the opportunity to receive higher and deeper [Chinese] education, moreover still gradually rise above their peers; under the situation of this kind, will any person be a ‘jook-sing?’”

I believe the writer of this article is a Hong Kong person. In my opinion, he (she) is wrong in assuming the older generation of Chinese in Canada (as of the early 1990s) would call a native born Chinese jook-sing. My preliminary survey of articles in the venerable Chinese Times suggests that the early Chinese in Canada most likely did not use “jook-sing” as a nickname in a derogatory sense to mean Chinese born in the Americas until the 1980s when the new immigrants from Hong Kong outnumbered the immigrants from mainland China who are mostly from the southern counties of Guangdong province. Linguistically the two groups (that is, Hong Kong and the Four Counties) are very different. I believe it is the confusion between what is considered true Chinese language or culture—Hong Kong or Four Counties—is one of the major reasons native born Chinese abandon more and more things Chinese. I believe Hong Kong stereotypes of the native born Chinese is as detrimental to Chinese Canadian identity as Canadian stereotypes of them, and this may partially account for the Canadian born Chinese’s lack or loss of interest in things Chinese. But that is a topic better saved for another essay. Meanwhile, I prefer to be called an “earth-born” rather than a “bamboo pole.”


[1] Why the phrase ngemhong’ (飲湯) is considered taboo is not entirely clear to me in the Hoiping dialect (also in Four Counties generally). People speaking standard Cantonese do not seem to have any problem with saying it when they want to say, “Drink soup,” except that they would say “tong” instead of “hong.” However, in my circle of Hoiping speakers in Canada, normally we use this phrase only sparingly among ourselves; we instead use the phrase ngemgang’ (飲羹). Gang’ also means soup and appears sometimes on Chinese menus, but rarely used in conversation in Cantonese or Mandarin. Is this a result of the earlier Four Counties speakers of the early twentieth century viewing the phrase ngemhong’ as taboo? My parents do not see any taboo in saying ngemhong’ (飲湯).

[2] Prior to reading this article by Uncle Rock, I have not been familiar with his examples of taboo words or phrases as he described them. I am familiar though with other taboo words such as the number four (四) pronounced lhei, a homonym of the word meaning “to die” (死). I guess the original taboo words were simply replaced with more pleasant sounding words and the origin of the change forgotten in Canada. I highly suspect this is the case with the term for “drink soup.”

Charter of the Overseas Chinese Patriotic Society

In my last blog, I erred in thinking that the Victoria Overseas Chinese Patriotic Society, one of Canada’s early ad hoc Chinese organizations, was established to combat anti-Chinese sentiments in British Columbia. A review of a later article published in 1915 revealed that the motivation for establishing this patriotic society was rooted in international politics in Asia, not in Canadian politics. This Chinese organization warrants a closer examination.

I think it might be interesting to take a look at the details expressed in the charter of the Overseas Chinese Society established in Victoria, Canada in 1915.

First here is a brief summary of the international events leading up to the publication of the charter in a Chinese Canadian newspaper. In 1915 China had lands leased out to and under the control of foreign countries as a result of earlier gunboat diplomacy and unfair treaties. Perhaps it was the rise of Japan though that most likely precipitated the simmering patriotism and fears of Overseas Chinese in Canada into the writing and publication of this charter document to demonstrate their love of the motherland China. During the First World War, Japan was allied with the United Kingdom, and when the Imperial Japanese Navy had a chance to replace the Germans in the governance of some of the islands in the Far East, they did so in 1914. The Japanese military then continued to consolidate their sphere of influence in China when they presented their Twenty-One Demands to the Chinese President Yuan Shikai on January 8, 1915. The Japanese managed to coerce the Chinese government into accepting 80% of their original twenty-one demands. The Chinese thus handed over increased economic as well as political influence to the Japanese. This move by the Japanese insulted the British and Americans, their allies against Germany at the time. The Chinese people on the mainland protested through demonstrations and boycott of Japanese goods. The charter of the Victoria Overseas Chinese Patriotic Society was published in the March 23, 1915 issue of The Chinese Times. The establishment of this society was more a result of the Overseas Chinese reaction to international politics than to local or Canadian politics as I had originally thought when I posted my last blog. The charter essentially established a framework for boycotting a country that might harm economically the motherland of China.

Some of the Chinese wording in this charter can be ambiguous. The Chinese (Hoiping) term for “motherland” du gog (祖國 or zu guo in Mandarin) in the context of much of the articles published in The Chinese Times (大漢公報) usually refers to China itself. Likewise the term for “national goods” gog fuo (國貨 or guo huo ) most probably means the domestic goods that China produces. The charter also employs the term “a certain country” mao gog (某國 mou guo) making it ambiguous as to which nation it is referencing. Although Japan was not specifically named in the charter, it would have been obvious to Chinese readers in 1915 Canada that Japan was the target of such a boycott.

I hereby reproduce the charter, as published in The Chinese Times, line by line and clause by clause. Each clause of the original Chinese text is followed by a draft of my translation. I welcome any corrections or improvements in the translation.


The Victoria Patriotic Society Charter


The Victoria Overseas Chinese Patriotic Society Rules

『(一)名稱            本團定名為域多利華僑愛國團』

(1) Organization Name: The name of this society shall be called the Victoria Overseas Chinese Patriotic Society.

『(二)地址            暫假中華會館為臨時辦事所』

(2) Address: The Chinese Benevolent Association shall serve temporarily as the [society] office in the near term.

『(三)宗旨        以提倡愛國 振興國貨。力排外敵。。作政府後盾 不分黨界縣界姓界為宗旨。』

(3) Objectives:           The objectives shall be to promote patriotism, to revitalize national [Chinese] goods, to be strenuously against foreign enemies, to support the [Chinese] government regardless of political partisanship, regional affiliation or clanship.

『(四)分科      設正副團長各一名。並分総務,文事,理財,調查,演說,評議六科。担任職務。以期實行本團之宗旨。。』

(4) Departments:      One Society Chief and one Deputy Society Chief shall be established. Furthermore, the six departments shall be divided into General Affairs, Cultural Matters, Finances, Inquiries, Speeches, and Review. Hold positions of office in order to implement the objectives of this society.

『(五)經費            本團一切經費。由募捐充之。職員俱担義務。 不愛報酬。若祖國外交决裂時。則另向各界同胞。徵收愛國捐。電回政府。以盡國民責任。』

(5) Expenditures:    All the expenses of this society shall be funded by soliciting donations. The staff duties are entirely voluntary, with no care for remuneration. If there is a break in diplomatic ties with the motherland [China], then a levy shall be imposed as a separate patriotic donation from our Chinese brethren from all walks of life. A telegram has been sent back to the [Chinese] government to employ to the utmost the duty of [Chinese] nationals.

『(六)職員權責    (甲)正團長。按照評議科議决之事件。有指揮各科力謀進行之權。』

(6) Staff authority and responsibilities: (a) Society Chief: In accordance with a Reviewed Resolution to execute a matter, has the authority to command the powers of every department to proceed.


(b) Deputy Society Chief: If by chance the Society Chief is absent, the Deputy Society Chief shall act on his behalf to implement his authority over others.


(c) Each Department Chief: Shall carry out the orders of the Society Chief. Has the authority to assign members in each department to conduct the affairs of society. The department members must carry out the orders.


(d) Anyone who does not belong to the affairs of any department shall belong to the General Affairs Department. The General Affairs Department Chief may monitor the progress of each department.


(e) Review Board: Shall have authority to pass a resolution on all ways of operating this society. It is organization law. Besides the original members of the Review Board, the Society Chief and Deputy Society Chief along with every staff member can also participate.

『(七)入團            凡屬中華民國國民。表同情于本團宗旨 願遵守本團約章者。準具志願書入團。不収基本金』

(7) Enrollment: Any Republic of China national who show sympathy to this society’s objectives and who willingly comply with this society’s charter, may be allowed to express a desire for a form to enroll and not receive capital.

『(八)團員義務    (甲)屬於箇人者。要實行鼓吹 振興國貨 。不用某國貨物。』

(8) Member voluntary duties: (a) Individual – that person must carry out enthusiastic promotion to revitalize the national [Chinese] goods. Do not use a certain country’s merchandise.


(b) Businesses – Must carry out the exclusion of a certain country’s goods. Buy our country’s (China’s) goods.


(c) When failure to put into practice the above two clauses, must comply according to this society’s penalties.

『(九)懲罰            有犯第八條甲乙二項者。。若箇人則由評議科公决。定為一元以上五元以下之罰金。商店則定為五元以上。五十元以下之罰金。至非本團團員。而為中華民國籍民者。亦由評議科公决。以對待某國之法對待之。』

(9) Penalties: If anyone who violates clauses (8) (a) and (b), a person then by way of a Reviewed Resolution shall be set with a fine of between one and five dollars. Businesses however shall be set at a fine of between five to 50 dollars. To a non-member of this society and who is a Republic of China citizen, also by way of a Reviewed Resolution may be treated by means of the law of a certain country.

『(十)附則 本團簡章。由過半數職員。或團員請求時。。得開全體大會增脩之。。及評議科體察情形認為必要時得公决宣告解散。。』

(10) Supplementary Provision: This society’s rules by way of majority membership, or when a society member requests, an all membership general meeting may be held to augment them, and when the Review Board’s observation of the situation deemed necessary can obtain a public vote for a declaration to dissolve.