Chinese Benevolent Association – Minutes of Meeting in 1928

by setohj

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.