Seto More Family in Canada Over 150 Years

by setohj

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.)