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Called the “Mayor of Chinatown” by the people of Vancouver, Wong Foon Sien spent his life advocating for Chinese Canadians and worked to end discrimination against his community. Today, I am looking at his life and impact on Canada.
Throughout this episode, I will be referring to him as Wong as I am worried about mispronouncing his name through this episode.
Born Wong Mun Poo on July 7, 1899 in China, he would come to Cumberland, British Columbia in 1908 with his parents. His parents would become successful merchants
He would say of his early life quote:
“When I was just a small little boy, my family ran a store in Cumberland and at Chinese New Year, we closed the store for two weeks and we decorated it with candles and scrolls and banners and we served our friends drinks and sweetmeats inside. I was just a small, little boy and I served the drinks and the sweetmeats and they gave me money and I remember I made over $100 in one day. Oh yes, those were the good days.”
It was their hope that Wong would return to China to build a career. There were plans for Wong to return to China to get an education but these plans were derailed when Sun Yat-sen came to Cumberland. Sun was a revolutionary who came to the area on a fundraising trip and this would have a lasting impression on Wong, who would decide to study law.
Once he had completed high school, he became one of only five Chinese students to enroll at the University of British Columbia. During this time, he would also become the president of the Chinese Students’ Alliance of Canada and the Chinese Canadian Club.
Throughout his life, Wong never wanted to return to China. The Vancouver Province would write quote:
“Canada was the adopted land of Foon Sien and he loved it so much he never did return to the country of his birth, not even to Hong Kong, and always said he had no desire to do so because in Canada he had found his own country and his own home.”
After he graduated, he would become a court interpreter, hired by the Attorney General of British Columbia. He was unable to practice law, despite graduating, because his inability to be on the electoral list as a Chinese Canadian prevented him from practicing the profession.
In 1924, Janet Smith was murdered in Vancouver, with the suspect being Foon Sing Wong. A private detective, two detectives and two British Columbia Provincial Police officers would kidnap Foon Sing Wong and hold him for months. He would be beaten and questioned over the murder, with Wong providing the translation. The Vancouver press would state that Wong was an employee of the detective agency and he performed services for police off the record. The kidnapping would spark outrage in Vancouver and a group of Chinese merchants filed a complaint against Wong’s actions to the attorney general. Wong’s role would be seen as a conflict of interest as he was working for the court and assisting the investigation. In the end Foon Sing Wong would be acquitted due to lack of evidence and would return to China.
After the uproar died down, Wong would go on to establish the Kwong Lee Tai Company. This company was a Chinese legal broker that employed interpreters to handle cases involving Chinese Canadians in the city.
In 1927, Wong was charged with assault and robbery after another man had been found dazed after he was struck with a monkey wrench to the head. The man said that Wong and another man had assaulted him but this would later prove to be untrue and charges were dropped.
In 1937, Wong was named the publicity agent for the Chinese Benevolent Association, which had been established in 1906. His role was to bring publicity to the aid-to-China program during the war between Japan and China. He would also put out ads in the Vancouver Sun, asking that the citizens of Vancouver buy Christmas gifts that were made in China in order to help the country’s economy as it fought against the Japanese.
In 1942, Wong founded the Chinese Trade Workers Association.
In 1944, Wong created a petition that contained seven points requesting that Chinese Canadians be given the right to vote in British Columbia elections. This petition would be sent to both the provincial and federal governments.
Wong would say quote:
“Our hopes have never been so high. We don’t expect to use the privilege until 1949.”
He would be pretty accurate with that statement. It would not be until 1947 that Chinese Canadians could vote in federal elections, and in 1949 in British Columbia.
After Chinese Canadians gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1947, and the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed that same year, Wong became an advocate for removing the remaining restrictions on Chinese immigration into Canada. He also sought to stop the separation of families due to the restrictions, and to seek redress for the Chinese Head Tax.
In 1948, Wong became the co-chairman of the Chinese Benevolent Association, and would remain in that position for the next 11 years. It was under his leadership that the organization would reach its peak.
Every year from 1949 to 1959, Wong travelled to Ottawa to lobby politicians over immigration and the head tax, gaining him press throughout the country. He would often appear in the media to talk about the lobbying, and Chinese Canadian media covered his trips extensively. As a result of this, he became a highly-influential spokesman for the Chinese community in Canada.
In 1956, Immigration Minister Jack Pickersgill would state that he would give consideration to allowing the spouses of Chinese Canadians to come to Canada. Pickersgill had been presented with a brief from Wong, who would say that he was very happy with the talks and was hopeful there would be a relaxation of the immigration legislation.
Later that year, immigration rules would be relaxed to allow aged parents of Chinese Canadians to come to the country. Wong would say that it was quote:
“A step in the right direction.”
The process would continue though, past the time of Pickersgill and into the time of Ellen Fairclough. Wong would tell her quote:
“We are frankly the victims of discrimination. Since 1950, less than 20,000 Chinese have been admitted to Canada. In that same period, approximately 1.8 million immigrants from other countries have found peace and refuge and inspiration in this country.”
He would add that in 1931, Canada had a population of 10 million with 46,000 Chinese Canadians. Two decades later in 1951, Canada had a population of 15 million but only 32,000 Chinese Canadians. He would say quote:
“No similar barriers are erected against any other nationality.”
Thanks to his efforts and lobbying, Canadian immigration laws would be liberalized and hundreds of Chinese families were able to reunite since Chinese Canadians could sponsor their spouses, unmarried offspring and parents.
Throughout his life, Wong supported the Liberal Party but he would support Progressive Conservative Douglas Jung in the 1957 and 1958 elections. Jung would become the first Chinese Canadian Member of Parliament.
In 1958, Wong would say of his own re-election to the association presidency quote:
“I am pleased but I will want step down as soon as there is someone new who wants to do the job.”
He would step down the following year, stating quote:
“I feel that a man can only be useful in the one position for so long.”
In 1959, the RCMP and the Canadian Immigration Department began an investigation into an alleged racketeering operation by Chinese Canadians to illegally bring Chinese immigrants to Canada. In the operation, the RCMP raided residences, businesses and organizations of Chinese Canadian community leaders. They would seize over 30,000 passports, visas and other documents.
Wong would consider these raids to be systemic human rights violations. He would state quote:
“The situation resembles a country under martial law. If the government does not restrict such actions, the basic rights and freedoms of people are endangered.”
In July 1961, Wong’s files were taken in an RCMP raid of his home, the hotel room of his secretary Wong Gam Chun, and the offices of the Chinese Benevolent Association. Wong would say that the files taken include the names and some details about nearly every Chinese person in Canada.
Wong and several Chinese community associations would conduct media campaigns denouncing the actions. In the end, very few people were convicted under the RCMP operation.
By the 1960s, he began to spend his time advocating against Chinatown developments that he worried would separate the community from the rest of Vancouver. In 1963, he resigned from the consultive committee that was created by Mayor William Rathie due to his opposition to the Strathcona Rehabilitation Project development. He would call the development the equivalent of the Berlin Wall as it separated the business and residential areas of Chinatown. The development would raze 30 acres for a high-rise building on land that was expropriated from Chinese property owners.
The Vancouver Province would write quote:
“Chinatown spokesman Foon Sien said it is feared a vote for the community centre would in effect, show approval of the clearance plan and its program of building destruction.”
Mayor Rathie stated that the Chinese Benevolent Association could submit its own plans for the development. The organization did, which were favourable received by the community.
In the end, Vancouver City Council approved the developer’s plans the next week.
In 1967, Wong was named the Vancouver Brotherhood Citizen of the Year for his efforts to fight discrimination in the city.
On July 31, 1971, Wong passed away.
One person, who was not identified in the article about Wong’s death, stated quote:
“His whole life, he gave everything to it and asked little in return. He worked always for the Chinese people and for Canada.”
Throughout his life, Wong had detractors who accused him of only trying to raise his own profile, but the results of his life speak for themselves. Roy Mag, publisher of the Chinatown News in 1971 stated quote:
“No doubt some of the strong feelings towards him were the result of personal envy and rivalry. He was all too aware of these but took them in his stride. If controversy was the price of leadership then he had his share of disagreements with many. Withal, he left behind him more friends than enemies.”
His funeral was one of the most attended in the history of Chinatown.
In 2008, he was named a Person of National Historic Significance.
In 2011, he was named one of the Top 10 Vancouverites in the city’s history. The entry stated quote:
“Wong Foon Sien, a journalist, labour activist and community leader, advocated for the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, a notorious piece of legislation that prevented Chinese immigration to Canada. He campaigned tirelessly for Chinese-Canadian rights, including citizenship and a more liberal approach to immigration and family reunification.”
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Parks Canada, The Life and Times of Foon Sien, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,