One of the projects undertaken by our colleagues at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections during the COVID-19 shut-down of on-campus operations has been to develop a new on-line guide to Chinese-Canadian materials in their collections. One of the subjects being researched for this project was the identity of the first Chinese-Canadian graduate of UBC.
Racist attitudes towards Chinese immigrants were prevalent in Canada, especially in British Columbia, early in the 20th Century, as were discriminatory government policies. The federal government’s head tax, charged to each Chinese person entering Canada, continued to be levied until 1923. That year the Chinese Immigration Act abolished the tax while banning almost all immigration from China. Nevertheless, members of the immigrant community continued to successfully improve their economic and social status despite the systemic racism they encountered in both public policy and in society at large. As Chinese students were exempt from the immigration ban, one possible way for them to do so was to pursue higher education.
While there were no official barriers at UBC and Chinese students were presumably welcomed by the administration like any other students, the University was still part of British Columbia society and so still reflected that society’s attitudes. White students, even if they otherwise did their best to treat a Chinese classmate as one of their own, would sometimes reveal the racist attitudes that they grew up with. For example, terms like “Celestial” (a slang term for anybody of Chinese descent, China being nicknamed “The Celestial Kingdom”) or “Chinaman”, or worse, occasionally found their way onto the printed pages of the Annual (a.k.a. the Totem) yearbook and the Ubyssey student newspaper.
The initial draft of the new RBSC on-line guide stated that Thomas Moore Whaun (left) was the first Chinese-Canadian graduate of UBC. Born as Tung Mow Wong in China in 1893, he immigrated to Canada in 1907 – anglicizing his name in the process. According to back issues of the UBC Calendar Whaun entered UBC in 1921. He took two years off from his studies to work for the Canada Morning News newspaper, and eventually graduated as a member of the Arts 1927 class. According the Totem for that year:
An ardent student of Economics and History, and an extensive reader, he loves to get to the bottom of all social problems. Thoroughly versed in Chinese affairs, Moore may often be found explaining the situation in the Far East to a group of interested students.
After reviewing the guide, UBC Chinese Language Librarian Jing Liu noted that several members of the Yip family had attended UBC earlier than 1921, and that there might have been other Chinese-Canadian students during that period. RBSC Archivist Krisztina Laszlo then reached out to the University Archives for more information.
Searching digitized issues of both the Calendar and the yearbook did indeed reveal more information. While the yearbooks listed the members of each graduating class, with accompanying biographical sketches and graduation photographs, in those days the Calendar listed all students registered each year, making it relatively easy to track students’ progress. This is a case where referring to published (secondary) sources is as effective, and far easier, than going through original (primary) sources, such as old student records from the Registrar’s Office, which were not available for review anyway due to pandemic restrictions.
A search of the Calendar showed that several members of the Yip family did indeed attend UBC in those early days. Kew Park Yip registered in the Faculty of Agriculture in 1918, then transferred to Arts in 1919. Kew Ghim Yip registered in Arts in 1920. Later that decade, Quene Kew Yip (right) and Kew Dock Yip entered Arts in 1925 and 1926, respectively. Quene Yip joined the varsity soccer team and track team as a freshman, and had an immediate impact:
Quene Yip, the Chinese star, needs no introduction to Vancouver soccer lovers, but there may be some students who have not been privileged to see him perform yet. He is rated as one of the best centers on the Pacific Coast, and he well deserves that reputation. He is tricky, clean and fast. (Totem, 1926)
Other Chinese-Canadian students from that period include John Shih Chu, who joined Kew Park Yip in Agriculture in 1918; Thomas Chu, who registered in the Faculty of Arts in 1919; Violet Wong and Sow Poon Wong, both of whom entered Arts in 1922; and Shu-Yen Chen and Jung Bow Wing, listed in the Calendar as being from China, and who both entered Arts in 1916. However, none of these individuals are listed as graduates from UBC, either in the Calendar or the yearbook. We assume that they either did not continue their studies, or transferred to other colleges or universities – Quene Yip, for example, transferred to Queen’s University. Whether this was due to racist attitudes that they encountered on campus, or other unrelated reasons, is unknown.
Going even further back in time, McGill University College of British Columbia, UBC’s immediate post-secondary predecessor, also attracted some Chinese-Canadians to register as students. May Susan Ling Yipsang was registered as a first-year at McGill BC in 1914, but did not continue her studies.
Bertha Hosang registered in the Arts programme in 1910, and continued at McGill BC for two years. She made enough of an impression for the 1911 Annual to use a quote from the classic Japanese story Genji Monogatara or The Tale of Genji to describe her as “So young and bright” (that it was incongruous, if not bizarre, to quote a Japanese work to describe a Chinese student, as if the two “Oriental” nationalities were interchangeable, didn’t seem to occur to the editors). The 1913 Annual tells readers that Bertha went on to the Vancouver Business Institute, “where she was awarded a special prize for her accurate work”.
Finally, flipping the pages of UBC (pre)history back to 1909, the McGill BC Calendar notes that George Y.K. Shuen (right) registered in Arts that year; dropping out after one term, he returned and entered the Applied Science programme in 1911. A recent immigrant from China, George Shuen’s residence is given as Vancouver in the McGill UBC Calendar, while in the 1913 Annual he’s described as having been “born somewhere in China or thereabouts”. The patronizing tone of that editorial remark is exacerbated by later referring to him as a “Celestial”.
As McGill BC was only a two-year college, students would have had to go elsewhere to complete their degrees – we must assume that George Shuen did so. However, it is safe to say that he was the first Chinese-Canadian to attend what would later become UBC.
But what about those Chinese-Canadian students who actually graduated from UBC? The year before Thomas Whaun received his degree, Esther Evangeline Fong Dickman (left) was a member of Arts 1926. Her bio in the Totem read, in part, “Mathematician, platonist, and erstwhile philosopher, Esther is the class enigma. She divides the principal part of her time between the Students’ International Club, the Math. Club, the S.C.M., Phil. essays (of all things), Economics, and a few other cheerful divertissements. Favorite occupation, starting for the library. Esther plans to follow the teaching profession…”. According to Lisa Smedman’s Immigrants: Stories of Vancouver’s people, She was the daughter of Reverend Fong Dickman (born Fong Tak Man), a Methodist minister and prominent member of the Vancouver Island Chinese community. Esther Fong Dickman was the first Chinese-Canadian woman to graduate from UBC.
Going back further, to 1919, the Annual lists Inglis Hosang (right), the brother of Bertha Hosang, as a graduate from the Faculty of Arts that year. He was noted as being “… of no small scholarly attainments, and is an accomplished linguist. He won the oratorical contest (in his Sophomore year), and, as a Junior, helped to defeat Washington in the international debate”. He returned to campus the following year to give a public lecture on “China and the Shantung Problem”. According to the October 1945 Graduate Chronicle he went on to earn a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley (1931), after which he moved to England, was called to the English Bar in 1934, and became a barrister-at-law. Hosang later lived in Hong Kong until the Japanese invasion of 1937 – he then moved back to Vancouver where he joined the law firm of A.J.B. Mellish. He died in August 1945.
Neither the Annual nor the Calendar list any Chinese-Canadians by name as UBC graduates prior to 1919. So the Archives can confirm that Inglis Hosang (Arts 1919) was the first Chinese-Canadian to graduate from this university. He, George Y.K. Shuen, Esther Fong Dickman, and others from the McGill BC and early UBC days deserve recognition for their achievements against the prevailing attitudes of their era. Other current and past Chinese-Canadian UBC students – indeed, all members of the UBC community – owe them a debt of gratitude for contributing to the evolution of a more diverse and welcoming institution.
(Updated 6 November 2020)
(Thanks to Krisztina Laszlo and Jing Liu for their helpful comments on an early draft of this article)