Yip Sang

The Life and Legacy of Yip Sang

Introduction

 

The transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built between 1881 and 1885 is one of Canada’s most significant undertakings. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, recognized the importance of Chinese labour when he told Parliament in 1882, “Either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway.” When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the promise was that it would be linked to the rest of the country by such a railway. While construction through Ontario and the prairies went reasonably smoothly with Caucasian and First Nations workers, the most difficult and dangerous work through the treacherous Rocky Mountains and Fraser Canyon depended on Chinese railway workers.

Of the 17,000 Chinese railway workers, several thousand came from America with railroad experience, but the majority came from China via labour contractors. Yip Sang was not the only labour contractor, but he played a significant role by bringing in more than 7,000 labourers from the Pearl Delta region of China. While Yip Sang rose to be a highly respected and influential person within Vancouver’s Chinatown, his humble beginnings instilled in him a desire for social justice.

New Beginning Across the Pacific

Yip Sang was born in 1845 in the village of Shengtang (Sing Tong ) in the Duhu ( ) municipality of Taishan (Toishan ) County, in China’s southeastern province of Guangdong (Kwangtung ). Not only did he enter life amidst the poverty and social turmoil of the Taiping Rebellion, he learned some of life’s hard lessons very early.

During his childhood Yip Sang lost his father, and while still in his teen years his mother died. Before the age of twenty his older sister was kidnapped by bandits and was never seen again. In 1864, at the age of nineteen, he boldly sailed across the Pacific for several months aboard a three-mast sailing junk to follow his Gold Mountain dream to San Francisco, California. There, he washed dishes, cooked, rolled cigars, and futilely panned for gold.

Not discouraged, in 1881, at the age of 36, he trudged north to British Columbia and along the Cariboo Wagon Road to the Yukon believing like others that he would strike pay dirt. Still nothing. A true survivor, he sold dusty sacks of coal door in Hahm Sui Fau ( ) – “Saltwater City”  – Vancouver. Yip Sang’s luck would finally change upon meeting Lee Piu of the Kwong On Wo Company – a company which provided pools of labour from southeast China to the CPR. Hired as a bookkeeper, timekeeper, and paymaster, Yip Sang reputedly paid the workers by riding a horse to the Chinese campsites carrying a moneybag and armed with a gun! Eventually he would oversee his own labour contracting business with the CPR and manage over 3,000 Chinese men, as they blasted tunnels through mountains and prepared the earth for railway ties and steel rails through the treacherous Fraser Canyon in British Columbia.

While his contribution to the train track construction within his newly adopted province may not be well known, his imprint as the first “Unofficial Mayor” of Vancouver’s Chinatown is more pronounced.

His ability to speak some English coupled with his business acumen made him a force to be reckoned with. He was a man with a conscience who had not forgotten his humble beginnings, and he would later have the means to improve the lives of his fellow countrymen.

The Wing Sang Company

In 1888, Yip Sang established the Wing Sang Company (it means “everlasting”) in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the following year he built a two-storey building at 51 East Pender Street to run his company. In 1901, Yip Sang added a third floor to the Wing Sang Building, expanded it to cover 51-69 East Pender Street and brought his family over from China to live there. When his growing family needed more room, he added a six-storey building at the back of his lot in 1912. The building’s unit block address signifies that he is one of the old-time Loh Wah Kiu  ( ) overseas pioneers. (Dupont Street was renamed Pender Street in 1904.) His company engaged in labour contracting, ran an import and export business across the Pacific, operated fish canneries, and served Chinese immigrants in other ways. Within twenty years, the Wing Sang Company was one of the four largest Chinese companies in Vancouver.

Looking up at the second floor of the Wing Sang Building, you see “1889” inscribed on the structure, which indicates that it was the oldest building in Chinatown. On the second floor you will also see a door which opens into thin air. Old photographs show that a pulley was used to hoist, up to the second floor, merchandise and oversized furniture that would not fit up the narrow stairs.

To the building’s west side was an irregular seven-foot wide chunk of land which went all the way to the back of Market Alley. This alleyway once housed businesses, including the Wing Sang Company, which manufactured and sold opium when it was still legal to do so. This irregular size of real estate harkens back to a time before urban planners and surveyors implemented their tight grid system. This brick building was built shortly after the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 when locals realized the danger of using wood as construction material.

http://www.globalbirdphotos.com/ve/072_075_Great_Vancouver_Fire_of_1886_Jacqui_Underwood.pdf

Besides the Wing Sang Building, two other notable buildings on the same block developed by the Wing Sang Company in the early 1900s include the three-storey Chinese Times Building and eight-storey West Hotel, both of which are still standing.

If this timeline is accurate, Yip Sang was living in a burgeoning town without telephones, electricity, or streetcars – when it was still known as the “Granville Townsite.” As ticket agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway Steamships Line, the Wing Sang Company sold tickets to many bachelor Chinese men so that they could return to China. Having Yip Sang’s nephews, Yip On and Yip Yen, as translators for the Immigration Department and steering business in Uncle’s direction did not hurt either. Passengers wishing to purchase tickets for the competing Blue Funnel Line could go down the street to the Sam Kee Company owned by Chang Toy – another successful Chinatown businessman

Source: Lisa Rose Mar, Brokering Belonging: Chinese In Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945, 26.

Lonely and homesick men would eagerly wait for mail from their loved ones across the Pacific. Staff at the regular post office, unable to read the “chicken scratches,” would forward the bundles of mail to the Wing Sang Building. Given that many of Yip Sang’s visitors to his storefront were illiterate in their native language, Yip Sang likely read and wrote letters for them at this de facto “Chinatown Post Office.” Since many letters from rural China reminded the recipients of the trying times back home, these bachelor pioneers would often remit funds home via the Wing Sang Company and its trust company branch in Hong Kong. Other business conducted at the storefront included the import of Chinese foodstuff and products for the local Chinese community. http://www.heritagevancouver.org/pdf/hv_news_2003_07_web.pdf

Wing Sang Building

Having such a large family made him the envy of Chinese bachelors in Chinatown.

As owner of the Nanaimo Packing Company plants in Nanaimo, Nanoose Bay, and the Gulf Islands, he was heavily involved with salting and exporting herring and chum salmon when fish canneries dotted the BC coast, and the new fish-processing machine named the “Iron Chink” was replacing Chinese labour.

In historic Canton Alley, one of the eight history panels in the Allan Yap Circle is exclusively dedicated to Yip Sang. http://www.generasian.ca/CHA-eng1/66.165.42.33/cv/html/en/panel_03.html

Shanghai Alley was the site of much damage during the 1907 Race Riot where a white mob ran through Chinatown breaking windows and terrifying the residents. During the May 1908 hearings by the Royal Commission to Investigate Losses Sustained by the Chinese Population of Vancouver, Yip Sang stated, “We own a full half interest in all the land and buildings in Canton Street, eight stores on Dupont Street, and four houses on Carrall Street and three stores on Hastings Street.”

The Wing Sang Company’s considerable property holdings were later reduced to the Wing Sang Building due in large part to two major external events. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which virtually ended Chinese immigration to Canada, drastically reduced the number of tenants living in his Chinatown rooming houses and caused general stagnation in the area. In the 1930s, the Great Depression also caused the Wing Sang Company and other Chinatown businesses to suffer, as 80 percent of Chinatown’s residents were unemployed and receiving less relief from the City than white residents. Consequently, Vancouver’s Chinatown lost half of its residents or 6,000 people during that decade. http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/heritage/walks/w_ch_in.htm]

Family Life in the Wing Sang Building

The previous section covers Yip Sang and life within the Wing Sang Company, but what was life like inside the Wing Sang Building where many of Yip Sang’s nineteen sons and four daughters from four wives lived together with their offspring?

For a start, there was a sense of order and a hierarchy for the sons and daughters of Yip Sang. His grandchildren knew that the proper way of addressing their uncles (#1 to #19) and aunts (#1 to #4) was dependent on their father’s birth order. For example, the sons of Yip Sang’s 11th son would call uncles older than their dad by their numbers followed by Bak, like #6 or #8 Bak.  Uncles younger than their dad were addressed by their names followed by Sook, so uncle #12 was called Yin Sook and uncle #17 Dock Sook. The wives of uncles older than their dad were addressed by the uncle’s number followed by Mo, while wives of uncles younger than their dad were addressed by the uncle’s number followed by Sum.

There was also a strong sense of tradition that the family patriarch instilled in his family. The most memorable times for the cousins (the second generation of Yip Sang’s sons and daughters) were Christmas and New Year’s Day. On Christmas Day at supper time, the cousins from each floor would walk through the building to wish their uncles and aunts a Merry Christmas, and receive from them lucky money contained in small red paper envelopes. On New Year’s Eve, the Yip cousins had to be home before midnight to celebrate the arrival of the New Year with their families as firecrackers were set off and warm wishes were extended to everyone.

The grandmothers lived on different floors. Grandmother #1, Dong Shee, and her family lived on the third floor. Grandmother #2, Wong Shee, and her family lived on the sixth floor while Grandmother #3, Chin Shee, and her family lived on the fifth floor. Yip Sang’s first wife had died in China in 1885 leaving behind a daughter (#1 aunt) and son (#1 uncle).

Each floor had two kitchens, several bedrooms, a room with two toilet stalls, and an adjacent room containing a bathtub and sink. There was a telephone on each of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. The rooms on each floor were heated by potbelly stoves fuelled by coal and wood, which had to be carried from the first floor up the very long stairways to the upper floors. The third floor was not only the resting place on the way to the sixth and top floor, this was the site of the Grand Hall where parties and celebrations took place, and, when Yip Sang was not around, where pickup soccer and rollerball games broke out.

With so many boys of the same age, there was no need to go outside the family to get a team together. In the 1930s and 1940s, nearby Columbia Street had very little traffic, so it was used as their own play area. The Yip Sang boys even had their own Boy Scout troop, the 32nd Everest, with only a few members who were not part of the family. Besides the sports teams, some of the cousins got together to form their own orchestra and would sometimes play at community functions. There was also a schoolroom on the third floor, complete with blackboards, where teachers hired by Yip Sang taught younger family members. This room also had photographs of Yip Sang and his three wives on the wall where family members would stop on special occasions to pay their respects.

Yip Sang had his children contribute to household expenses by paying $5.00 monthly rent per family to stay in the Wing Sang Building. This would pay for part of the electricity and water bill. Other revenue came from rents collected from businesses operating on the street level and on the second floor. Over time, as the building was deteriorating and had become too expensive to renovate, families began moving out and purchasing their own homes in Vancouver and beyond. Aunt #5 was the last to move out of the building in the early 1970s.

In 1981, the Wing Sang Building was sold to a developer. In 2004, prominent realtor and developer, Bob Rennie of Rennie Marketing Systems, purchased the still vacant building and began a multi-million dollar, multi-year restoration project. It was re-opened in October 2009 and contains Mr. Rennie’s corporate offices and an art gallery. Within this newly restored building sits the third floor classroom with original writing on the chalkboard now protected with a sheet of plexiglass.

Giving Back to the Community 

When not taking care of his businesses and very large family, Yip Sang was busy establishing or helping various benevolent, medical, educational, and cultural institutions to improve the lives of others.

Just off Pender Street, on Carrall Street, is a white and green building belonging to the Lim Benevolent Society. This building was built in 1903 and inhabited by the Chinese Empire Reform Association, whose goal was to establish a constitutional monarchy in China. Yip Sang was one of the founders of this influential association.

Yip Sang was also a founder of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) and the Chinese Board of Trade during the 1890s. On Pender Street, one block east of Carrall Street, is the building belonging to the CBA where Yip Sang was one of the driving forces.

The CBA helped laid-off Chinese railroad workers by providing financial assistance. When Chinese sojourners without family passed away, the organization co-ordinated the return of skeletal remains to their families. In addition, the CBA helped govern life in Vancouver’s Chinatown and actively defended the fundamental rights of the Chinese in the face of social injustice.

Yip Sang was not all work and no play. He also brought Cantonese Opera troupes from Asia to perform at the Sing Kew Theatre in Shanghai Alley. This is the same alley where security bars would be installed after the 1907 Race Riot. http://www.generasian.ca/CHA-eng1/66.165.42.33/cv/html/en/panel_06.html

Yip Sang spearheaded the construction of the St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital, which opened in 1928. This hospital was run by the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and served Chinese patients when they were not welcome in other medical clinics. Outside of Chinatown, Yip Sang evidently won the respect of those he dealt with as he was appointed a life governor of the Vancouver General Hospital.

http://www.providencehealthcare.org/about_history_mtstjoseph1.html

Yip Sang’s interest in health care and philanthropy was carried on by his eleventh son, Dr. Yip Kew Ghim, who graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Queen’s University and became one of the first Chinese doctors to practice western medicine in Canada. In 1928, he established a free medical clinic in Vancouver’s Chinatown for people who could not afford to pay. He also practiced at, and helped run, the St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital on Campbell Avenue. Later, he helped raise funds for the new Mount St. Joseph Hospital in the Mount Pleasant District of Vancouver, where he practiced and served on the board of directors for many years until his death in 1968.

In education, Yip Sang was the promoter and principal of the Aiguo Xuetang (“love country learning centre”) Night School established in 1902 and founding member of the Vancouver Chinese Overseas School in 1916. Many Canadian-born Chinese youngsters recall attending this second school after their regular public school. Yip Sang was a man who gave both his time and money to causes he believed in.

Yip Sang instilled the importance of education and hard work into his sons and daughters. While many of the sons worked in the family businesses – import and export, service stations, canneries and fish boats, or in administration, some attended and graduated from universities such as UBC, Queen’s, McGill, Osgoode Hall, and Columbia University in New York City.

His youngest daughter, Suzanne, was one of the very first Chinese-Canadian women to study at a Canadian university when she enrolled at UBC in 1914. She would go on to receive her B.Sc and M.Sc from Columbia University and become principal of Kwong Tung Provincial Girls Middle School in Guangzhou (Canton).

Remembering His Roots

While he was busy planting deep roots in his newly adopted home, he had not forgotten his humble roots back in China. Yip Sang became a major benefactor to the Taishan No. 1 Middle School in Taishan city where the second floor is named in his honour with an inscription in green letters. Now a high school, it houses over 3,000 students. The “No. 1” designation signifies that it is the premier school in the province catering to the top scholastic students. Also in China, he was a benefactor to the Public Hospital in Guangdong province.

 

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

 Yip Sang passed away on July 20, 1927. His death was commemorated by the longest funeral procession ever witnessed in Vancouver with over 150 automobiles, two bands, and mourners packed on either side of the Nunn and Thomson Funeral Home on Homer Street. Pallbearers included Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese person born in Canada, and prominent businessmen and professionals outside the Chinese community. Yip Sang was a cultural bridge builder long before this term was ever coined.

In the Chinese section of Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver’s oldest cemetery, stands the prominent tombstone of Yip Sang. Its proximity – less than 12 steps – to the outdoor Chinese altar built by the CBA is another sign that he was an important and respected pioneer

Surrounding his gravestone are the graves of his three wives who died in Canada. Also buried in the immediate vicinity are some of his 23 children.

Yip Sang’s life in the community and in businesses and the accomplishments of some of his descendants are preserved in four important historical institutions in Vancouver.

Over at Vanier Park in the Museum of Vancouver are sections from the old Wing Sang Building, including the large wooden wicket where CPR Steamship tickets were sold and mail was picked up. Interestingly, within the glass showcase near the wicket, is some Cantonese Opera makeup. Amongst the collection of artifacts is the old hand bell used to summon all the children to dinner. Whenever there were visitors, Yip Sang was known to have said, “There is always room for another pair of chopsticks at the table.”

Next to this museum, at the City of Vancouver Archives, is a collection of Yip Sang’s material from the Wing Sang building consisting of; business and financial records, correspondence, miscellaneous records, published materials and photographs. They are catalogued under “Add. MSS. 1108” and accessible to researchers.  Go to http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/yip-family-and-yip-sang-ltd-fonds;rad for a description of these records.  Some records (letters in Chinese) can also be viewed online in the Yip Sang Correspondence Project in the UBC Library Digital Collections at http://digitalcollections.library.ubc.ca/cdm4/search.php?CISOROOT=/yipsang

Over at UBC’s Irving K. Barber Learning Centre you will find the Chung Collection Exhibition, which holds the largest collection of CPR memorabilia in Canada and includes a section about Yip Sang.

http://www.library.ubc.ca/chineseinbc/search.html

Within the section of “Prominent Chinese,” you will find a large wooden frame surrounding a photograph of Yip Sang and 71 smaller photographs of his wives and descendants. Yip Sang had ordered this display for his 80th birthday from Chinatown photographer Cecil B. Wand who meticulously arranged these headshots to form the Chinese character shou (eternity).

Also within the Chung Collection is a photograph of the 1926 Chinese Students Soccer Team, which won the Iroquois Cup that year and the Wednesday League Cup in 1931. This team, also known for its clean play, would later win the L.D. Taylor (former Vancouver mayor) Trophy for sportsmanship.

In the mid-1920s more than half of the team was made up of the sons of Yip Sang (#6, #7, #8, #10, #12, #13, #15, #16, #17, and #18) bearing the same middle generational name, “Kew.” See photograph of the 1924-1925 team.

While Yip Sang did not initially approve of his sons playing soccer when they could have been working or studying, the Yip dream team would continue to win titles and move up to a higher division. On May 29, 1933, this soccer team won the 1st Division league championship and the coveted BC Mainland Cup, which brought immense pride to Chinatown.

Later that day, there was a victory parade on Pender Street when thousands of fans came out to cheer the team with fire crackers exploding and car horns blaring in celebration. The next day was declared a holiday in Chinatown with shops closed and free tea and dim sum! In 2011, this 1933 championship team was finally inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum located inside BC Place Stadium where old photographs, newspaper articles, and other artifacts can be viewed. Perhaps Yip Sang would finally approve of his sons’ favourite pastime!

http://www.bcsportshalloffame.com/inductees/inductees/bio?id=60&type=team

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z_6dyAyYUo

In the above photograph is Yip Sang’s seventeenth son, Dock Yip, who in 1945 became Canada’s first lawyer of Chinese descent. He would go on to be a leader in the fight to repeal the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923.This Act was finally repealed on May 14, 1947, which allowed the Chinese in Canada to regain their right to vote and to bring their wives and children to Canada.

Across the street from the Wing Sang Building in the breezeway of the Chinese Cultural Centre is a plaque dedicated to the Chinese-Canadian veterans of the Second World War. It was their service and sacrifices for Canada, which also helped repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. Yip Sang’s grandsons, Cecil, Dick, Dan, Fred, and Peter, are listed in this Honour Roll.

Yip Sang’s life and legacy have also been well documented in several government, educational, and history websites in Canada.

A Chinese Canadian Story: The Yip Sang Family

Library and Archives Canada

http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/yipsang/default.htm

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7884

MemoryBC The British Columbia Archival Information Network

http://memorybc.ca/yip-family-and-yip-sang-ltd-fonds;rad

In 2011, Heritage House published Frances Hern’s book, Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians. This publication is part of the popular Amazing Stories series for young readers, which include: Hudson Bay Company Adventurers, Native Chiefs and Famous Métis, David Thompson, Early Voyageurs, and Emily Carr. Yip Sang is amongst good company.

http://www.heritagehouse.ca/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781926936901

 

Today, Yip Sang’s descendants number over 650, many of whom are trailblazers in their chosen fields. In 1989, hundreds of Yip Sang’s descendants from around the world returned for a family reunion to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wing Sang Building. They gathered in front to pose for photographs and to reminisce about the times they shared this historic home with their brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, and children.

They paused to reflect on the “eternal life” meaning of Wing Sang, and to pay tribute to a patriarch whose remarkable life of hard work, honesty, generosity, and leadership transformed his family, community, and city. Yip Sang’s lasting legacy was eloquently captured by one of his grandsons in the Yip family Green Book:

His life story provides us, our children, and our children’s children with continuity in history. It provides us with an orientation in the infinity of time and space of the universe which we occupy. He left the world a better place than when he came. Can more be said of any man.

Acknowledgements: The Life and Legacy of Yip Sang

Researched and written by: Elwin Xie.

Contributing editors: Yip Sang’s grandchildren, Robert Yip, Rick Yip, Wei Yip and Jim Yip.

Photograph sources:

City of Vancouver Archives (CVA); Museum of Vancouver (MOV); Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

 

For a pdf file of Yip Sang’s story with pictures, please click: Yip Sang

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