A fitting choice

It’s appropriate that Manitoba’s new lieutenant-governor has been appointed in the year of the 100th anniversary of  the founding of Winnipeg’s Chinatown and amid the two-week celebration of the city’s cultural diversity that is called Folklorama.

Philip Lee, who was born in Hong Kong in 1944 and moved to Winnipeg in 1962 to study chemistry at the University of Manitoba, was sworn in as this province’s 24th lieutenant-governor at a recent special ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature, the first person of Chinese descent to occupy the vice-regal position in the province.

Premier Gary Doer called Lee’s appointment a “proud day for Manitoba.”

Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher, the federal minister of Democratic reform, said Lee “personifies what it means to be Canadian.”

The fact that Lee opted to stay in Canada and Manitoba when he could have returned to Hong Kong or taken up residence in another country to pursue his chosen career bears witness to Fletcher’s comment. As does the fact his staying enriched his adopted city, since Lee has made numerous contributions to Winnipeg’s quality of life, including helping to develop the city’s Chinatown.

“It is a special rendezvous with history today as I become Manitoba’s first Chinese-Canadian lieutenant-governor,” said Lee during the ceremony. “We live in a province that prides itself on diversity. Our country was built by the combined efforts of women and men from around the world.” 

Lee’s rendezvous with history actually started in 1877 when the first Chinese immigrants stepped off a stagecoach in Winnipeg. By the 1880s, the Chinese numbered just 400 but today there are now 20,000 people of Chinese descent living in the city.

Similar to many immigrant groups, the Chinese struggled for acceptance, but through hard work and perseverance took their place among Canadian citizens.

In their initial years in Canada, prejudice limited Chinese to certain jobs — railway labourers, laundry workers and cooks. In 1880s Winnipeg, George Shung opened a laundry on Scott Street, while Hop Lee ran a “Chinese laundry” on Main Street. In rural Manitoba, almost every town and village had its Chinese restaurant.

It was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the nation which brought most of the Chinese settlers to Western Canada, and it was the railway which brought them to prairie towns and villages as the tracks progressed. After they helped built the railway that stretched across the prairies and over the mountains to the West Coast, greater numbers of Chinese travelled eastward. They wanted to escape bigotry in British Columbia after the provincial government passed the Chinese Regulation Act, which declared the Chinese “not disposed to be governed by our laws; are governed by pestilential habits; are useless in instances of emergencies; habitually desecrate graveyards by removal of bodies therefrom and ... are inclined to habits subversive of the comfort and well-being of the community.”

The federal government countered with its own acts, including a head tax — at first $25 and later $500 — to discourage Chinese immigration.

Of course, none of the claims made by civil authorities were true, but arose primarily as a result of deep-rooted prejudices and misunderstanding. While the Anglo-Saxon residents of Western Canada prided themselves on their association with the civilizing forces of the British Empire, they didn’t understand that Chinese civilization had been in existence for hundreds of years before there even was an England.

The eastward movement of the Chinese came when trans-continental railway construction ended and they were left to fend for themselves. Undaunted, they used whatever options were made available to them in order to make a living, which included opening up the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, where rural and urban Manitobans gained their first exposure to oriental cuisine. In Winnipeg, Chinese settlers were also involved in a smattering of other trade and retail operations.

Even with the impositions made upon them, Chinese immigrants may have been discouraged but they were not dissuaded in their desire to stay in Canada.

As Alexander Sutherland, the general secretary of the Methodist Missionary Society, correctly noted in1885: “They are here to stay. They cannot be boycotted out of the country, much less driven out by mob violence.”

Decades later, the position of Chinese had only marginally improved, prompting the Chinese government during the Second World War to appeal to the Canadian government as an Ally “to improve the treatment of overseas Chinese living in Canada,” and to revise its immigration laws. “Chinese in Canada have suffered from the shackles of law limiting Chinese immigration,” wrote the newspaper Kungpao in 1942. “They have been ill-treated both as regards entrance and residence. On the principle of equality among Allies, we petition the Canadian government to improve immediately the positions of overseas Chinese in Canada.”

But it wasn’t until 1947 that Chinese-Canadians were granted full citizenship, despite many having fought as Canadians during the war.

Yet by the time Lee arrived in 1962, Chinese-Canadians were an integral part of Canadian society, making valuable contributions to every facet of Canadian life.

Lee has his own story of coming to Canada, which reflects the debt owed to the earlier Chinese immigrants who stayed regardless of the obstacles placed in their path. At age four, a French-Canadian nun at the school he attended in Hong Kong gave him a lollipop — a rare treat — rewarding him for completing his grade-school work. Lee said he didn’t then know anything about Canada, but this single act of kindness convinced him it was a good country and he wanted to learn more about it.

He came and learned more, putting down roots and providing proof that Canada could learn from its past in order to recognize the great value of all its citizens regardless of their country of origin.