These photographs and stories highlight a few of the many valuable contributions made by Canadians of Asian heritage. They reflect historical and cultural milestones that help define the rich and significant history of Canada’s Asian communities.
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Senator Vivienne Poy
Photo courtesy of Neville G. Poy
Senator Vivienne Poy, the first Canadian of Asian descent appointed to the Senate of Canada, is an entrepreneur, author, historian and fashion designer. She was integral to establishing May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada. Ms. Poy was educated in Hong Kong, England and Canada and earned a PhD in history from the University of Toronto. After founding her own fashion label, Vivienne Poy Mode, in 1981, she enjoyed tremendous success in fashion and retail. Ms. Poy was appointed to the Senate in 1998 and in 2001 proposed a motion to designate May as Asian Heritage Month. in May 2002, the Government of Canada declared the celebratory month in a formal ceremony. Senator Poy works closely with Asian Heritage Month Societies across Canada. She served as Chancellor of the University of Toronto from 2003 to 2006 and is active in many community and cultural organizations. She authored five books and co-edited one other.
Dr. Tak Wah Mak
Photo courtesy of the University Health Network Photography Department, Toronto
Dr. Tak Wah Mak, who was born in southern China, is a renowned Canadian scientist whose work in microbiology and immunology has had a significant effect on public health worldwide. His research concentrates on understanding the elemental biology of cells to determine how the immune system works and tumors form. He began his research at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, where in 1984 he solved one of immunology’s most complex problems when he discovered how the immune system recognizes pathogens. He then joined the faculty of the University of Toronto’s Department of Medical Biophysics. Over the next 25 years, Dr. Mak’s research solved many mysteries concerning the molecular biology of the immune system and of cancer. He has been the director of the Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research since 2004. Dr. Mak has been recognized around the world with many distinguished awards, including the Order of Canada.
Lieutenant Commander William K. L. Lore
Photo courtesy of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum
William K. L. Lore, of Victoria, British Columbia, enlisted in the navy in 1943. He was the first Chinese to join the Royal Canadian Navy and the first Chinese officer in any of the British Commonwealth navies. He served in several locations and ultimately in Hong Kong. He was an intelligence staff officer for Rear Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt, the commander of the fleet that sailed into Hong Kong harbour upon Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Harcourt was aware of the support provided by the Canadian Forces in defending Hong Kong in 1940, which is why he ordered the young Canadian naval officer to lead the marines ashore. Lore led a platoon of marines to take control of HMS Tamar, the shore base. Admiral Harcourt assigned him to free the Canadian, British and Hong Kong prisoners from the Sham Shui Po camp. Lieutenant Commander Lore was present during the official handover of the colony and the surrender of the Japanese forces, which was accepted by Rear Admiral Harcourt, on September 16, 1945, in Hong Kong. Mr. Lore died in September 2012 in Hong Kong, aged 103.
William “Bill” Gun Chong
Photo courtesy of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum
William Chong, born in Vancouver, British Columbia, is the only Chinese Canadian to be awarded the British Empire Medal, the highest honour given by the British government to non-British citizens. in 1941, while visiting his sister in Hong Kong, he was captured by the Japanese. He escaped and volunteered with the British Army Aid Group of the British Military Intelligence Section, MI-9, and served as “Agent 50” (“five-oh”). Between 1942 and 1945, Mr. Chong travelled alone in China, dressed as a peasant to avoid outlaws and enemies. His mission was to bring escapees from occupied territories to freedom and to deliver medical supplies. He was captured by the enemy three times and escaped each time. Mr. Chong was one of more than a hundred Chinese who were voluntarily recruited into the military for their language skills. Their service became an affirmation of their commitment to Canada and of their equality.
Photo courtesy of The Province, Vancouver/VPL41609
Douglas Jung of Vancouver was the first Canadian of Chinese ancestry elected to federal office. During the Second World War, Mr. Jung served with Pacific Command Security Intelligence. After the war, he earned a law degree at the University of British Columbia, the first Chinese-Canadian veteran to receive a university education under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was called to the Bar in 1954. On June 10, 1957, Mr. Jung was elected as the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre. Shortly afterward, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed him to represent Canada at the United Nations as the Chair of the Canadian Legal Delegation. He worked to establish strong ties between Canada and Pacific Rim countries. Mr. Jung became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1991. His career as a lawyer, politician and international delegate broke many cultural barriers.
The Honourable Norman L. Kwong
Photo courtesy of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta
Norman Kwong became Alberta’s first Lieutenant-Governor of Asian descent in January 2005. But many people know him as the first Chinese Canadian to play in the Canadian Football League. He was born in Calgary; his parents had immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s from Canton, China, despite the $500 head tax. Mr. Kwong began his professional football career in 1948, one year after the Chinese gained the right to vote in Canada. Known as the “China Clipper,” he played for the Calgary Stampeders for three years before joining the Edmonton Eskimos. When he retired from football in 1960, he had won six Grey Cups, had been named “All Canadian Fullback” five times, had won two Schenley trophies as the league’s most outstanding player and set 30 league records. Mr. Kwong was awarded the Order of Canada in 1998 in recognition of his football career.
The Honourable David See-Chai Lam
Photo by Glenn Baglo, courtesy The Sun, Vancouver (71106)
David See-Chai Lam became British Columbia’s 25th Lieutenant-Governor in September 1988, the first person of Asian descent to hold a vice-regal post in Canada. He brought his family from Hong Kong to Canada, in 1967, choosing Vancouver as their home because he had been awed by the city’s beauty during a business trip. He became a Canadian citizen in 1972. Upon immigrating, he established himself in realty and began developing properties with investment capital from Hong Kong. He became one of Vancouver’s leading land developers and was instrumental in bringing Hong Kong investors to Canada’s west coast. Mr. Lam understood Vancouver as a Pacific Rim city and made great efforts to fortify economic ties between the city and major Asian centres. He believed in the power of immigration as an economic tool and contributed philanthropically to the community. Mr. Lam was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988.
1933 Chinese Students Soccer Team
Photo by C.B. Wand, courtesy Robert Yip
Formed in 1920, Vancouver's Chinese Students' Soccer Team played during a period of anti-Chinese sentiment, which led to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 that barred Chinese immigration. At the time, Canada's Chinese community was comprised largely of "bachelor societies" of men who were separated from their families in China. Also denied the right to vote, the Chinese were prevented from entering most professions.
As the only non-white soccer team in British Columbia, the squad provided much needed hope and inspiration to Vancouver's Chinese community during a time of continuing discrimination. Known for their skill, speed and sportsmanship, the team won the 1st Division provincial championship in 1933, claiming the B.C. Mainland Cup and winning respect for their community. They were inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Several players made history in later years. In 1943, William K.L. Lore became the first Chinese Canadian in the Royal Canadian Navy and the first officer of Chinese descent in all the Navies of the British Commonwealth. Midfielder K. Dock Yip became Canada's first lawyer of Chinese descent in 1945 and lobbied for the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, finally repealed in 1947.
Chinese-Canadian Second World War Veterans
Photo of Chinese-Canadian veterans Roy Mah and George Ing, courtesy of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum
Hundreds of Chinese Canadians fought in the Second World War. They were generally able to enlist in the Canadian Army but were barred on racial grounds from enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force until October 1942 and the Royal Canadian Navy until March 1944. Many Chinese Canadians volunteered for active duty, even though they were exempt from the National Resources Mobilization Act of 1940 (NRMA), which allowed the Canadian government to requisition property and services for defence. in 1944, the British War Office petitioned Ottawa for Chinese Canadians to work for the Special Operations Executive in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. Chinese Canadians were later called up under the NRMA. They played an active role in the Second World War and made unique contributions. Intense lobbying by returning Chinese-Canadian veterans led to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act.
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Photo courtesy of the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Adrienne Clarkson, journalist, author and the first immigrant appointed as Governor General of Canada, came to Canada as a small child in 1942 when her family left Hong Kong after the colony surrendered to the Japanese. Ms. Clarkson was one of television’s first female on-camera personalities. She had an award-winning 18-year career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as host-interviewer for the programs Take Thirty, Adrienne at Large and the fifth estate. She served as Ontario’s agent-general in Paris from 1982 to 1987 and publisher of McClelland & Stewart from 1987 to 1989. in 1989, she returned to broadcasting as executive producer and host of CBC’s national arts showcase Adrienne Clarkson Presents. On September 8, 1999, Ms. Clarkson became the Governor General. Among her successes in the vice-regal position were forging stronger ties between Canada and its northern Aboriginal population and bringing a sense of modernity to the traditional role.
Photo courtesy Baljit Sethi
Baljit Sethi came to Canada from India in 1972. She is the founder and executive director of the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society of Prince George, which provides settlement services to communities in Northern British Columbia. Ms. Sethi understood that newcomers could not become part of their new communities without multicultural programs and the active promotion of racial harmony. She worked to encourage interaction between immigrants and the population of Prince George, the benefit of which was felt across northern British Columbia. Many of the programs Ms. Sethi developed throughout her nearly 40-year career continue to be used to promote multiculturalism and equality. She is also an advocate for immigrant women and has become an inspiration to many people. Her contributions have been recognized with many awards, including the Order of British Columbia and the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism in the lifetime achievement category.
Sikh Canadians During the First World War
Photo courtesy of PH Coll 171.1-22, Alice Woodby Collection, University of Washington Libraries/UW15673
Few Canadians realize that ten Sikhs joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, before Sikhs could attain Canadian citizenship. Eight of them served in Europe and two were killed in action. Buckam Singh of British Columbia, and later Toronto, is the Sikh veteran about whom we know the most. He was wounded twice and died after returning to Canada. His grave in Kitchener, ON, is the only known First World War Sikh-Canadian soldier’s grave in Canada. His comrades in arms were John Baboo of Winnipeg, who was wounded at Vimy Ridge; Sunter Gougersingh who enlisted in Montréal; Hari Singh from Toronto; Harnom Singh from Chilliwack, BC; John Singh of Winnipeg; Lashman Singh and Waryam Singh, who enlisted at Smiths Falls, Ontario; Ram Singh of Grand Forks, BC; and Sewa Singh of Vancouver.
Photo courtesy Deepa Mehta
Deepa Mehta is a prominent and respected filmmaker whose work is known worldwide for its honesty, beauty and universality. Her award-winning films have been shown at major film festivals and distributed worldwide. Her elemental trilogy comprises Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005), which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film and attained Canadian and global success. Both Water and her comedy Bollywood Hollywood (2002) remain two of the top 10 grossing English Canadian filMs. Other movies in her oeuvre are Sam and Me (1991), Camilla (1993), and A Heaven on Earth (2008). Ms. Mehta is the recipient of the 2012 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement.
Photo courtesy Al Gilbert Studio
Raymond Moriyama is an internationally acclaimed Japanese-Canadian architect and urban planner. He describes architecture as a social force that is “a relentless, investigative process.” His architecture is innovative and functional and has enhanced Canada’s reputation for architectural innovation. Mr. Moriyama’s work includes the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, which symbolizes the Canadian spirit, the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library and Sudbury’s Science North. His most notable project is the Canadian War Museum, which is devoted to exploring themes of memory and regeneration in the face of war. Considered an iconic national monument, it is richly symbolic and an elegant tribute to the Canadian Forces. The project is described in Mr. Moriyama’s book, in Search of a Soul (2006). He has been awarded numerous honorary degrees, won Governor General’s Medals for Architecture, the 2010 Sakura Award from Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, and is a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Naranjan Singh Grewall
Photo courtesy of Mission Community Archives
Naranjan Singh Grewall, from India, was a prominent business owner and municipal official in Mission, BC. in 1951, he ran for a seat on the board of governors of the Village of Mission. in 1954, he was elected chairman of the board of governors, making him one of the first Canadians of Indian descent to hold public office in Canada. Mr. Grewall moved from Toronto to Mission in 1941 and eventually owned sawmill operations across the Fraser Valley.
Chan Hon Goh
Photo courtesy of National Ballet of Canada (Photographer: Cylla von Tiedemann)
Chan Hon Goh, who was born in Beijing, China, is a ballerina and entrepreneur, and a past principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada (1994). As a dancer, she was known for her delicacy and charm. Her beginnings in ballet were not auspicious; her parents, both dancers, thought she was unsuited for ballet and encouraged her to play the piano. But at age 9, Goh began studying ballet with her aunt at the Vancouver Academy of Music. She left dancing in 2009 with a farewell performance of Giselle. She is the co-founder of Principal Shoes, which has a successful line of pointe shoes and dance footwear, and since 2010 has been the director of the Goh Ballet Academy and Youth Company. Goh is in demand as a speaker, particularly in the Asian Canadian community.
Photo courtesy Sarah Scott
Kim Thúy, award-winning author, fled her native Vietnam with her parents and two brothers in 1978 to escape the country’s oppressive communist regime. Their journey included a harrowing escape in the nauseating hold of a fishing boat and staying in a Malaysian refugee camp before arriving as “boat people” in Quebec. The family’s incredible journey and adaptation to their new home form the narrative of her debut novel Ru, which tells of the changes in a young girl’s life as she moves from a state of unrest to the security of a peaceful life. Ru was a runaway bestseller in Quebec, winning the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for French fiction in 2010 and the Grand Prix littéraire Archambault in 2011. Before discovering her skill as a novelist, Ms. Thúy worked as a vegetable picker, seamstress and cashier, and completed degrees in linguistics and translation (1990) and law (1993).
Photo courtesy of the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration
Paul Nguyen, filmmaker and advocate, was born in Toronto and is a second-generation Vietnamese Canadian whose parents fled Vietnam and came to Canada during the migration of the “boat people.” He uses the Internet and his passion for filmmaking to promote unity among people of diverse backgrounds. As a boy he was avidly interested in creating films and made movies with his best friend that they distributed throughout their neighbourhood, the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. Mr. Nguyen’s early life prompted an interest in narrating the gap between second-generation Vietnamese kids and their parents. He has dedicated his life to improving race relations and promoting multicultural understanding in Canada, speaking out on youth crime, gang violence and the social issues of marginalized communities. in 2010, Mr. Nguyen received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship and the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism in the outstanding achievement category. in 2012, he was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for fighting stereotypes and acting as a role model and mentor for at-risk youth in his community.
Photo courtesy Ewan Nicholson
Carol Huynh, the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, fled Vietnam with her family in the late 1970s as a refugee. They settled in Hazelton, BC, where they were sponsored by the local United Church. Ms. Huynh began freestyle wrestling in high school and continued in the sport through university. She won medals at the world championships—bronze in 2000 and 2005, and silver in 2001. Women’s wrestling debuted at the Olympic Games in 2004, and Ms. Huynh was involved but not as a wrestler. She failed to qualify for the team and instead was Lyndsay Belisle’s training partner. Ms. Huynh won a gold medal at the Pan-Am Games in 2007 and went on to repeat her performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She had not been favoured to win, but she defeated the reigning world champion, Japan’s Chiharu Icho.
Jon Kimura Parker
Photo courtesy Tara McMullen
Jon Kimura Parker of Vancouver, whose family originally came from Japan, is recognized worldwide for his virtuosity. As guest solo pianist, he has toured the world with several orchestras and performed for heads of state and dignitaries. He made his musical debut at age five with the Vancouver Youth Orchestra. Mr. Parker’s eclectic repertoire is infused with classical music of the Romantic era and a variety of 20th-century composers. His repertoire ranges from Beethoven to Alanis Morissette’s One Hand in my Pocket. Mr. Parker has also hosted the Whole Notes series on Bravo! Canada, and the CBC Radio series Up and Coming. He has won more than 200 competitions, including the Governor General’s Arts Award. He was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1999. in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Mr. Parker helped to organize a benefit concert, Dear Japan – With Love, 2011.
Photo courtesy Amanda Hall Studios
Juliette Kang, born in Edmonton to Korean parents, was a child prodigy who began violin lessons at age four and made her debut in Montréal at seven. By 11, she had attracted international attention, winning top prizes at the 1986 Beijing International Youth Violin Competition in China. in 1989, at 13, she became the youngest artist to win New York’s Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Ms. Kang has performed with every major orchestra in Canada and many orchestras from around the world. Her repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary, including the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Ravel. in 1996, the New York Times predicted that Ms. Kang would change our culture. She has performed some of the world’s most challenging violin repertoire, including Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, performed with the Reno Chamber Orchestra, and William Walton’s Violin Concerto, performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Photo credit Shyam Selvadurai
Novelist Shyam Selvadurai, who was born in Sri Lanka, is of Tamil and Sinhala heritage. The possibilities and impossibilities of “mixing” dominate his fiction. He immigrated with his family to Canada following the 1983 riots in Colombo, when he was 19. He has a remarkable ability to portray a world threatened by intolerance but still possessing beauty, humour and humanity. Mr. Selvadurai’s first novel, Funny Boy, won several awards for its frank depiction of its main character’s coming of age during the tumultuous years before the 1983 riots. His second novel, Cinnamon Gardens, returns to Sri Lanka, but in the 1920s when the country was called Ceylon. Mr. Selvadurai’s characters navigate an uncertain world accompanied by their own insecurities as the political and the personal merge. in 2005, he published a novel for young adults, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, which garnered a Lambda Literary Award.
Photo courtesy Jamie Hogg
Zaib Shaikh is a Canadian-born actor, writer and director of Pakistani descent, but he has not been typecast into the shallow ethnic stereotypes common in North American pop culture. His early work included Metropia and Da Vinci’s City Hall. in 2007, he received international attention for his portrayal of lawyer-turned-imam Amaar Rashid in the popular CBC comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie. The series portrays the Muslim inhabitants of a fictional Saskatchewan town who establish a mosque in the rented parish hall of the local Anglican Church. Mr. Shaikh brings a fierce intelligence and flustered naiveté to a role that has no precedent in Canada or Hollywood and for which he won the 2008 Leo Award for best performance in a comedy series. Mr. Shaikh has worked extensively in theatre as well, and co-founded the Whistler Theatre Project in Whistler, BC. He is committed to making a lasting contribution to Canadian drama.
Photo courtesy of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum
Margaret Jean Gee is the first woman of Chinese descent to be called to the Bar in British Columbia. She was born in Vancouver and grew up in the city’s Chinatown. She attended high school there and graduated from the University of British Columbia. Ms. Gee was called to the Bar on May 31, 1954, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen the following day and noted in Chitty’s Law Journal of 1954. She opened her law office at 510 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. Ms. Gee reported in a CBC interview in 1957 that she liked being referred to as a “lady lawyer” and had been “forced to face only a few racial incidents either at school, in university or her private practice.”
Photo courtesy of David Mitsui
At Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Masumi Mitsui, a Japanese Canadian soldier, earned the Military Medal for bravery. After the war, he returned to British Columbia and resumed his life, had a family, helped to establish a Japanese Canadian war memorial in Stanley Park, and became the president of Branch 9 of the Royal Canadian Legion. He was a member of the contingent that lobbied the B.C. legislature to give Japanese Canadians the right to vote. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Mitsui and his family, like all people of Japanese ancestry in Canada, were declared enemies and sent to an internment camp. Their home and possessions were confiscated. After the war, Mitsui participated in the lobbying for a public apology and compensation. He died in 1987, aged 99, the last surviving Japanese Canadian veteran of the First World War—a year before the government made its apology.
Ai Thien Tran
Photo courtesy of Ai Thien Tran
Ai Thien Tran, a social worker, became the first Vietnamese Canadian to receive Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants Award. His life story shows courage, resilience and an indefatigable quest to succeed. It was an arduous journey for Ai when he left Vietnam as a 20-year-old boat person, spending 12 years as a stateless refugee in the Philippines. Arriving in Canada in 2001, he faced the newcomer’s typical challenges, aside from the psychological and emotional trauma left over from having lived in isolation.
Through it all, Ai has shown great resilience. He worked full time while studying in the social work program at McGill University where he graduated with honours. He was invited to be a lifetime member of the Golden Key International Honour Society. In 2006, he was one of 10 students the world over to receive the Golden Key scholarship.
Ai’s leadership and outstanding contribution to the McGill School of Social Work earned him the Sadie Aronoff award. He was an executive director of the Vietnamese Canadian Federation in 2009 and is currently active in several community organizations, including the Citizen Advisory Committee, Ottawa Parole, and the Ukrainian National Federation, Ottawa-Gatineau. He continuously takes on new challenges and risks to maintain a strong vision of helping others.
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