May 24, 2021

Chinatown: Tying In Vancouver’s Early Stories, Rediscovering Our Past

Catherine Clement probably never thought she would become a gifted curator, author and historian.  Her work uncovering and putting together the remarkable story of Yucho Chow, a Chinatown based photographer showed the powers of photos to bring back stories. Ms. Clement would have photos brought to her that families have kept and treasured, and through those early portraits of these Vancouver settlers learned more about the family stories and backgrounds.

The very well attended event held online in May sponsored by the Pacific Canada Museum of Migration pieces and traces an often forgotten part of history, and as Ms. Clement describes it, shows the importance of paper to Asians. There was a head tax imposed on each Asian Canadian and even Canadians born, schooled and raised in Vancouver had to carry identity cards marking themselves as foreign. Permission had to be obtained to travel in the province. For Asian Canadians, papers created the colonial structure of their lives.

Through this  way of documentation, Ms. Clement was able to see the photos of these early settlers through the work of the photographer, Yucho Chow. Mr. Chow also photographed families from other heritages. By asking the descendants of these people in the photos, Ms. Clement also learned the remarkable stories that fleshed out who these extraordinary individuals were.

And it is fascinating.

One image that Ms. Clement found was that of Ishar Sing Gill with his dog King. King the dog is sitting on a tall column beside Mr. Gill, and rightly so, the dog went everywhere with him. Ms. Clement found out that the tradition has continued, in that every dog that comes into the Gill family even since is always named King.

In the discriminatory “Chinese Immigration Service” card carried by Won Alexander Cumyow, who was the first Asian Canadian born in Vancouver , I was able to make another connection.

While Mr. Cumyow had to possess this card that clearly states “This document does not establish legal status in Canada” he was also the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association and had written a very evocative letter in the March 24, 1920 of the Vancouver Daily.

I had found this letter below and wondered  who could have written this so evocatively one hundred years ago. It is also a letter to the editor that just as easily could have been written today.

Editor, Sun, Sir:

Being the only organization representing the Chinese Community as a whole, we take the liberty of answering your valued editorial of yesterday’s date, headed “Chinatown-Or Drug Traffic”?

This editorial we infer, is publicly addressed to the Chinese population of Vancouver . We feel constrained to question your statement that the “traffic in habit-forming drugs centres in Chinatown”…It is indeed too obvious to state that habit-forming drugs do not of their own sweet accord drop from the blue heavens into “Chinatown” and is needless for us to state that all means of ingress and egress by which this illegal drug traffic can be carried on is neither directly or indirectly controlled by the Chinese.

We appreciate the fairness of your statement that we cannot “prevent the carrying out of illegal drug traffic by Chinese vendors, but feel that it is highly regrettable that you should insinuate that we “dare not or will not”, knowing full well as you must, that the whole of “Chinatown” does not possess a single municipal vote…

In conclusion we wish to assure the general public that we are only too glad to render any assistance in eradicating this nefarious trade, and that the Chinese people are not afraid to attempt to prevent this illegal drug traffic is more than proven by the fact that not so very long ago China went to war with Great Britain in an endeavour to stamp out the evil.

This reply is actuated by the same motives which prompted the writing of your valuable editorial; and we trust that in your wonted  “spirit of fair-play” you will give this reply due publication.

Yours sincerely

W.A. Cumyow

President, Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver”


Ms. Clement in her ten year quest of looking for the forgotten photographs of Yucho Chow has led her to finding the documents used to keep track of, manage, and oppress Asian settlers. It was through that connection and the YouTube presentation below I finally saw  the Chinese Immigration photo card for Mr. Cumyow.  Who of course was born here, was a prominent Vancouverite, and wrote brilliantly.

You can learn more about how to look for a research old family stories in the YouTube video below, which includes Ms. Clement’s research and photos into early Chinatown.


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