[Photo: Larry Wong]
The Life and Times of Foon Sien
Guest Column by Larry Wong
Largely forgotten since his death in 1971, Wong Foon Sien was perhaps
the most influential person in Vancouvers Chinatown, if not
in Canada, in the easing of restrictions of the immigration laws.
In the late 1940s, the Chinese in Canada were allowed to bring in
from China their spouses, unmarried children under 21, father over
65 years of age and mother over 60. It took Foon Sien eleven years
of annual visits to Ottawa to ease the restrictions. The effect
of the changes impacted the bachelor society of Chinatown
by correcting the imbalanced ratio of Chinese men to Chinese women.
His year of birth is uncertain. One account has 1899, others have
either 1901 or 1902. His Chinese name was Wong Mun Poo and he was
born in China. The birth date is July 7, which he assured the writer
in a 1960 interview.
His parents migrated to Cumberland, B.C. where his
father became a successful merchant and ran a general/herbal store.
As a 10-year old, Foon studied the Four Books and the Five
Canons of Chinese learning after public schoolhis parents
envisioned him having a career in Imperial China. Like most Chinese
parents of the time, they wanted to send Foon Sien to China for
a proper education. Their plans went awry when a young Chinese revolutionary
named Dr. Sun Yat-Sen visited Cumberland in 1911 on a fund-raising
mission to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. It made an impression on
the young Foon Sien, who was inspired to study law. When he finished
high school he moved to Vancouver.
He was one of the first five Chinese to attend the
University of British Columbia, but remained for just one year.
His first job came from BCs attorney general A.M. Manson as
an official court interpreter for the province of British Columbia.
One of his early cases was the trial in 1924 of Wong Foon Sing,
the houseboy accused of killing nursemaid Janet Smith. [Editors
note: see the 1924 page
on this sites chronology for more on that fascinating case.]
Chinese born in Canada were considered British subjects
but not citizens of Canada. They held the status of Aliens and were
listed as such on the electoral lists as far back as 1867. In 1874,
the B.C. government proclaimed, Chinamen of the Province of
British Columbia may not make application to have their names inserted
in any list of voters and are disqualified from voting at any elections.
The Chinese government in the early part of the twentieth century
deemed all Chinese born outside of the mother country to be Chinese
Nationals. If a Chinese born in Canada wished to become a Canadian,
he would have to write for permission from the Chinese government
and, once granted that permission, apply to the local courts for
citizenship which, in most cases, was turned down.
Chinese trained in the professions such as law, pharmacy, and accounting
in universities could not join the professional societies as their
first requirement for membership was Canadian citizenship.
In 1923 the federal government introduced the Immigration Act,
commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The intent of the legislation
was to keep Chinese out of the country. In spite of the head tax
imposed on Chinese immigration since the completion of the CP Railway,
starting at a fee of $50 and rising to a maximum of $500 in 1903,
Chinese immigrants continued entering Canada.
The 1923 Immigration Act was the only act in Canadian parliamentary
history specifically aimed at a particular race. The legislation
shut the door to any further Chinese migration with the exception
of students, ministers, diplomats and Chinese born in Canada. The
effect of the Act was disastrous on the Chinese communities. With
no emigrants coming in, the present population of men were isolated
from their families in China, away from their wives and children.
Then the Great Depression began, and the situation became particularly
desperate for Canadas Chinese. Some left Canada for China,
some lost their jobs and homes, some accepted their fate to wither
in Chinatown, and some committed suicide. The population of the
Chinese community became overwhelming male, a bachelors
Foon Sien became prominent in 1937 when he was appointed
publicity agent for the Chinese Benevolent Associations aid-to-China
program. He was successful in stopping the export of scrap metals
to Japan during the Second World War and became known as Japans
No. 1 enemy in North America. He was also the founder of several
associations, the most important being the Chinese Trade Workers
Association in 1942.
During the war, he was recruited into a Canadian government department
called the National War Service to look after mail and telegrams
in the Chinese and English sections of the censorship unit.
In 1945, after the war, Foon went to Victoria to join the editorial
staff of the New Republic Chinese Daily. He campaigned for franchise
rights denied to the Chinese in Canada. Along with other Chinese
leaders and veterans, they succeeded and the 1923 Exclusion Act
was repealed on May 14, 1947. This in turn led to the rights to
citizenship and the vote. He was recognized for his efforts with
an award from the Chinese Canadian Citizens Association.
In a peculiar way, Canada was a nation without citizens
before 1947. "Canadians" were simply British subjects
living in Canada. For a country that emerged from the Second World
War with a strong sense of nationhood, it was embarrassing. Not
until a Liberal cabinet minister toured the military cemetery at
Dieppe, the site where Canadians fought and died in defence of their
country, was the Canadian Citizenship Act created. On January 1,
1947 the Canadian Citizenship Act came into effect and Canadians
finally became Canadian citizens. That minister was
Paul Martin, Sr., father of the former prime minister.
Even so, Canadian immigration policy was highly restrictive and
admitted few immigrants and it was this very issue that Foon Sien
took as his cause. In 1948 he became the president of the Chinese
Benevolent Association and for the next eleven years lobbied the
federal government in Ottawa for relaxation of the qualifications
of Chinese families.
In an article in the June 3, 1955 issue of Chinatown
News Foon Sien wrote that . . . our people are still suffering
reverses in our fight for equal immigration rights. In 1951 I pleaded
with Mr. Harris, then the Minister of Immigration, to allow entry
for unmarried children of Chinese Canadians between the ages of
21 and 25 on compassionate grounds. This was allowed at the time
but was stopped by a new ruling dated March 12, 1955. These reverses
in our struggle have handicapped us seriously in our struggle for
equal immigration rights.
He continued: It would be a great boon to
aging Chinese Canadians if they could bring youngsters to Canada
to give them the advantages of the better standard of living and
way of life here. Not only would this make up in part for the sacrifice
these men have made in being separated from their families so long,
but it would provide Canada with a fine new type of Chinese citizens
who would rapidly assimilate the culture and traditions of this
In 1957 Foon was instrumental in changing the imbalance of Chinese
men to women by convincing the government to adopt a policy that
would allow Chinese men living in Canada for two years to post a
$1,000 cash bond for their fiancées from China.
In the course of his life Foon became a staunch supporter of the
Liberal Party with one exception: that was when Douglas Jung, a
young war veteran and lawyer, ran for the Conservative Party in
Vancouver Centre and won by a landslide to become the first Chinese
Canadian Member of Parliament. The year was 1957.
Regardless of what political party was in power Foon Sien continued
his annual trek to Ottawa. During this time, there were newspaper
accounts of illegal Chinese immigrants coming into the country.
The accusation was denied by the Chinese but on a Sunday morning
in May of 1960 there was a rude awakening, a shock to Chinese communities
all across Canada.
The RCMP, accompanied by members of the Hong Kong
police force, simultaneously raided certain offices and homes in
Chinatowns from Victoria to Trois-Rivieres, Quebecincluding
those of Foon Sien. The national police seized correspondence, records
and other documents in search of illegal immigrants. Shock and dismay
led to outrage, and Foon Sien declared, They (the police)
are checking every man, woman and child. In my mind, I think it
is destruction of human rights and dignity and, to us, a loss of
A month later, 22 delegates from Chinese communities met separately
with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Justice Minister E. Davie
Fulton and Immigration Minister Ellen Fairclough to learn the outcome
of the raids. They were assured that no Chinese would be persecuted
or deported who had helped with the illegal entry of family members.
In the end, twenty-four Chinese were prosecuted, five of whom were
never brought to trial, and two acquitted. Two were put on probation
and the rest were fined or imprisoned or both.
Eventually an amnesty policy called the Chinese Adjustment Statement
Program was implemented from 1960 to 1972 when more than 12,000
Chinese had their status adjusted.
During that time Foon Sien retired, but continued his interest
in international affairs, Chinese customs, social and political
problems faced by Chinese Canadians and life in Chinatown. He was,
to many people, a person to seek for help or advice. In his own
backyard of Chinatown he helped settle disputes and was known to
have loaned money out of his own pocket to those in need.
He was an active member of not only the Chinese Benevolent Association
but of the Wong Kung Har Society, the Chinese Canadian Citizens
Association, the Chinese Trade Workers Association and the Liberal
Party, Vancouver Centre branch. He was a founder and board member
of the Vancouver Civic Association, the forerunner of the B.C. Human
Rights Council. He had a membership in the Canadian Council of Christians
and Jews and the Vancouver Citizenship Council where he served as
a Chinese community representative on the B.C. Ethnic Sub-Committee.
Newspaper columnists called him the unofficial
Mayor of Chinatown. He was also termed Champion of Chinese
Rights but the mayor label stuck, an indication
that Foon Sien spoke with a single voice for Chinatown.
When he finally retired from the Chinese Benevolent
Association in 1960, Foon was satisfied that the government had
finally relaxed the immigration policy. He said, Our idea
was to ask the government to put a more humane concept into its
immigration laws to allow Chinese to enter Canada on almost the
same terms as European immigrants. This is not the same as asking
for complete equality. We do, however; feel that relatives of Chinese
Canadians such as direct descendants should be allowed into the
country irrespective of age.
In the October 18, 1961 issue of Chinatown News,
columnist Bill Kan gave credit to Foon Sien for:
following tangible results: (1) the restoration of the Canadian
citizenship rights to Chinese Canadian females who lost those privileges
through marriage (2) readmission to Canada for all those belonging
to this category together with their husbands and children under
21 (3) permission of parents of Chinese Canadians over 65 to take
up residence in Canada, and (4) entry of mail order brides. Through
these improved laws, thousands of Chinese Canadians were able to
join their families and take up residence in Canada today, thanks
to a tenacious fighter named Foon Sien.
Foon Siens constant lobbying kept the government in check
and reminded them that the immigration policy did not treat Chinese
immigrants equally and fairly. Chinese immigration dropped in numbers
when he retired in 1960 but his persistence laid the groundwork
for the formulation of the Immigration Act of 1967 based on the
The new Act ended the explicitly racist immigration policy, and
with its point system ranked independent immigrants according to
age, education, labor skills, language skills and resources in a
fair and equitable manner much as Foon Sien had wanted.
In his lifetime he was a recipient of many awards. He died July
31, 1971 and his funeral was one of the largest seen in Chinatown.
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