“YIPYEN DIED THIS MORNING NOTIFY RELATIVES AND FRIENDS SAMWOHING” so states a telegraph dated 3 April 1930 sent from Hong Kong to Vancouver. The telegram is part of a collection housed at the University of British Columbia Library which includes Hong Kong business records from the 1930s.
Sam Wo Hing & Co was a thriving import-export business in Mongkok, a commercial centre in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The company exported fish from Canada and had a branch office in Vancouver likely run by family members.
The Sam Wo Hing & Co records in Hong Kong have been lost to time, but the more than 25 years of records from the Vancouver branch show a one-sided conversation of a bustling trade between the two cities. The records also indicate meticulous attention to packing instructions in order to ensure the freshness of the fish and need to reduce damage in the long journey across the Pacific.
These telegrams and records demonstrate more than numbers, margins, profits and losses, they also show the strong connections between people in both cities. Yipyen’s death was mourned on both sides of the Pacific.
Research is a journey
I came across the Sam Wo Hing archive while helping the Hong Kong Maritime Museum prepare for its new exhibition, “Made in Hong Kong – Our City, Our Stories”. The research journey has taken us all around the world to museums, libraries and archives that hold information about the Hong Kong Chinese diaspora. Opening in March of 2015, the exhibition has a goal to show the global connections that Hong Kong people have made over the past 150 years. As a fellow part of the British empire, Canada and Hong Kong have always had strong ties.
The show must go on
The City of Vancouver Archives has a collection of photographs of Vancouver’s Golden Jubilee parade celebrated in 1936. Featured in the photographs are the Jin Wah Sing Theatre troupe.
The troupe was formed in Vancouver in 1934 by members of the Chinese Freemasons Association. The troupe was founded three years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and it is reasonable to conjecture that many Chinese left Asia for the safer shores of North America. Jin Wah Sing Theatre group was acknowledged as a local affiliate of the Chinese Artists’ Association of Hong Kong, the only troupe in Canada with that distinction.
The Royal BC Museum’s online journal, Curious, recently featured a film of a 1944 Cantonese opera performed in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The film is a perfect time capsule showing the Chinese diaspora of the time. The banners on the stage indicate the performance was by the Jin Wah Sing Theatre. The signs also state that casting was done by Gui Mingyang, Wen Huamei, and Lu Xuehong, all of whom had a Hong Kong background.
During the performance one wonders if those in the cast or audience had thoughts of friends and relatives back home in Hong Kong?
Not the slightest chance
The statue of John Robert Osborn from the Winnipeg Grenadiers in Hong Kong Park stands as a silent witness to Hong Kong’s darkest period of history and one of the deadliest for Canadians. Osborn was one of nearly two thousand Canadian soldiers who pulled into Victoria Harbour on November 16, 1941 to help protect the colony. The Canadians arrived from Vancouver and were sent to supplement troops from Hong Kong, Great Britain, and India.
Many of the Canadian soldiers were new recruits and inexperienced in warfare. The Canadian soldiers and others fought valiantly to defend Hong Kong from a surprise attack by the Japanese on December 8, 1941.
During the ensuing Battle of Hong Kong, Osborn sacrificed himself by throwing himself on a hand grenade saving members of his company from certain death. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration awarded for valour.
The British surrender on Christmas Day 1941 was not an end to the suffering, for many it was only the beginning. Hong Kong people, along with foreign civilians and military troops, endured three and half years of starvation, beatings, rape, murder and bombings. The Canadian prisoners of war were housed in deplorable conditions lacking basic hygiene, sanitation and proper housing. Some were even deported to labour camps in Japan.
One of the most vivid discoveries my research of this period demonstrates is the shear scarcity of creature comforts of the prisoners of war. The Imperial War Museum has in its collection a pair of underpants from the Stanley Prison which housed many prisoners of war. The pants were assembled from an old flour sack. Under normal circumstances the bag may have been thrown away but at Stanley Prison the fabric was repurposed into an essential piece of clothing. The flour sack pants still bear the name of the flour importer, Sam Wo Hing & Co.
The Hong Kong Maritime Museum’s exhibition, “Made in Hong Kong – Our City, Our Stories” will open March 6, 2015 at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, Pier 8, Central, Hong Kong.