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The "Mayor of Chinatown"

For the week of Monday July 28, 2014

On July 31, 1971, Canadian rights activist Wong Foon Sien died, after having influenced immigration and citizenship policies in Canada for decades.

Wong Foon Sein
© Larry Wong, "The Life and Times of Foon Sien", British Columbia History, vol. 38, no. 3, 2005, p. 8

Foon Sien was born in China on July 7, 1899 and moved to Cumberland, British Columbia, with his family when he was nine. He studied law, but was unable to practice because as a person of Chinese descent, he was not officially considered a Canadian citizen or even permitted to vote, requirements needed for the legal profession.

Making the most of his language skills, he worked in journalism, labour activism and translation, the latter mostly for the Vancouver police and the courts. He also filled crucial roles in Chinese-Canadian organizations, notably as president of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) from 1948 to 1959. Foon Sien’s legacy, however, lies in his passionate fight to end selective immigration policies in Canada.

After the Second World War, Foon Sien, as a member of the CBA, opposed the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which made it impossible to re-unite families that had begun coming to Canada and virtually halted all Chinese immigration. CBA members overwhelmed government offices with letters and denounced the Act in public speeches to Canadians. Their movement was aided by the repeal of a similar Act by the United States in 1944. China had been an ally in the war, and as many as 400 Chinese-Canadians had served in the Canadian military. In 1947, the Canadian government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act.

Wong Foon Sien, second from the top right, chairing a local rally to protect homes in Chinatown.
© Vancouver Public Library / Province Newspaper / 41632A

While Chinese people were now able to immigrate legally, in practice the process remained fairly exclusive. Asian-Canadians citizens were only allowed to sponsor in their wives and children under the age of 18. In the 1960s, Foon Sien made frequent “pilgrimages” to Ottawa, pushing to reform further immigration laws so that families could be reunited in Canada.

Wong Foon Sien’s efforts contributed to the heightened political consciousness of an entire demographic. He was designated a National Historic Person in 2008. Vancouver’s Chinatown, where he made his mark, is a National Historic Site.

To learn more about Chinese-Canadians and racism, see Legalizing Racism, Vancouver’s Chinatown: a vibrant neighbourhood!, Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers, "Granny Yip", and A Gateway to Another Culture in the This Week in History archives.

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