Almost every day at noon, Wu Xia Ru arrives by bus to open the headquarters and clubhouse of the Ing Suey Sun Tong Association at the corner of Hastings and Dunlevy. He is the association’s secretary, but he shakes off the title, performing all odd jobs that come up during the day.
Members trickle in to chat, read the newspaper, play mahjong or fix a cup of coffee.
A Chinese florist occupies the street level with barred windows. An outer wall seals off the clubhouse yard and main entrance. Barbed wire sits on top of a shorter wall. Just in case of the Downtown Eastside’s unpredictability.
Wu, 83, left Guangzhou, China 20 years ago and connected with the association because, very simply, everybody with the last name shared by the club knew about it. Association branches existed in many major cities. The Ing surname has been anglicized with variants like Ang, Eng, Ng, Ong and Wu. For a hundred years through discrimination and immigration, the association helped members of the Ing clan adjust to their new lives in Canada.
It wasn’t long before Wu noticed the safe.
It was made of iron, 18 by 18 by 23 inches, with the fading name of the association printed in English. It sat conspicuously in the corner of the main floor’s hallway.
“Every single person said there was nothing inside,” Wu told the Courier in Cantonese.
Wu asked if there was money in the safe but members scoffed at him. They told him old Chinese immigrants always kept their money in banks.
Wu kept asking and was given a new answer.
“They told me garbage was inside,” said Wu. “Useless stuff from old times. People they named who would know about it were all dead and presidents change very fast. I knew there had to be a key somewhere.”
The safe’s contents were a mystery lost in the turnover of members and positions. And it taunted Wu from its corner over the years. He did not think the contents were garbage simply because they were old. Wu is passionate about immigrant history and collects artifacts as a hobby. Some he finds in Chinatown. Other sources he keeps to himself.
“If I see it and can afford it, I always buy it,” said Wu. He is upset when old furniture from the clubhouse is thrown away.
In 2007, he told a Chinatown locksmith about the safe. The locksmith quoted a price of $240 and required the safe to be brought down to his shop. Wu declined.
Five years later, in June 2012, Wu unlocked the clubhouse at noon as usual. Members slowly appeared and Wu ranted about the safe.
Then a member spoke up: Wu Yue Zhong, 82, a retired farmer from Taishan, China. He came to Vancouver in 1989 and visits the clubhouse to indulge in mahjong.
Yue Zhong offered to open the safe. “Paying the locksmith over a hundred dollars?” he told the Courier in Cantonese. “Forget it.”
Wu telephoned the association’s president immediately. The president left the decision to Wu because many trusted him. His faithful volunteer service did not go unnoticed; Wu was often mistaken for the president himself.
With the approval, Yue Zhong went to work on the safe. But he didn’t have a professional tool, just a crowbar.
Others watched earnestly. A few wondered aloud if there really was money inside.
Yue Zhong hacked at the lock violently. In 20 minutes, the safe opened.
Inside were three wooden drawers filled with old papers. Someone told Wu that it was all trash and to throw it away.
They brought out a long table into the centre of the clubhouse’s main meeting room to lay out the contents. An ocean of documents, both English and Chinese. Words that had not been read for an unknown number of years.
Yue Zhong did not think much of the episode. “Breaking [the safe] open was easy. Just don’t ask me to build one.”
It took Wu over a week to go through the near hundred-year-old papers.
Inside were copies of the immigrant newspaper, the Chinese Times, with one from 1914 that highlighted the founding of the association. There were also membership records with their hometowns in China.
A receipt caught Wu’s eye, dated 1919 with Chinese characters in both traditional Han characters and older seal script. It was for a $5 donation, which Wu explained was worth half a year’s wages back then.
The receipt was linked to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China who led the revolution against the imperial Qing dynasty. Canada’s Chee Kung Tong, an early name for the Chinese Freemasons, mortgaged their headquarters in Victoria for $12,000 to fund weapons for the revolution. Half the revolution’s financing came from Canada.
Eight years later, the Chee Kung Tong called for donations from the Chinese community. The $5 receipt Wu had discovered was a generous sum from a member of the Ing clan. To his knowledge, no other receipts have been found.
“This is physical proof that Vancouver’s Chinese immigrants were big supporters of the revolutionary cause,” said Wu.
Wu had opened the safe, but he wanted to open up the artifacts for the public to enjoy, along with others the association has kept over the years.
The hundredth anniversary of the association in 2014 drew close, the perfect opportunity for an exhibition.
Reception to the idea was lukewarm due to the work required, but member Henry Ng was quick to offer a thousand dollar donation to help. Ng, 85, connected with the association when he first came to Canada. In January 1951, he arrived from Hong Kong after many months at sea with $20 and a suitcase. He was accompanied by his cousin, whose father had ties to the association and job opportunities.
Ng slept in a bed in the clubhouse attic packed with over 20 men at a time. Rent was $3 a month. Ng worked at everything from washing dishes to helping a tailor. He stayed there for over two years.
He opened his shoe repair shop on Main Street in the '60s and the business still goes strong today.
“The association is important to me because it’s where I came from,” he said in Cantonese.
After Ng, others members joined in to support the exhibition.
But Wu struggled to gather other immigration documents owned by members for the exhibit. Many were difficult to convince and others refused. Wu “pleaded until [his] mouth was dry” and remembered staying awake all night waiting for an indecisive member’s approval to contribute family documents.
In the end, 120 items were framed, with descriptions written in Chinese by Wu and with English translation. Some items came from Wu’s personal collection. The month-long exhibition was held at the Chinese Cultural Centre mid-June to mid-July.
“Many prominent Chinatown figures fought to join our ribbon cutting,” laughed Wu.
Other Ing artifacts included rare maps, a large medicinal vial in which home remedies were brewed, letters from families in China detailing hardships and a receipt from Taishan when an Ing family sold their son in 1944. It read in Chinese, “We have had a hard time making a life for ourselves and not enough to raise our children. We decided to sell our second eldest son to survive.”
Visitors included an embassy representative from Beijing, members of New York’s Ing association and tourists from as far as Mexico, India and the U.K. MPs, MLAs, provincial lieutenant governors, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued notes of congratulations.
“People hadn’t seen an immigrant exhibition like this,” said Wu. “Everyone wanted to take us out for dinner!”
The exhibit included pages from a 1926 booklet featuring the hundred last names of Chinese families. It was used to teach Chinese children born in Vancouver about their culture.
“The book tells you where you’re from, who are your prominent ancestors,” said Wu. “You learn your name, you learn your family’s stories.”
One of Wu’s hopes for the anniversary was to do the same: stir interest among young Chinese-Canadians about their heritage.
Member Ng Shee Fung, 82, has seen the association age since he arrived in Vancouver in 1951. He did labour for the CPR, sending money home to his mother in Taishan. There was a bigger crowd back then. He remembered when members returned from work in the evenings and they would eat together.
“Now, almost everyone here is in their 80s,” he said in Taishanese.
Members are getting old. Wu was pleased to see many young bi- and trilingual volunteers at the exhibition. Wu brought his own grandchildren to see it.
“My grandchildren didn’t even really know what the association is,” said Wu. “It’s good for the young people to have a glimpse of what their history is like.”
For 17-year-old grandson Colin Wu, it was the first time connecting with the association and the work of his grandfather.
“It was very fascinating,” said Colin. “Pretty much everyone has to understand they have another culture.”
It’s been a century of change for the association. Presidents come and go, immigration patterns shift and Chinatown is redeveloping. Wu is now in charge of a new safe, hidden away.
But some things haven’t changed. Yue Zhong shuffles into the clubhouse to play mahjong, Chinese opera broadcasts nosily and Wu faithfully stays with the association. He knows members’ names, he knows their hometowns, he knows their stories.
“You simply won’t have time to hear them all,” said Wu. “There are far too many to tell.”