Uncles are special
If you asked me to tell you about my uncles, I wouldn’t know where to begin. They played a huge part in my childhood. Garrick was a respected photographer and videographer. He filled the bathroom with enticing strips of drying film and exhorted me not to touch them. Larry supplied me with endless hours of advice, coffee and cigarettes. Allan took me for in days after a bad breakup. All of them are my mother’s brothers. I’ll tell you more about them later because they were members of a group that revitalized Chinatown, but for right now I want to say that my uncles hold a special place in my life. (On my dad’s side is my uncle Dake Wing Yip, known as “Dick.” He’s the uncle I’ve written about more recently. See my post The James Bonds of Chinatown.)
My father’s brothers – the 5 sons of Yip Kew Sheck
By Chinese family standards, Kew Sheck was a lucky man. He sired 5 sons: Cecil (my dad), Dick, Yim, Pool, and Haye. The elder two, Cecil and Dick, were old enough to enlist in WWII, while Haye, the youngest, was an accountant. By the time I arrived on the scene, both Yim and Pool were gone. They were the brothers I didn’t know my father had. I grew up thinking my father had 2 brothers, not 4, so it was a surprise to find a copy of the Yip family tree. (This tree is itself worthy of a blog post. It is the life’s work of Hoy and Grace Yip, a masterwork of genealogy and draftsmanship, and in one large sheet of paper lays out the descendants of Yip Sang.) On that tree were two uncles I didn’t know: Yim Wing Yip 1926-1947, and Pool Wing Yip 1927-1942. Who were they? What happened to them? As usual, my direct questions were met with direct resistance – I wasn’t getting any details by asking my dad.
Searching for Yim
Decades passed, and I forgot about my unknown uncles until an afternoon a couple of years ago when I decided to see what I could learn about Yim. I found his death on Ancestry. It was an index, but it got me excited. I could get the document on the BC archives.
The Royal BC Museum Archives
The BC archives are justifiably beloved of Canadian genealogists for providing birth, marriage, and death records online, for free. Anticipating an easy find, I surfed over to the Royal BC Museum site and plugged in my search terms: “Wing Yip.” I got 5 hits – none of them were him. Huh.
Tried again with the Registration Number: “1947-09-009233.” Nothing.
Tried again with the BCA number: “B13195.” 2976 hits – way too many to be helpful.
Finally tried again with the full name “Wing Yim Yip.” Success, sort of. The year, registration number, place, and name are right but there’s one big question mark: this person seems to be 41 years old. My guy was born in 1926, making him 21 years old. Even allowing for a bit of variance, twenty years is pushing it. Was this him or not?
Most importantly, there’s no document attached. In other words, after all this, I don’t have any answers, only more questions.
Yip Family photo albums
Another 18 months go by and then I am gifted with two rare and precious Yip family photo albums. These albums belonged to my grandmother, Yip Wai Ming, and they document her earlier years with the Yip family.
There’s a baby photo dated “1926.” I’ve found Yim.
Now that I have seen his face, so like my father’s, all my early curiosity about him resurfaces. Who was he? What happened to him? It’s time to find that death certificate, if I can.
Back to the BC Archives
I send my snippet of the BC archives result to the archivists, asking for a copy of the death certificate that might be Yim’s. I’m in luck – it’s available for $31.50.
My first reaction was: Thirty bucks! No way am I paying that! This is outrageous. Documents are free on the BC archives – why should I pay thirty bucks? And what if I’m wrong? What if it’s the wrong guy? Do I really need this record?
And then I thought about it: the huge expenditures of time, energy, money, archivists time and education, not to mention the buildings and the servers that the “BC archives” represent. I live in Saskatoon – what would it cost me to go to the archives to pull this record in person? Even if I lived in Victoria, I’d have to spend time and money to get the record. What’s that time worth to an archivist? Finally, there’s this: if you asked me to show my support of the archives by donating money, I’d hand over $25 immediately.
I pulled out my credit card.
The death of Yim Wing Yip
From Yim’s death certificate, I learned that he was born on 26 Feb 1926.
He was 21 years and 8 months when he died of “pulmonary TB, with a morbid condition of bone TB,” on 31 Oct 1947. Bone TB happens when the disease progresses outside the lungs, and commonly affects the spine and long bones. I won’t share any more details with you – it’s an insidious and terrible disease.
Yim Wing Yip was buried at Mountainview Cemetery in Vancouver, BC.
It’s hard now to imagine the fear and chaos caused by a pandemic like tuberculosis. In Canada in 1867, the leading cause of death was TB. The hardest hit were the disenfranchised, the poor and the people living on the fringes of society. The Chinese and Indians were blamed for living in overcrowded conditions and contributing to their own infection rates. Further complicating treatment over the decades was the early idea, later disproved, that heredity was a factor in catching TB. From this, I discern there was some stigma attached. Not only did you not want to die of TB, you also didn’t want to be seen to be dying of TB.
As usual, Vancouver targeted Chinatown. In a 1919 article from the Vancouver Sun, the headline read City health department plans drastic cleanup of all Chinatown area:
…Chinatown is a plague spot in the centre of the city, according to inspector Hynes. The district is a menace to the health of the entire city. The death rate from tuberculosis in the district has become appalling. According to the statistics of the health department, 36 percent of the deaths in Chinatown are from tuberculosis and the death rate in the district is double that of the remainder of the city.
According to the paper TB nurses in BC, in 1922, the death rates by race were:
- per 100,000 white people: 78 deaths
- per 100,000 Chinese people: 440 deaths (about 5.5x the white death rate)
- per 100,000 Indian people – unknown – estimated to be 20x the white death rate
In 1944, The Vancouver Sun article Condemned area in Chinatown like a surrealist dream said this:
…Here indeed were the conditions which bred the tuberculosis of which the city health authorities complained, and the Chinese I questioned denied.
It may have been difficult to avoid overcrowding, since Chinese were prevented from living in areas outside Chinatown and the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. For more on the latter, see my post We’ll tell you where you can live – the BC Land Titles Act.
The overcrowding was severe at the hospital too. Chinese were not welcomed at any hospital other than “the Chinese hospital” – St. Joseph Oriental Hospital, where there were just 51 beds in the TB ward. In 1946, the Chair of the Chinese Y Centre, Mrs. Kern, wrote to the Chair of the Tuberculosis Society, Mr. Fred Arnott, to express her concerns:
We have learned that the hospitalization of Chinese patients (as well as Red Indians, East Indians, negroes, and formerly Japanese) in [St. Joseph’s Oriental] hospital was brought about through an arrangement… and that ever since the arrangement was made, all Chinese patients in the province have been hospitalized there, and none have been permitted to apply for permission to other hospitals for treatment of tuberculosis in the province, which are financed by public funds, except as paying patients. This policy, in other words, is discrimination as well as as segregation.
Discrimination and segregation are wrong in principle, but in addition has resulted in the perpetuation of conditions unfavourable to the welfare of the patients.
Yim Wing Yip died at St. Joseph’s on Hallowe’en, 1947.
Missing the uncle I never knew
Of course, it’s not only me who lost an uncle. My father and uncles Cecil, Dick and Haye lost their brother; my grandparents Kew Sheck and Wai Ming lost their son. Yim was the third son – he stayed home while his two elder brothers joined up for WWII.
In his soldier’s pay book, Dick listed Yim as his next of kin, the brother far more likely to survive to take care of their parents. And there’s someone else on this page: above “Yim Yip” is “Shee Yip.” Shee, aka from the family of, is another way saying wife. Was Yim married? His death certificate says single, but records have been wrong before.
Dick survived the war, but Yim didn’t survive Chinatown. He is buried in the family plot, along with his brother Pool Wing Yip, grandfather Yip Sang, and assorted other family members. Yim’s father Kew Sheck, is on the other side of Yip Sang’s marker.
My father didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t know his reasons, but I understand not wanting to talk about it. I have in a sense found and lost an uncle in the same breath. Who was he? What would it have been like to know him? Did he have hobbies that would have influenced my life, like Garrick and his love of photography? Would his home and family have been a refuge for me, like Allan? Would he have regaled me with stories of his travels, like Larry?
This world of possibility, of connection, is what we lose when we prematurely lose family members. I barely know you, Yim, but I miss you already.
The story of Yim is a slow piecing together of disparate sources: the Yip family tree, Yip Wai Ming’s photo albums, Dick’s soldier’s pay book, Mountainview Cemetery, newspaper articles from the time, and documents from Ancestry and the BC archives. There are road blocks aplenty as I think this story shows, but I get HUGE satisfaction in being able to knit them together into a cohesive whole. I hope you enjoyed it.
Here’s another stat: between 1933 and 1947, my family lost at least 6 members to TB, ranging in age from 6 months to 24 years: 3 aunts, 2 uncles, and one great uncle. If you’re wondering, I am in favour of vaccines. I’ve been tested for TB 3 times in my life. I’m negative.
[Edit] I realize in this story I’ve been putting the surname Yip both first and last. I should explain. The older generations went by the Chinese traditional format of surname first, i.e., Yip Sang, Yip Kew Sheck. My father’s generation tried to be more Canadian to fit in and so they are Cecil Yip, Dick Yip, Yim Yip. I thought about conforming them all to one style but it feels really wrong to say Sang Yip. He was Yip Sang, mighty forebear of all of us Yips, and so he should be known.
Links and sources
BC Archives – Genealogy General Search – the first place to go for a birth, marriage or death record in BC.
BC stems rise in TB fatalities. (11 Dec 1942). The Vancouver Sun, page 2, from Newspapers.com.
City health department plans drastic cleanup of all Chinatown area – squad of inspectors headed by Sgt.-Maj. Hynes will tackle big job next week. (29 Mar 1919). The Vancouver Sun, page 9, from Newspapers.com.
Condemned area in Chinatown like a surrealist dream – Shanghai Alley badly overcrowded but not all homes there are dirty. (12 Aug 1944). The Vancouver Sun, page 17, from Newspapers.com.
Coqualeetza takes on old meaning. (16 Dec 1944). The Vancouver Daily Province, page 6, from Newspapers.com. In the spirit of segregation, Indians were treated at Coqualeetza Hospital, a hospital “…for all the Indians of British Columbia,” as noted in this article.
File GR-0129.2.17 – St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital. BC Archives Collections Search. Royal BC Museum. 71 pages of correspondence. Mrs. Kern’s letter is on page 2.
Framed Yip family tree, 1925 – Museum of Vancouver. A handmade1920s version of the Yip family tree, containing photos of Yip Sang’s family members at the time.
Free chest X-rays for office workers. (22 Mar 1947). The Vancouver Sun, page 6, from Newspapers.com.
High TB death rate for Indians. (11 Nov 1944). The Calgary Herald, page 9, from Newspapers.com.
History of tuberculosis. 7 Sep 2019. Canadian Public Health Association.
Tuberculosis 2 – history of the disease in Canada. (Accessed 7 Sep 2019). Canadian Medical Journal Association.
TB institute step toward health centre. (15 Sep 1947). The Vancouver Sun, page 8, from Newspapers.com.
TB Nurses in BC – a biographical dictionary. 2006. UBC Open Collections. The link will download the file.
Yip family tree charts – City of Vancouver archives. This is an index only.
11 thoughts on “The uncle I didn’t know I had – finding Yim”
Wow – what a story! I’ve noticed that earlier death certs aren’t available as images on the BCA site, which, as you noted is frustrating. I wonder if they’re still working on digitizing. Like you, I would probably balk at first paying $30 for a cert, but for an immediate family member would then pay it if I needed it to solve a mystery. And I imagine the BCA is always in need of funds from any source they can get them.
Your poor grandparents – watching their child die of TB must have been horrendous. Those photos are treasures.
Hi Teresa, you’re so right – the BCA doesn’t have everything online. A year ago I visited with a list of 20 records to pull, ranging from 1893 to 1972. At $30 a pop… it was worth going in person!
My poor grandparents is right. Kew Sheck died before I was born and Wai Ming when I was young. I didn’t know them very well, but the more I dig into their stories the more sympathy I have. All of it makes me so grateful to be alive, now, to find their stories.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.
Definitely – with more than one record, much more cost effective to visit Victoria… I need to get down there, but even from the Sunshine Coast it’s a bit of a haul.
Both my grandfathers died well before I was born…discovering their stories has helped that feeling of loss I always had.
If you do make it down there… the archives also hold divorce records. I’ve read their pamphlets about accessing records, which makes searching sound a bit involved, however if you are using the computers within the archives, you will be able to access records not available otherwise. My friend and I discovered this feature literally in the last hour we had before getting the ferry and I had a burning research question I realized I might be able to answer. In the end we missed our sailing but I found the record. That’s a big win in my book!
I love reading your family stories and how you go about digging up records and information.
My grandfather’s youngest sister Edith died at 31 of TB in Montreal. My mother had a baby she knew was going to die within the year so named her Kathyrn (meaning Pure) Edith, thinking big Edith would look after the little one.
Oh Dianne. You put that so diplomatically. What a very touching story. And thank you for the lovely compliment.
I felt fascination and sorrow as I read your writing. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life. I must ask, is your uncle Cecil Yip the founding director of the Donnelly Centre? If so, I have to thank you and him for setting the groundwork for research which has changed my life into rare diseases.
Tony, I’m delighted to be read by you. Thank you. I am also alternately fascinated and appalled, proud and enraged as I do this work.
I wish I could lay claim to the founder of the Donnelly Centre, but sadly, no. My Cecil Yip is another.