In this post, I’d like to share with you the story of my great-aunt Lily’s early life as I have come to learn it, through conversations with her and the family, and through genealogical research. She was remarkable. When she passed away in 2018, we gathered to remember her: her sense of style, her love of travel, her grace and beauty. In sharing this story, I want to explore who she was before she was the Lily we knew – before she was married.
I believe that when an elder dies, a library is burned: vast sums of wisdom and knowledge are lost. Throughout the world libraries are ablaze with scant attention.Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey
About naming conventions
The Chinese in Canada have become so used to flipping names back and forth and using aliases that I sometimes forget that’s not how it’s done in English. When speaking Chinese, it’s surname first because family comes first. My great grandfather was YIP Sang. His actual name was YÉ Ch’un Tien but he went by Yip Sang. On the other side of the family, my great-grandfather YOUNG Benk You was known by three different names and mostly went by Jim Young. In this story, I will use the names of my family as they used them, aliases and all.
Soo Ching “Lily” Young was born on Monday, September 22, 1924 on the farm in Vancouver, BC on what was then known as Indian Land and is today the Musqueam Indian Reserve. I cannot recall her ever using her Chinese name, so I will use her chosen name of Lily. Lily was the 7th child and 5th daughter of YOUNG Benk You, aka “Don Yuen,” aka “Jim” and CHOW Shee. (I do not know my great grandmother’s given name. In traditional Chinese families, it’s common not to know the given names of family members – “Chow Shee” can be roughly understood as “wife from the family of Chow”.) The Youngs had 4 sons and 6 daughters. Only the youngest son lived to adulthood.
Jim Young was a market gardener – that is, he grew vegetables to sell at the local markets in Vancouver. In 1916, he was renting rooms in Chinatown for his family to live, and land on which to farm.
The rooms were located in the building that later became the home of the Mah Society of Canada, at 137 E Pender Street. This 4-storey building housed the grocer Kwong Lee Yung Company on the ground floor while the upper floors contained 39 rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. It’s still standing today – one of the heritage buildings of Chinatown.
I don’t know how many years it took to build a house on the farm, but the Youngs were there by 1921. The 1921 Census of Canada lists the Young family on the “Indian Reservation” in the district of “Pt. Grey.” Listed are:
- Young, Jim, Male, Head, 38 years old, b. China, immigrated 1901, occupation: “gardener, market”
- Chu Young (Chow), Female, Wife, 24 years old, b. China, immigrated 1912
- Hing Young, Female, Daughter, 5 years old, b. BC
- Moy Young, Female, Daughter, 5 years old, b. BC
- Gee Young, Female, Daughter, 4 years old, b. BC
- Soo Young, Male, Son, 1 year old, b. BC
- Tong Young, Male, cousin, 52 years old, b. China, immigrated 1911
My research narrows the site of the Young family farm as being south of 41st and Marine Drive, and I believe the Young farm was one of the 18 Chinese market garden farms on Musqueam Reserve #2. Today, this site is also recognized for its historic and cultural significance. Lily was most likely born there. Several of her siblings are buried there.
Of the house, the family remembered tar paper on the walls against the drafts coming up the Fraser River valley.
I don’t know what the Youngs grew on their farm, but Chinese market gardeners in the 1920s generally grew vegetables they knew would sell to European tastes: the kitchen staples of potatoes, carrots, onions, corn, pickling cucumbers, cabbage, asparagus, and tomatoes. The neighbouring farm was known for growing prizeworthy pumpkins in addition to the usual veg. (It was many years later, in the 1970s, that Chinese vegetables became more popular.)
Lily said, “It was an extremely hard life.” Before the land could be farmed, it had to be cleared. Jim had no money to rent animals or machinery to assist. Lily remembered the constant, back-breaking labour of digging out trees, one at a time. Eventually, painfully, slowly, the land was cleared enough to farm.
These photos were taken between 1937-1942, when Lily was a teenager. You can see some of the bigger trees still standing. Jim Young retired from farming in 1945. Since he leased the land, he left a lifetime’s worth of work when he left the farm. He died in 1960.
The Youngs were strict parents. The kids had a curfew – be home by 10:00 pm or be locked out of the house. Dinners at home were “sombre affairs – there was no conversation.” Chow Shee cautioned her daughters never to talk to boys, and gave this memorable piece of advice, “If a man gets up from his seat on the streetcar and it is still warm, move to another seat.”
To get to school, Lily said, “It was uphill, about 45 minutes away and in a ritzy neighbourhood.” For Lily, who attended elementary 1930-1937, I searched for schools that fit the description and found Kerrisdale Elementary, estabished in 1908, at 5555 Carnarvon Street. If we assume the Young family farm was one of the 18 Chinese market gardens on Musqueam No. 2, it would take an adult about 41 minutes to walk to Kerrisdale Elementary. Kerrisdale Elementary seems a good bet.
With few opportunties to learn, Lily learned the art of teaching herself. Early on, she decided that education was her way out of poverty, even though she disliked school. She read her textbooks in the field while she worked.
Her sister Susan said, “If you gave her a task and said, how does the electric typewriter work, she’d do it. Do the task… She always got the job done.”
Her friend and financial adviser Greg Upson said, “If she had an interest, she focused on it.”
Lily, ever conscious of her surroundings, said, “We stuck out like a sore thumb at school.” With no money for clothing, the Youngs wore ill-fitting hand-me-downs and welfare cast-offs. “So drab, you know, in blues, blacks and browns.” She taught herself to sew and worked the nearby farms to make enough money to buy fabric. She made clothing for herself and her siblings. Even later in life, when Lily could afford to buy “store-bought” clothes, she made dresses, suits and coats.
She didn’t have money, but she had guts, drive, brains, and the courage to take opportunities when they arose. The first major opportunity happened in WWII.
1943-1945 – WWII
Lily told me this story, “During the war, I was working assembling parts. I was given an aptitude test and told I had excellent dexterity and should work with my hands. I was promoted to supervisor.”
I have to tell you, this story drove me wild with curiosity. What was the name of the plant? What was she doing? Who did she supervise? But she wouldn’t say more. It was the war, and you didn’t talk about the war.
After Lily passed away in 2018, I received the gift of her photo albums. Among the early pictures was this one (see below), labelled 1943, when Lily was 18/19 years old. In it you see two women in light-coloured, collared uniforms and comfortable shoes, marching to work with their coats slung over their arms. One is carrying her lunch. Immediately, I thought of Lily’s time in WWII.
My research found the main Boeing Aircraft of Canada plant was located at Sea Island, Vancouver. In May, 1943, Boeing’s provincial payroll was $1M/month. by June, 1943, Boeing won a $100M ($1.48 B today) contract to build Catalina flying boats and was ramping up to add 1000 workers to its 6000 at Sea Island. In addition to the Catalina Patrol Bomber, aka the Canso, Boeing was manufacturing parts for the DeHavilland Mosquito, Avro Anson, Fairey Battle, and the Norduyn Norseman. The plant employed many women, who were dubbed “Rosie Riveters.” Was Lily a Rosie Riveter? I don’t know, but the details fit: 1943, assembly work, WWII, located in Vancouver, and in such need for workers they would employ and even promote Chinese women.
Here is a photo of the plant at Sea Island in Feb 1944. Look closely at the uniforms worn by the workers. To my eye, they look very like the uniforms above. (Click on the photo to see it larger, and there’s a link in the next box to see it full size.)
Here a much larger, if a bit fuzzy blowup detail of the scene in the middle right above, where three women are working.
And here is the plant, from a 1943 map entitled Lulu Island and Sea Island, Municipality of Richmond. (If you click on the images, you have options to see them as large as possible.)
Lily had fast hands and made supervisor at 21 but when the war ended, like most women, Lily lost her top secret job.
Surveying her useable postwar skills, Lily applied for secretarial work. She could, after all, type 122 words per minute. On a manual typewriter. Without error.
Then she met Arthur. But that’s another story.
I’ve been meaning to write about the women in my family for ages. In genealogy, we tend to follow the path of least resistance – the men – because it’s easier. Historically, men went out to work, kept their surnames, and made the news, and genealogy is, at its heart, a search for documentation. I think I can speak for us all when I say there are few things more frustrating than finding an obituary that lists all the women in the family as “Mrs. Something,” with no clue as to their birth names. We must sometimes infer a woman’s movements by the movements of her male relations – those fathers, sons and husbands. We don’t often know who they were before they were married.
This is a genealogy story, and like all genealogy stories is a combination of research and theory. I’ve done my best to be accurate with this piece given the current level of research, but there’s always the possibility the story will shift as more information comes to light.
I learned about Vancouver’s Chinese market gardens in September, 2018, when my friend Elaine invited me to see the Chinese market garden exhibit at Burnaby Museum. I had no idea at the time of the impact that visit would have on my life – I met students Jenny and Gillian, and through them learned about the tour that UBC was putting together for Chinese Canadians interested in going to China with the Chinese Canadian Historical Society and Dr. Henry Yu. For more on that tour, see my post The Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour – the beginning.
All Over The Map: Hidden wartime landmarks of Vancouver, BC. Banel, Feliks. 13 Sep 2019. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 at MyNorthwest.com.
Boeing Canada. Accessed 1 Mar 2020 at Sea Island Heritage Society. The history of the Boeing in Canada plant at Sea Island during WWII.
Boeing’s lets experience of conflict pilot the way to peace-time industry, The Vancouver Sun, 22 May 1943, Vancouver, BC. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 via Newspapers.com.
Boeing gets $100M air contract – Sea Island to turn out Catalinas for American Navy; pg 1, The Sunday Sun, Vancouver, BC, 5 Jun 1943. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 via Newspapers.com.
Chinese Market Gardens at Musqueam Reserve #2, Vancouver. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 and available at Heritage BC.
Chinese market gardens, photograph. Sep 1945. Item : CVA 586-4014. Reference code AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-4014. Filename: 8e7cff39-d743-47a5-8b30-eb9d9e7b94a4-A15141.jpg Accessed 29 Feb 2020 and available at City of Vancouver Archives.
Collected photos, 1937-1990s. © Past Presence. All rights reserved. From the archives of Lily Pearson.
Female Chinese-Canadian worker Agnes Wong of Whitecourt, Alberta, assembles a sten gun produced for China by the Small Arms Ltd. plant. Accession number:1971-271 NPC. Type of material:Photographs. Found in: Archives / Collections and Fonds. Item ID number: 3191599. Library and Archives Canada. Accessed 29 Feb 2020. Before doing this piece, I always imagined Lily’s time at the assembly plant to look like this.
The integration of the Chinese market gardens of southern British Columbia, 1885-1930, Yu, Jeffrey. 31 Mar 2014. University of British Columbia Open Collections, UBC Undergraduate Research. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 and available at UBC Open Collections.
Item : Air P1.5 – [Interior of Boeing Aircraft plant, Sea Island], photograph, Reference code AM54-S4-: Air P1.5, Date: 3 Feb 1944, Name of creator: Matthews, James Skitt, Major, Filename: 7458ca8a-2980-4cf5-9ba1-e0aab1b4b184-A23383.jpg. Copyright: Public Domain. Accessed 1 Mar 2020 and available at City of Vancouver Archives.
Kerrisdale [Elementary School]. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 at VSB Archives & Heritage.
Mah Society – 137 E Pender Street. Posted 22 Nov 2018. Accessed 1 Mar 2020 from Changing Vancouver – then and now images. For a before and after look at the Mah Society building, see this blog post.
The Mah Society of Canada, page 7, Historic study of the buildings in Chinatown. Report of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society Contractor to the City of Vancouver, July 2005. First accessed 18 Feb 2020 and available at Vancouver.ca.
Maps – various. Vancouver, BC. Accessed 1 Mar 2020. Google Maps.
Nelson to have Boeing Plant, pg. 29, The Vancouver Daily Province, Vancouver, BC, 8 Sep 1943. Accessed 29 Feb 2020 via Newspapers.com.
Part : LEG1319.197 – Sectional map and street directory of Vancouver, British Columbia : map of Greater Vancouver; Cartographic material; Reference code AM1519-: PAM Und. 500-: LEG1319.197; Copyright: Public Domain; Filename: b18b7cbc-7f37-414f-afd6-69a53cb32f85-LEG1319.197.jpg; accessed 2 Mar 2020 and available at City of Vancouver Archives at https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/sectional-map-and-street-directory-of-vancouver-british-columbia-map-of-greater-vancouver
Personal Interviews: Lily Pearson, Susan Crawford, Greg Upson, Leila Chu, Selena Yip (and others) (1990s-present).
Young, Jim and family (Excerpt). Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 19; Census Place: Point Grey (Municipality), Vancouver South, British Columbia; Page Number: 14 Description: Sub-district: 15 – Point Grey (Municipality), Source Information: Ancestry.com. 1921 Census of Canada[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2013. Original data: Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds.
For this piece, thanks go out to Dena Gartner (for the photo albums), UBC’s Department of Asian Studies for their work on the Chinese in Canada generally and the Chinese market gardens specifically, the Chinese Canadian Historical Society, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation for their work on preserving the stories, my friend Elaine, and of course, Lily herself. If you have a Lily in your life today, please, I am begging you, ask her for her stories. You won’t regret it.