Thanks to readers who recommended it, I picked up a copy of The Diary of Dukesang Wong at my favourite local book store, McNally Robinson. It’s a slim volume and an easy read – no more than 115 pages not including bibliography. It is the only first-person account of the life of a Chinese railway worker on the Canadian Pacific Railway 1880-1900, and the story behind the story is as fascinating to a historian as the story itself.
The Diary of Dukesang Wong: a Voice from Gold Mountain
Edited by David McIlwraith and translated by Wanda Joy Hoe, the introduction is by author Judy Fong Bates. I’ll talk more about the book below, but I’d like to begin with Commentary: Lost and Forgotten, where McIlwraith writes about how the book came to be. In particular, this passage resonated deeply with me:
In the official stories of nation building on this continent, Chinese Canadians and Chinese Americans have largely been absent, and where they are acknowledged to have played a role, many of the details seemed better left unsaid. Yes, they moved rock out of the paths of rail lines… but their stories were only grudgingly woven into the national historical fabric of countries to which they came. It is certainly true that authentic records of any kind are often difficult to find. But pervasive myths tend to dissuade the searcher: the Chinese were illiterate, the Chinese didn’t keep diaries, their diaries could not have survived the decades, it was all destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and so on1.The diary of Dukesang Wong, by David McIlwraith, pg. 4.
THIS. So much this.
Everything I know as a researcher into Chinese Canadian stories supports what David is saying: that we are dissuaded from searching at all because we think there is nothing left to find.
This could not be further from the truth, thanks to a readily available, worldwide communication tool: the internet.
In the days before the internet, it would be difficult to be able to put together rare archival documents, genealogists all over the planet, and a theory connecting them all. Increasingly, thanks to tools now available (email, social media genealogy groups, genealogy societies, genealogy organizations from Ancestry to FamilySearch and more), connecting the dots can and does happen in minutes. I could not do what I do today without these tools, and I think there is more of a chance to find our history today than there ever has been.
Let me rephrase that for you.
In the days before the internet, you may have had one piece of the puzzle, but it took research to find people who could help, time to wait for responses, and money for postage and photocopies. Today, it’s possible to post a question in a chat group and have your answer within minutes. Never before have I had so much instant access to so much collective brainpower.
It’s ideas that this – that what was once impossible is now possible – that make both The Diary and my work so satisfying.
What is in Dukesang Wong’s diary?
Like all good genealogical puzzles, The Diary raises as many questions as it answers.
Let’s start with the biggest takeaway: this is a first person account of what it was like to be a Chinese worker on the railway in the 1880s. I have never read anything like it in a quarter century of searching. All accounts of Chinese for the period are indirect (such as city taxes paid by Chinese businesses), authored (stories written about Chinese by journalists with a paper to sell) or racially-oriented (laws, regulations, and policies about people who were singled out by reason of their race). Some documents were meant to be racially blind but became racial in application (census records where names of Chinese and Indigenous peoples were recorded as Chinaman and Indian). In all of these, The Diary stands out as being the voice of a man speaking his own story.
Secondly, Dukesang was well-educated and eloquent. It is a tragedy that his volumes of journals were lost – these few remaining scraps of his work are all that we have to enjoy. However, Mcilwraith interweaves the journal entries with good historical background research, so that we readers may appreciate Wong’s words to the fullest.
Spring 1882 – I despair at being able to save so little these days, but the small garden Chen left in my care has been helping my food supply. How good the fresh vegetables taste.Dukesang Wong, The diary of Dukesang Wong, pg. 59
There is so much to unpack in this one sentence: the longing for food that reminds one of home, the lack of the minimal necessities to keep a body healthy, and the extra lengths needed to acquire that food: namely to grow it. It reminds me of my family’s gardens which kept them fed during the Depression and later World War II.
Late summer 1887 – … this land is far harsher and demands more strength than I have.Dukesang Wong, The diary of Dukesang Wong, pg. 65
In 1887, Dukesang was working on the railways – a job he couldn’t afford to leave – while watching men left and right die of malnutrition, exposure, and industrial accidents. Who in his place would not have despaired?
Early spring 1895 – The name of Wong will continue. I am impatient that the month is so long, for I wish to present my child.Dukesang Wong, The Diary of Dukesang Wong, pg. 86.
Unlike so many, Dukesang survived his railway experience. His story ends with happiness and security. In 1895, he and his wife Lin-Ying are waiting to celebrate the birth of their first child at his one month party. (The traditional celebration of a baby’s birth, also called a “Red Egg and Ginger Party,” recognized the high risk for a newborn mother and child. During the first month, both mother and child are given the utmost care and rest to ensure their health and survival.)
Finding Dukesang Wong: A Mini Case Study
After reading The Diary, I was curious to see what I could find about him. There were plenty of clues. Wong bought into a tailoring business in New Westminster, BC in about 1888. He married and had a family, with his first son born in abt. 1895. I thought I’d spend a few hours seeing what I could find about him.
In this section, I’ll take you through my thought processes in finding a historic Chinese Canadian family.
Death of Dukesang Wong
First stop: Ancestry to build a draft tree, entering approximate dates for birth and entry to Canada. Then look for a death record. We find one that seems to fit the bill: a Duke Sang Wong2, male, born 1848, died 1931.
Then checking the BC Archives (no record available) and FamilySearch, we find a bit more detail. There is a Duke Sang Wong with wife Gin She Wong mentioned in the death of Harry Wong3.
I now have a family group with details on names, ages, and geography. Time to see if I can find some census records.
Census records for Duke Sang Wong: 1911 and 1921
The most recent Canadian census is the 1921 census. (The 1931 census will be released in 2023.) According to The Diary, Duke Sang Wong bought his partnership in a tailor shop in 1888. Theoretically, there could be four possible censuses: 1891, 1901, 1911, and 1921.
In 1921, there are relatively few Chinese families in North America, and there are also not many tailors. These are two essential clues: “family” plus “tailor.” That narrows the options considerably, because few Chinese could afford to pay back both their head tax and an additional tax for a bride; and because the most common job descriptions are labourer, cook, servant, and merchant.
I find a “Duck San” Wong4 in New Westminster at 830 Agnes Street, living with wife Jin She, sons Daniel, Charley, Henry, Harry, and Peter, and daughter Elsie. No other family groups fit this description.
I immediately turn to finding the 1911 census, expecting it to be as easy as the 1921. I could not be more wrong. It took me two entire hours to find it. That’s a lot of time to find one census. Here’s what I did:
- Search Ancestry for “Duke Sang Wong,” “Duke Wong,” “Sang Wong,” “D* Wong,” any “Wong” in New Westminster – nil results
- Search for the family at 830 Agnes Street – nil results
- Go to Library and Archives Canada to check to see how many districts and subdistricts there are for New Westminster for the 1911 census5 – there are seven in total
- Review all seven subdistricts for any Chinese neighbourhood,
- any Chinese family,
- any Chinese family with tailor as an occupation,
- any Chinese family with at least three sons in the family
This family was not findable by using the search engines, and it was hard work to analyze all seven districts of New Westminster in 1911. Let me break down my reasons for you.
- City/town level knowledge of the whereabouts of your ancestor is essential – Dukesang Wong settled in New Westminster, BC. If I only knew he was in BC and died in Vancouver, I may not have been able to locate him at all.
- In 1911, Chinese were highly unlikely to be living outside of Chinese neighbourhoods due to discriminatory laws and practices, therefore you are looking for enclaves – groups of Chinese living close by.
- It’s unlikely you will find a Chinese ancestor by using his name.
- It’s rare to find a family, therefore focus attention on family groups.
- It’s possible for a tailor to be a merchant, therefore consider either as a profession.
- When names are unreliable, look for the right number of gender and children – in this case, a first son born about 1895.
There is only one family that fit the criteria.
They are a Chinese family in New Westminster at 711 Carnarvon Street6 [Correction: this is 916 Carnarvon Street.] with i) a husband who is significantly older than his wife (which we know from reading The Diary), with ii) a series of at least three sons in a row, with iii) matches on the years of birth of all four sons: the “Lack Sam” family. In addition, “Lack Sam” immigrated to Canada very early, in 1875, and is a tailor. “Lack” is not so far off from “Duke,” “Sam” is close to “Sang,” and when I look more closely, I see all the children have the surname of “Wong.” I am fairly certain this is our family.
Let’s have a look at the 1921 versus 1911 census details to see how they match up:
|1911 Census (Carnarvon Street)||1921 Census (Agnes Street)|
|Sam Fock, male, head, b. Jul 1852 in China, 60 yrs, immigrated 1875, tailor||Wong Duck San, head, male, 71 yrs old (b. abt. 1850), b. China, immigrated 1874, tailor|
|Sing Ling, female, wife, b. Feb 1878 in China, 23 yrs old, immigrated 1894||Wong Jin She, wife, female, 40 yrs old (abt. 1881), b. China, immigrated 1891|
|Wong Joe, male, son, b. Sep 1884 in China, 16 yrs old, immigrated 1907, tailor||[Not listed with family – was he living with a family of his own? He would have been about 26 years old.]|
|Wong Sam, male, son, b. Sep 1899 in BC, 11 yrs old||Wong Daniel, son, male, 22 yrs (abt. 1899), b. BC, general labourer|
|Wong Garet, male, son, b. Feb 1900 in BC, 9 yrs old||[Not listed with family]|
|Wong Charley, male, son, b. May 1903 in BC, 8 yrs old||Wong Charley, son, male, 17 yrs old (abt. 1904), born BC|
|Wong Hanly, male, son, b. Jul 1906 in BC, 4 yrs old||Wong Henry, son, male, 15 yrs (abt. 1906), born BC|
|Wong Hny [sic], male, son, b. Mar 1909 in BC, 2 yrs old||Wong Harry, son, male, 11 yrs (abt. 1910), born BC|
|Wing Ah, male, lodger, b. Feb 1861 in China, aged 50 yrs, labourer / gardener||[not listed with family]|
|[Too young to be in 1911 census.]||Wong Peter, son, male, 10 years old, born BC|
|[Too young to be in 1911 census.]||Wong Elsie, daughter, female, 8 years old, born BC|
The facts generally appear to line up, with some question marks. As well, the details for Harry Wong (above), estimated to have been born in 1910 with parents Duke Sang Wong and Gin She Wong, matches with the sixth son here: “Hny” in 1911 and “Harry” in 1921.
This is how it is in genealogy: list what you know, research, test your theories, and see if later evidence supports or contradicts. I think I’m on the right track here. If I wanted to spend a day on this, I’d keep going in this vein, looking for the 1901 and 1891 censuses. After that, I’d look for the immigration of wife Lin-Ying (listed as “Sing Ling” and “Wong Jin She,” respectively) in 1891 and 1894. (In either case, Dukesang paid CAD$50 (CAD$1450 today) head tax for her entry.)
Mapping the locations: 830 Agnes St. and 916 Carnarvon St., New Westminster
Are the two home locations significantly different? As noted above, Chinese tended to live in clusters. [Updated 18 Apr 2021]. Thanks to historian and author Jim Wolf, I can refine my research for you here. I had initially read the address as “711 Carnarvon” but we now see it is “916 Carnarvon.”
The surprise clue: the marriage of Daniel Wong and Joan Louie
If I was proving a case, I’d look for death, birth, and marriage records for each of the family in turn. As I’m doing this one for fun, it was wonderful to see Ancestry turn up a clue: a marriage for Dukesang’s son Daniel Wong8. We can see that we have a match for a Daniel Wong in the 1921 census, aged 22 years, who could be a match to either Wong Sam or Wong Garet in the 1911 census.
From the 1930 marriage registration record7, we have:
|Groom’s Side||Bride’s Side|
|Daniel Wong, merchant, 30 years old, residing at 2827 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, born at 910 Carnarvon Street, New Westminster, BC; father: Duke Sang Wong, mother: Jin Shee||Joan Louie, 24 years old, residing at 46-4 Avenue East, Vancouver, BC, born in Shuswap, BC; father: Chue Ah Louie, mother: Lu Shee|
|Duke Wong, witness, father of groom, residing at 2837 Clark Drive, Vancouver|
|JT Wong, witness, 193 Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC|
Note that Daniel Wong’s birth date and location – 910 Carnarvon Street, New Westminster in about 1900 – is a clue to finding the family in 1901.
As well, “JT Wong” may be Joe Wong, brother to Daniel Wong, and the first son celebrated in The Diary, now grown and living independently on Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC.
The Louie Family of Shuswap, BC
Joan Louie is the daughter of Chue Ah Louie.
Joan is the sister of the Louie brothers. The Wongs of New Westminster are family to the Louies of Shuswap.
Coming full circle: did Dukesang Wong know Yip Sang?
The more work I do on the historic Chinese families of Canada, the more interrelated they seem to be. I haven’t yet found Yip family links to the Wongs or the Louies, but I’m looking. And in the meantime, I also know this: it’s highly likely Dukesang Wong, tailor of New Westminster and former railway worker for the Canadian Pacific Railway, knew my great-grandfather Yip Sang.
First, there is the physical closeness of Chinatowns.
It would be difficult to live in Chinatown and not know your neighbours, particularly if they were well-known merchants as both Wong and Yip were. In 1921, when Wong was about 71 years old and living with his family on the corner of Agnes and McInness Streets, Yip owned two city blocks (Lot 6, Block 11 on McInness Street, between Ramage Street and Dallas Street) in New Westminster (as well as his extensive properties in Vancouver)11.
If we look at a Goad’s Fire Insurance map13 of approximately the right time period, we can see the distance ourselves. Dukesang’s tailor shop is an easy walk down McInness Street to Agnes Street – did Yip ever visit?
Secondly, Wong worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Yip was its paymaster and Chinese agent.
I wish I could sit down with them both and ask. What stories they’d have to share.
On the weekend of Feb 20-21, my husband and I took ourselves for a luxury staycation at The James Hotel here in Saskatoon. It was then, with no deadlines pressing, that we enjoyed the joys of shopping for books, sleeping in, and reading. I managed an entire day before compulsively popping open my laptop to begin the research into the life of Dukesang Wong. There are so many stories still waiting to be told.
Thank you for reading this story within a story within a story. Special thanks to Elwin Xie, who was the first one to recommend The diary of Dukesang Wong. Thank you to David McIlwraith and Wanda Joy Hoe, and particular thanks to Dukesang Wong himself, for taking the time to record his thoughts in his journal.
[Updated 18 Apr 2021] Huge thanks to Jim Wolf, historian and author of Yi Fao: Speaking through memory, for his contributions in correcting the location of the Dukesang Wong family in 1911, and for his deep knowledge of the history of the area.
1Dukesang Wong, David McIlwraith, and Wanda Joy Hoe, The diary of Dukesang Wong: a voice from Gold Mountain, First Edition (Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2020).
2Province of British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Death Index 1872-1990, index of Duke Sang Wong, 10 May 1931, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Registration #1931-09-458338, Ancestry.com.
3Province of British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Death Index 1872-1986, index of Harry Wong, 2 Aug 1931, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Image #02757, FL#FLVP-Z8W, FamilySearch.org.
41921 Canada census, British Columbia, New Westminster, p. 12, image no. 13, household of Duck San Wong, image on Ancestry.com.
5Library and Archives Canada, “Districts and Sub-Districts: Census of Canada, District: 11 – New Westminster, 1911, British Columbia,” January 28, 2013, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/1911/Pages/bc.aspx.
61911 Canada census, British Columbia, New Westminster, p. 40, image no. 40, household of Lack Sam, image on Ancestry.com.
7Province of British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, British Columbia Marriage Registrations, 1872-1935, marriage index of Daniel Wong, 17 Feb 1930, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Ancestry.com.
8Province of British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Marriage Index 1871-1944, index and record of Daniel Wong and Joan Louie, 17 Feb 1930, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Registration #24-W-30, 11241, 30-09-375241, RoyalBCMuseum.BC.ca.
9“Wee Tan Louie,” Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, Wee Tan Louie (blog), undated, http://www.ccmms.ca/wee-tan-louie/.
10“Wee Hong Louie,” Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, Wee Hong Louie (blog), undated, http://www.ccmms.ca/veteran-stories/army/wee-hong-louie/.
11“The Louie Brothers,” Valour Canada, Military History Library (blog), undated, https://valourcanada.ca/military-history-library/louie-brothers/.
12Email: Linda Yip to [address and name removed for privacy], “Yip Sang Blocks in New Westminster’s Chinatown,” October 13, 2020. Research regarding properties owned by Yip Sang in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada.
13Chas. E. Goad, Item : 1972-472.10 – Plate 123 [Sixth Street to Queens Avenue to Eastern Tips of Poplar and Lulu Islands to Fraser River], Cartographic material, 1:2400, Goad’s Atlas of the City of New Westminster (New Westminster, British Columbia: Chas. E. Goad Company, 1913), 1 map : lithographic print, col. ; 51 x 76 cm, City of Vancouver Archives, https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/plate-123-sixth-street-to-queens-avenue-to-eastern-tips-of-poplar-and-lulu-islands-to-fraser-river.