Photo and film scanning · Photo History

Uncovering the story behind a mysterious 1930s photo

In this post I’ll share how I learned the story behind a mysterious photo.

A mysterious photo

I found this undated photo amongst four binders of materials given to me by my Yip cousins. It’s a large photo – 8×10 – removed from its frame. Unlike most of the other originals, it had no identifying notes. I had so many questions. Who were these beautifully dressed people? What was the occasion? When and where was it taken?

What I knew before I got started

When starting with a photo mystery, it helps to describe every visible detail. Here’s my summary.

In this photo you can see ten people (nine in the foreground, with one in the background). The five seated women are dressed in posh evening wear. The four standing people are two Asian men and one Caucasian couple. The group is positioned on the wooden dance floor in front of a stage with musical instruments and a distinctive archway. There is a banner and a sign on the wall. The banner reads, “Jack Williamsons May[fair?] Band.”

I texted my friend Catherine. “I can’t identify the people in this photo.”

Catherine texted back in minutes. “I can identify Grace Kwan on the far right. She was in my book. And it looks like it was taken the same day as Yucho Chow took this photo of her.”

Grace Kwan by Yucho Chow, City of Vancouver Archives.

***

At this point I should pause and introduce you to Catherine, if you don’t already know her. She’s Catherine Clement, curator of the coming Paper Trail Exhibition that will open the new Chinese Canadian Museum next July. You may know her from her previous exhibition and subsequent book on the photographer Yucho Chow. If I had to describe her in one sentence, I’d say she’s an expert historian and photo sleuth with unlimited curiosity and her sharpest tool is bringing lost stories to life.

OK, back to the story.

***

Catherine was right. Every detail matched for Grace, from her hairstyle to her white, strappy sandals. These two photos could have been taken on the same day.

Catherine continued, “It means that that photo of the group was taken in 1936 during the City of Vancouver’s birthday. I think I have seen that arch before. Let me look… If you go to Page 219 of my book, you will see another photo taken in that same location, perhaps the Mandarin on Pender.”

I got my copy of Chinatown Through a Wide Lens off the shelf to look at “Unknown Orchestra.” Catherine and I had discussed this photo before. At the time the book went to press, Catherine and her team hadn’t been able to identify it. The caption reads,

Photograph of a six piece band. On the piano is a music sheet for “Yankee doodle never went to town, “a popular 1935 song made famous by Billie Holiday. The name of the band, the location of this stage and the identity of the Asian man are all unknown. Could this band have been visiting Vancouver and the Asian man requested that photographer take a photo of the occasion? Do you recognize the stage? Or any of the people in the photo?

Pg. 219, Chinatown Through a Wide Lens, 2019.
Vic Won [and the Jack Williamson Band], Chinatown Through a Wide Lens, 2019.
Vic Won [and the Jack Williamson Band], Chinatown Through a Wide Lens, 2019.

After the book was released, two people identified the unknown Asian man as “Vic Won,” otherwise known as Victor Won Cumyow, so we knew the man but not the location. Was this The Mandarin on Pender? I had enough clues by now to search newspapers for:

  • Grace Kwan
  • Jack Williamsons May[fair?] Band
  • Vic Won
  • The Mandarin on Pender Street, Vancouver, BC
  • about mid-1930s

The story of the Mandarin Gardens

W. Alex Lee opened The Mandarin Gardens in December, 1935. It was located at 98 1/2 Pender Street East, at the corner of Pender and Columbia.

Location of the Mandarin Gardens, corner of Columbia and Pender St, using a 1930s map from the City of Vancouver Archives.
Location of the Mandarin Gardens, corner of Columbia and Pender St, using a 1930s map from the City of Vancouver Archives.

People came to dine and dance, with admission cleverly favouring pairs at $7/couple. Live music was performed by The Jackie Williamson Band, featuring “Shanghai’s Society and Far East” RCA recording artist Vic Won. (“Shanghai” Vic was actually born in New Westminster, BC.)

On 7 Jul 1936, the five candidates for Chinese Jubilee Queen were chosen at the Gardens. The Vancouver Sun ran a story with photo that matches my mystery photo in every detail excepting the five people in the background, who haven’t changed seats.

Mysterious photo
Click on the slider to compare the two images.
The Vancouver Sun, 4 Jul 1936, Newspapers.com.
The Vancouver Sun, 4 Jul 1936, Newspapers.com.

The caption reads:

(photo by Cecil B. Wand) Vancouver’s Chinese colony is taking an active part in Jubilee celebrations and on July 15, one of these charming young ladies will be chosen Chinese jubilee Queen.

The candidates shown above were chosen Tuesday night at the Mandarin Garden, at an international affair attended by Mayor G.G. McGeer and members of the City Council Jubilee Committee, Consular Corps and prominent Chinese citizens.

From left to right, they are: Mary Wong, Mary D. Wong, Vera Ko Kan, Jessie Lam and Grace Kwan.

Grace Kwan was chosen Jubilee Queen ten days later. Here she is receiving her crown at the W.K. Gardens on Thursday, July 16, 1936.

Grace Kwan receives her crown, The Vancouver Sun, 17 Jul 1936, Newspapers.com.
Grace Kwan receives her crown, The Vancouver Sun, 17 Jul 1936, Newspapers.com.

Conclusion

Catherine and I were successful in unravelling the mystery (and it was also great fun). The photo was taken by C.B. Wand to capture the nomination of the candidates for Jubilee Queen. Using a combination of curiosity, expertise, an original photo, and published sources, we were able to answer almost every question.

What event is being recorded (why was the photo taken)? My photo highly likely depicts the choosing of the five candidates for Jubilee Queen.

Where was the photo taken? Strong evidence suggests the event took place at the Mandarin Gardens, 98 1/2 Pender Street East, Vancouver, BC.

When was the photo taken? The photo was highly likely to have been taken on 7 Jul 1936.

Who took the photo? Evidence suggests the photographer was Cecil Bow (C.B.) Wand.

Who is in the photo? The five seated women are Mary Wong, Mary D. Wong, Vera Ko Kan, Jessie Lam and Grace Kwan.

Postscript

I have two notes that don’t readily fit in the story but come to mind.

“Vic Won,” the RCA artist and so-called “Shanghai and Far East” crooner, was Victor Won Cumyow (1909-98), the eighth of the ten children of Alexander Won Cumyow.

The photographer Cecil Bow Wand (1900-58) went by his initials “C.B.” Evidence suggests he was working as a photographer by his early twenties. He married into the Yip Sang family in 1932 but the marriage ended in divorce five years later. He married again, to Noreen Lum. He was dedicated: his last day of work was Christmas Eve, 1937. He died nine days later and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Thank yous

Thanks this week go out to Catherine Clement, hard at work on her coming exhibition The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. (Head on over to see what she’s up to!) Also thanks to cousins Hoy and Grace Yip, aka Uncle Hoy and Auntie Grace, first for keeping all the stuff, and second, for giving some to me.

References

“Announcing the Premiere Opening of the Mandarin Gardens,” The Vancouver Sun, 27 Dec 1935, pg. 4, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ad re  Mandarin Gardens featuring Jackie Williamson and Vic Won, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

Canada, British Columbia, Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, “Canada, British Columbia Marriage Registrations, 1871-1946,” [digital images], marriage registration of Cecil Bob Wand and Yook May in Vancouver on 25 Jun 1932, registration no. 1932-09-402270, BC archives mfilm no. B13763, GSU mfilm no. 2135982, Royal BC Museum (https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca: accessed 6 Nov 2022). Note the alternate middle name of “Bob.”

Canada, British Columbia, Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, “Canada, British Columbia Death Registrations, 1872-2001,” [digital images], death registration of Cecil Bow Wand in Vancouver on 2 Jan 1958, registration no. 1958-09-001138, BC archives mfilm no. B13235, GSU mfilm no. 2033176, Royal BC Museum (https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca: accessed 6 Nov 2022).

Catherine Clement and Winnie L. Cheung, Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, 1st ed. (Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2019).

“Chinese Jubilee Royalty,” Vancouver Sun, 4 Jul 1936, pg. 23, cols. 3-4, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], photo and caption of five Jubilee Queen candidates, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

“Chinese Queen is Crowned,” Vancouver Sun, 17 Jul 1936, pg. 12, cols. 3-5, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], photos of Jubilee candidates, crowning of Queen Kwan, and fan dancing, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

“Chinese Queen to Be Hostess to City’s Jubilee Queens,” Vancouver Sun, 11 Sep 1936, pg. 10, cols. 5-6, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], photo and article re Grace Victoria Kwan hosting a banquet of Jubilee Queens, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

David Mattison, “Cecil Bow Wand, 1900-1958,” directory, Camera Workers, 1858-1950, 2022, Camera Workers, 1858-1950 (https://cameraworkers.davidmattison.com/getperson.php?personID=I1865&tree=cw18581950 : accessed 6 Nov 2022).

Yucho Chow, “Item : 2021-034.335 – Grace Kwan,” Archives, City of Vancouver Archives (https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/kwan-grace : accessed October 8, 2022).

City Map and White Print Co., “Part : LEG1361.02.1 – Map of Vancouver, British Columbia,” Archives, City of Vancouver Archives (https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/map-of-vancouver-british-columbia-7 : accessed 5 Nov 2022).

“For the Time of Your Life – “Mandarin Gardens”,” The Vancouver Sun, 30 Dec 1935, pg. 2, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ad for Mandarin Gardens, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

“New Chinese Night Club Will Open Here Tonight,” The [Vancouver] Province, 28 Dec 1935, pg. 7, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], article re opening of Mandarin Gardens dine-and-dance establishment, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

Bill Newell, “Tuning In – Radio Highlights by Bill Newell; Vic Won on CKWX,” Vancouver Sun, 16 Dec 1936, pg. 15, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], article re recording artist Vic Won, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com: accessed 8 Oct 2022).

6 thoughts on “Uncovering the story behind a mysterious 1930s photo

    1. Thank you, Jacquie! I’m hoping in this post to show that it’s possible to ID some of those old, unidentified treasures in our old photo albums, even if you start off with complete confusion. 🙂

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