Guest blogger and Ancestry Canada Advisory Board Member: Linda Yip
I thought I knew my great-grandfather.
I grew up in Vancouver, BC. I’m one of hundreds of the descendants of Yip Ch’un Tien, known to us all as Yip Sang. “Yip Sang,” my family said, “is your great-grandfather. He had 4 wives,19 sons and 4 daughters.” Many of my elder relatives lived at the family compound at 51 E. Pender Street1 where Yip Sang built his main business and his home. Yip Sang was a legend.All of that is true, and yet it doesn’t come close to answering the question, Who was Yip Sang?
The Death of Yip Sang
Let’s start at the end, where so many genealogy stories begin. When Yip Sang died on 20 July 19272, he was 81 years old3. According to the death record4, Yip died of complications due to an old gastric ulcer. He was buried at Mountainview Cemetery5 on July 30th with full civic honours. Pender Street was closed for the funeral cortège, which included 2 marching bands, a 125-car motorcade, 400 floral tributes6, and hundreds of mourners walking alongside the hearse7, all to pay their respects to the man called The Mayor of Chinatown and The Grand Old Man.
The Early Years
Yip was born 6 September 184510 in the village of Shentang in Taishan, Guangdong11, China. Shentang is so close to the Pacific you can smell the salt in the breeze. It’s a harsh place for agriculture: arid and hilly, with poor soil. You need to be tough to survive there12. Escaping drought, poverty, and banditry, he left China at 19 to find a better life. With the port of Hong Kong close by, he boarded a boat for San Francisco. There, he took what work was available: cook and dishwasher13. By 1870, Yip had saved enough to make a trip back to Taishan to marry his first wife Lee Shee14 (1853-1885) and have a family15.
The CPR, 1882 – 1885
Yip left his wife and 2 children in 188116 and arrived in the gold fields of BC – the Cariboo. He was 36 years old, in the prime of his life, and had learned English. He may have been lured by gold, but he was quick to seize the opportunity provided by the newly formed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Company17, which had to have manpower if it was going to finish the 2000 miles of track from Lake Nipissing, Ontario through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Soon, Yip was the Chinese superintendent, responsible for book keeping, time keeping and pay for the Chinese crew of up to 700018 workers. Legend has it he rode a horse and carried a gun. The railway was completed with The Last Spike in Craigellachie, BC on 7 Nov 188519, and no Chinese were invited to be in the celebratory photo marking the occasion.
Yip went to Guangdong in 1885. I don’t know if he returned to be with his dying wife, if he knew his supervisory work with the CPR was at an end, or both, but he stayed for the next three years.
In Canada, the Chinese workers of the railway, once deemed essential, were now seen as undesirable. The federal and provincial governments drafted and enacted hundreds of anti-Asian laws, all with the express purpose of dissuading Chinese people from settling in. There were laws encompassing everything from immigration and voting to business, employment, and education.20
The Rise of the Wing Sang Company
Despite this daunting environment, Yip saw a future Canada with economic ties across the Pacific. In 1888, he returned to Canada to founded the Vancouver-based Wing Sang Company, and in 1891, he brought over his wives Dong Shee (1865-1941), Wong Shee (1869-1957)21 Chin Shee (1866-1934)22 and children.
At its height, in addition to importing and exporting, Wing Sang had grown to encompass fishing boats and licenses, fish salteries and canning plants, and a real estate portfolio of 24 properties23 in downtown Vancouver. My mind boggles at what this portfolio would be worth today.
In 1904, Wing Sang contracted a Victoria company to make $50,000 (about $1.4 M today) worth of bricks for its expansion projects between Pender and Keefer Streets24. Wing Sang was the Chinese Immigration agent in Vancouver: attesting for Chinese wanting to travel25, underwriting bonds for Chinese wanting to enter the USA, and providing catering for the Chinese Detention Shed at the Port of Vancouver26.
Wing Sang was also the shipping agent for the CPR and partnered with Chinatown businesses from tailors to restaurants.
Yip helped found the Chinese Benevolent Society, led the international Chinese Nationalist League, and donated to schools27 and hospitals in both Canada and China. He represented the politically powerless Chinese community during the federal hearings into the anti-Asian riots and Chinese immigration28 and was closely questioned by W.L. Mackenzie King2930.
This is his signature31
And the Wing Sang Company, having established its import/export trade routes, was the unofficial post office of Chinatown, carrying money and letters to the parents, wives, and children of the men working in Canada, and bringing back news and gossip of home32. For the families kept apart by immigration laws, Wing Sang was the bridge between.
The Later Years
To mark his 80th birthday, Yip threw a Chinatown-wide party on Thursday, October 22, 1925. He booked 8 restaurants for his 1200 dinner guests33 and opened the doors of his home. At the WK Gardens Chop Suey House, dinner began with chicken consommé with Bird’s Nest, followed by main courses of shrimp, squab, chicken, and duck; and a dessert of dan ko cake and preserved lychee nuts34.
Yip took the rare opportunity afforded him as a prominent Chinese merchant to naturalize as a Canadian citizen on 11 June 189635. Even when he died, Yip chose Canada, deciding against the practice of bone repatriation – the custom among Chinese to send their bones back to China for burial36.
What was Yip’s Impact?
Yip stood as a role model for what could be achieved in one lifetime (despite being unable to vote). It’s hard now to assess the total impact of Yip’s life on the social, cultural, economic, and political fabric of Canada and China. The Wing Sang Company is gone now but his extended family – my family – includes Susanne Yip37, Principal, Kwong Tung Provincial Girls Middle School, Guangdong, China; Nellie Yip Quong38, the Caucasian from New Brunswick who mastered 5 Chinese languages and was midwife to countless babies; Dr. Kew Ghim Yip, Canada’s first Chinese doctor to practice Western medicine39; K. Dock Yip, Canada’s first Chinese lawyer40 who helped lead the effort to repeal The Chinese Immigration Act; 21 members of the famous Chinese Student’s Athletics Association soccer team41 including star centre Quene Yip42; and at least 7 World War II veterans43.
As a Chinese-Canadian genealogist, one of my greatest pleasures is to be able to share these stories with members of my own family – to help us collectively rediscover our shared past – from Ella & Ella both aged 10, to Cecily, aged 95, and everyone in between. Yip Sang was a true Canadian pioneer whose success in the face of adversity is an inspiration for all of us who proudly call Canada “home.”
Thank you to Ancestry for the opportunity to spend Canada’s 153rd birthday reflecting on Yip Sang. Thank you, Yip Sang, without whom I literally wouldn’t be here. And thank you to everyone along the way who’ve helped me in my own genealogy story.
Linda writes about her latest genealogy finds from tools to uncovered family stories on her blog Past-Presence.com. She’s an active member of the BC and SK genealogy societies and is also a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Her passions are the history of the Chinese in Canada, Force 136, her growing collection of 30K+ images, and keeping her finds organized! Most weekends you’ll find her curled up on the couch with her laptop, either researching or writing about genealogy.
Sources & Endnotes.
1. Ancestry.com. 1911 Census of Canada in Ancestry.com at (accessed 20 Jun 2020). Original data: Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1911. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2007. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/1911/Pages/about-census.aspx. Series RG31-C-1. Statistics Canada Fonds. Microfilm reels T-20326 to T-20460. YIP SANG: Vancouver, BC. Note that Pender Street was named “Dupont Street” until 1907.
2. Ancestry.com,“ British Columbia, Canada, Death Index, 1872-1990“ in Ancestry.com (accessed 20 Jun 2020). Original source: Original data: British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency. British Columbia, Canada. British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency: P.O. Box 9657, Stn Prov Govt, Victoria, BC V8W 9P3, Registration Number: 1927-09-384595, BCA Number: B13131, GSU Number: 1927350. YIP SANG, Vancouver, BC.
3. Yip’s age at death has been variously recorded as being 82 or 83 years old. It appears that Yip followed the Chinese custom of being 1 year old at birth.
4. Royal BC Museum British Columbia Archives, “Death registration for Sang Yip” in Search our collection (internet site) at http://search-collections.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Genealogy/, with index result: Event Type: Death Registration, Number:1927-09-384595, BC Archives Mfilm Number:B13131, GSU Mfilm Number:1927350, Event Date:1927-07-20, SANG YIP, Vancouver, BC. Digitized copy of death registration record acquired 30 May 2019 by email following request for record and fee paid.
5. Ancestry.com. Canada, “Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current” in Ancestry.com at (20 Jun 2020). Original data: Find a Grave, (internet site), at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/25339603 (accessed 21 Jun 2020). Sang YIP葉春田, Vancouver, BC. The author has also made several trips to the family plot.
6. Newspapers.com, “Chinatown is in mourning” in Newspapers.com (accessed 8 Jun 2019). Original source: The Province, 31 Jul 1927 pg. 21, Vancouver, BC. YIP SANG, Vancouver, BC.
7. Bo Cheun Studio. Original photo album collection entitled “Death of Yip Sang, 1927” Vancouver, BC. Gifted to Linda Yip by H&G Yip, Mar 2020. Photo album consists of 24 photos and captions of the death of Yip Sang. Similar or same images have been digitized in the City of Vancouver Archives.
8. John Mackie. “Yip Sang, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown”. The Vancouver Sun, 14 Jun 2017, page A2. Sent to the author by email 18 Jun 2020.
9. Chik-Wai Leung “Preface” “Biography of Yip Sang” Vancouver, Yip Family Board of Directors, 1973, pg. 4. Private print run of Yip Sang’s biography distributed to family members, aka “The Green Book.”
10. Timothy J. Stanley, “YIP SANG ((Ye Sheng in Mandarin), also known as Yip Chun Tien (Ye Chuntian) and Yip Lin Sang (Ye Lin,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 14 May, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/yip_sang_15E.html.
11. aka “Canton” or “Kwang Tung”
12. The author’s genealogy trip to Shentang, Duhu, Taishan, China with the Chinese Canadian Historical Society’s Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour, led by Dr. Henry Yu and Dr. Selia Tan. October 2019.
13. Aileen Young “Yip Sang” “Biography of Yip Sang” 1973, pg. 5. Vancouver, Yip Family Board of Directors, 1927. Aileen’s biography of Yip Sang, 1 Jul 1972.
14. Lee Shee, Dong Shee, Wong Shee, Chin Shee: Shee or Shi, meaning “from the family of”
15. The author’s deductions, based on a review of dates of the births of the children Yip Gim Oy (b. 1871) and Yip Kew Yow (b. 1873) as noted in the private Yip family tree by Hoy & Grace Yip, revised 2008 by Hoy & Grace Yip with the assistance of Andrew Yip.
16. Ancestry.com. 1901 Census of Canada in Ancestry.com at (20 Jun 2020). Original data: Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1901. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2004. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/1901/Pages/about-census.aspxl. Series RG31-C-1. Statistics Canada Fonds. Microfilm reels: T-6428 to T-6556. YIP SANG, Vancouver, BC.
17. Pierre Berton. “The Great Railway” Toronto, McLelland and Stewart Inc, 1992. pg. 196 re: Building of the CPR.
18. Estimates range from 6000-15000 Chinese labourers worked building the CPR, with the death toll estimated to be 600-1000 from a variety of causes ranging from blasting accidents, injuries, landslides, cold, disease, and malnutrition.
19. Personal trip to The Last Spike, Craigellachie, BC, 6 Aug 2011.
20. Linda Yip, “Putting the “British” in British Columbia, or I get the funny feeling you’re trying to tell me something” dated 17 Nov 2017 in Past Presence (internet site) at https://past-presence.com/2017/11/07/putting-the-british-in-british-columbia-or-i-get-the-funny-feeling-youre-trying-to-tell-me-something/
21. Library and Archives Canada, “Wong Shee” at Library and Archives Canada (internet site) at https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-china-1885-1949/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=117478& (accessed 16 Apr 2020). Original source: Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Immigration, Immigration Records, Immigrants from China 1885-1949, Wong Shee, Date of Registration: 1914-05-14, C.I. 5 Certificate Number: 6216, C.I. 9 Certificate Number: 242, Type of Records: C.I.9 certificates issued in Vancouver for people born outside Canada, Microfilm Reel Number: T-6049, Remark: Also known as Mrs. Yip Sang, Reference: RG76 D2di. Wong Shee, Vancouver, BC. Original immigration date: 1891.
22. It was customary for a man of Yip’s status to have several wives.
23. Héritage Canadiana, “William Lyon Mackenzie King : Memoranda and notes (J4) : C-1977” in Héritage Canadiana (internet site) at http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_c1977 (accessed 30 May 2020) Original source: Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Title: W.L. Mackenzie King Memoranda and Notes – 1977, Identifier lac_reel_c1977, C-1977, 108980, 130757, 98362, MG 26 J 4, images 1340-49, “Vancouver anti-Asiatic riots, 1907”, Wing Sang Company, Vancouver, BC. Yip Sang is sworn in and testifies before Commissioner W.L.M. King.
24. Internet Archive, “Victoria gets contract” at Archive.org (internet site) (accessed 30 May 2018). Original source: The Victoria Daily Colonist, 27 May 1904, pg. 5. Victoria, BC. Wing Sang Company, Vancouver, BC.
25. Héritage Canadiana, “Chinese immigration records : C.I.9 certificates from Vancouver and Victoria” from Héritage Canadiana (internet site) at https://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_mikan_161413 (accessed Dec 2-9, 2017) Original source: Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Canada Dept. of Employment and Immigration, Identifier
lac_mikan_161413, 180178, RG 76 D 2 d I, R1206-170-5-E, R1206-170-5-F, Government, Genealogy, Immigration. 15 reels. Keywords: Yip, Chu, Wing Sang, various. Wing Sang provided critical credibility for Chinese people applying for permission to leave the country and be readmitted, a position of unprecedented confidence and leadership.
26. Linda Yip, “The Chinese Detention Shed, Vancouver” 19 Aug 2018, in Past Presence (internet site), at https://past-presence.com/2018/08/19/the-chinese-detention-shed-vancouver/ (accessed 20 Jun 2020)
27. The author visited Yip Ch’un Tien Hall at Taishan No. 1 Middle School, Taishan, Guangdong, China in October 2019.
28. Internet Archive, “Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the methods by which Oriental labourers have been induced to come to Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie King” in Archive.org (internet site) at https://archive.org/details/reportofroyalcom00cana_1 (accessed 30 May 2018). Original source: Queen’s University Library, W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library, in conjunction with University of Toronto Libraries; Published Ottawa, 1908, page 70.
29. W. Peter Ward “White Canada Forever: popular attitudes and public policy toward Orientals in British Columbia” Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990. Pgs. 53-76 re: The Vancouver riots.
30. Héritage Canadiana, “William Lyon Mackenzie King : Memoranda and notes (J4) : C-1978” in Héritage Canadiana (internet site) at http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_c1978/1?r=0&s=1. (accessed 30 May 2020) Original source: Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Title: W.L. Mackenzie King Memoranda and Notes – 1978, Identifier lac_reel_c1978, C-1978, 108980, 130757, 98362, MG 26 J 4, “Vancouver anti-Asiatic riots, 1907”, images 875, 876, Wing Sang Company. Commissioner WL Mackenzie King’s notes, Chinese business claims for relief from damage caused by the riots, and related documents.
31. University of British Columbia, “Yip Sang Company, 342-R Empress of Russia : Correspondence.” C. N.p., 1921. Original Format: Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. The Chung Collection. CC-TX-103-3. Web. 21 June 2020. <https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/chung/chungtext/items/1.0225746>. Chung Textual Materials. Wing Sang Company, Vancouver, BC. Letters from and to Wing Sang re: CPR passenger line business.
32. AuthentiCity, ““The Yip Sang Correspondence Project 葉生信件翻譯工程”, 17 Apr 2014 in The City of Vancouver Archives Blog (internet site) at https://www.vancouverarchives.ca/2014/04/17/the-yip-sang-correspondence-project/ (accessed 9 Dec 2019). Documents the archiving of correspondence recovered from the Wing Sang building and the unclaimed letters sent to Chinese in Canada.
33. Newspapers.com “Pioneer host to 1200 diners” at Newspapers.com (internet site), accessed 8 Jun 2019. Original source: The Vancouver Sun, 23 Oct 1925, pg. 4, Vancouver, BC. YIP SANG, Vancouver, BC.
34. University of British Columbia, “Yip Sang” [WK Chop Suey House special birthday menu] 22 Oct 1925. Original format: University of British Columbia. Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. The Chung Collection. Chung Textual Materials. Digitized copy for personal research captured 23 Jun 2017 with permission. Second of two research trips to the Chung Collection, acco
35. Library and Archives Canada, “Sang Yip”, in Library and Archives Canada (internet site) at https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/citizenship-naturalization-records/citizenship-montreal-1851-1945/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=4432&. (accessed 20 Jun 2020). Original source: Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Immigration, Citizenship and Naturalization Records, Citizenship Registration Records, 1851-1945 – Montreal Circuit Court, File #11061, Volume 917, Reference RG 6 F3, Item #4432.
36. Newspapers.com “Death of Yip Sang” at Newspapers.com (internet site), accessed 8 Jun 2019. Original source: The The Windsor Star, 26 Jul 1927, pg 13. Windsor, ON. YIP SANG, Vancouver, BC.
37. Linda Yip, “The Chrysalis: The Early Life of Susanne Gim Ling Yip Sang” in Ancestry.com (internet site) at https://blogs.ancestry.ca/ancestry/2020/04/22/the-chrysalis-the-early-life-of-susanne-gim-ling-yip-sang/.
38. Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC), “Intermarriage: Charles Yip Quong & Nellie Towers” in Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (internet site) at http://www.cinarc.org/Intermarriage.html#anchor_264. (accessed 27 Nov 2017)
39. Museum of Vancouver, ““H990.277.61a-c – Dr. Yip Kew Ghim label” in Museum of Vancouver (internet site), at http://openmov.museumofvancouver.ca/object/history/h99027761a-c (accessed 20 Jun 2020). See the biographical description for Dr. Yip.
40. Linda Yip, “The right to be a Canadian: Irving Himel, K. Dock Yip, and The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act,” 18 Apr 2017 at Past Presence (internet site) at https://past-presence.com/2017/04/18/the-right-to-be-a-canadian-irving-himel-k-dock-yip-and-the-committee-for-the-repeal-of-the-chinese-immigration-act/
41. I count 21 Yip family members of the Chinese Students Athletics Association soccer team over the years – there may be more: Kew Dock Yip, Kew Lap Yip, Kew Gooey Yip, Kew Dang Yip, Kew Yin Yip, Kew Gin Yip, Kew Yacht Yip, Kew Art Yip, Kew Ghim Yip, Kew Ming Yip, Kew Park Yip, Horne Wing Yip, Gay Wing Yip, Cecil Wing Yip, Dake Wing Yip, Donald Wing Yip, Fred Wing Yip, Gibb Wing Yip, Wing Foo Yip, Jack Soon, and legendary Kew Quene Yip.
42. BC Sports Hall of Fame “Quene Yip” in BC Sports Hall of Fame (internet site) at https://bcsportshall.com/honoured_member/quene-yip/ (accessed 20 Jun 2020). Biography of Quene Yip by Fred Hume.
43. The Chinese Canadian Military Museum. Email correspondence dated 14 Jul 2008 with Larry Wong, Curator.