It is 1949 in British Columbia, Canada. An elderly Chinese gentleman casts his vote in the federal election. At first glance, it does not seem that earth-shattering of an event, but this marked an important landmark in the struggle for democratic rights in Canada. Although born in Canada, before the country even existed, Won Alexander Cumyow had to wait 88 years to have the unfettered right to vote!
Few other non-Indigenous British Columbians have roots as deep as Cumyow did. Won Alexander Cumyow was born in Port Douglas on the traditional territory of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation at Port Douglas on the North Shore of Harrison Lake on March 21, 1861. His parents, Won Ling Ling and Wong Shee, were Hakka storekeepers and restaurant owners who came up from California in 1860 after initially migrating from Guangzhou two years before that. The couple outfitted miners most notably during the Cariboo Gold Rush. His mother was among a handful of women from China who had migrated to British Columbia at this time. Won was their oldest son and he was the first Chinese Canadian to be born in present-day Canada. His parents’ choice of last name, Cumyow, which literally means “gold have” was likely a reflection of the Gold Rush period in which he was born.
Growing up, he learned to speak multiple languages, including Hakka, Cantonese, English, and Chinook Wawa which was the Indigenous trade language and the main language of work on the coast in nineteenth century British Columbia. By the 1870s, the family had moved to New Westminster where he completed his education including high school and training in law. On November 29, 1889, he married Ye Eva Chan, a woman from Hong Kong whose parents were Methodist missionaries who had adopted her in Hong Kong and brought her back to Canada. The couple would go on to have ten children. In 1923, their grandchild, the son of the eldest daughter Grace and her locally-born Chinese husband Cecil Sit-shiu Lee, became the first fourth generation Chinese Canadian.
Cumyow was well integrated into settler society at a time period when there was almost no Chinese or Hakka community to speak of. Following the practice of the time, although his father’s surname was Won, his given name became his surname. He attended school in New Westminster with Richard McBride, a future premier of British Columbia. The 1881 census lists his religion and that of his siblings as Anglican. The New Westminster British Columbian Weekly, reporting on his wedding, described him as “well known to most of our readers, as, perhaps, the most intelligent, clever, and best educated young Chinaman in the province, exceeding in his English education many young men of Caucasian origin.” Indeed, his reputation was such that from 1889 until his retirement in 1936, the Vancouver Police Department employed him as its official Chinese and Chinook interpreter. He also ran a number of businesses, including a coffee and tea company, as well as an opium importer operation, until the latter became illegal. He also worked as a laborer and landlord.
Despite his education, skill, ambition, and reputation, Cumyow faced considerable racism and discrimination. Like many of his fellow Chinese Canadians, he had to live with unjust policies created by white-dominated communities and governments.
In 1885, while living in Victoria, he was accused of forgery by his white business partner, Edward Johnson. It took the all-white jury just a mere twenty minutes to declare him guilty and Chief Justice Matthew Bailey Begbie sentenced him to three years in the provincial penitentiary. This despite the fact that Won claimed the evidence against him had been falsified and manipulated by his business partner and that he had no time to prepare a defence prior to the trial. While it is unclear whether or not Won committed fraud, the justice system, coupled with racial prejudice against Chinese Canadians, likely had a role in stacking the deck against him. The system was rigged and the odds were certainly not in his favor.
Despite his education as a lawyer, Won was unable to take the bar exam and become a lawyer because he was not registered to vote. This was due to the shameful fact that Chinese Canadians, unlike their white counterparts, were largely denied the right to vote and this was nothing new. British Columbia had been stripping Chinese Canadians of the right to vote as early as 1871. Won managed to vote in the 1890 election but provincial legislation in 1895-96 stripped Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations voting rights in election in British Columbia; though his name still appears on the 1898 voting registry. The federal voting registry came from the provincial one and so the federal franchise was also blocked. He later attempted to vote in 1902, but his request was ignored. In 1903, he applied to become a notary but he was once again denied due to being unable to vote. In 1914, he moved his Christian, English-speaking, Canadian born family from Vancouver’s Chinatown to the Grandview area, but the local ratepayers association passed resolutions calling to prevent Chinese from owning property in Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia. In 1923, like all other Canadian-born Chinese, he had to register with the federal government under the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, in order to remain in the country.
Yet his legal training did not gather dust on the shelf. He put them to good use. Throughout his life, Cumyow fought against discrimination and for the rights of his fellow Chinese. The Chinese community faced many injustices and racist restrictions, which Won and other Chinese Canadians fought to overcome. These policies included, among others, the Chinese Head Tax, the disenfranchisement of Chinese Canadians, and racial segregation. In 1884, the same year he moved to Victoria, he helped found the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, serving as its English language secretary. The association was an important advocacy group for Chinese Canadians that aimed to push back against discriminatory policies. The Imperial Qing Consulate in San Francisco established it at the request of BC merchants on the grounds that they needed to unite all Chinese because Canadian officials were “infected with cruel habits surpassing those seen in the United States in recent years” and that is saying something. The CCBA also acted as a de facto government for the community, organizing its self-defense, settling internal disputes and providing social services, including a hospital, relief, and eventually a public school.
As its English-language spokesman, Cumyow was the key intermediary with white dominant society. He would have been the one who presented the association’s census of the Chinese population in British Columbia and other information to the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. He was one of a handful of Chinese witnesses to the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration. He argued that it was actually mutually beneficial for white Canadians and Chinese Canadians to work together hand in hand. He noted that people were anxious to employ the Chinese and that it was mainly white politicians who were stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment and moral panics. He pushed back against restrictive immigration policies, stating that Chinese people would “greatly aid in the development of this great country.”
When in 1922, the Victoria School Board attempted to racially segregate Chinese students from other students, the students refused to comply and went on strike against this policy. Won represented the association in its response to the school board informing that the segregation would “widen the breach” between Chinese and white Canadians, which would be “to the detriment of the Chinese in Canadian life.”
In 1899, Cumyow helped found the Chinese Empire Reform Association or the “Save the Emperor Society,” once again serving as English language secretary and official interpreter. It had been established by BC merchants and the reformer Kang Youwei after the Empress Dowager’s palace coup abruptly ended the One Hundred Days Reform in China, a reform intended to move the Qing dynasty toward a constitutional monarchy. By 1903, the association had a global membership of half a million and was in some ways the first mass political party in Chinese history. Cumyow and his colleagues saw legislated anti-Chinese racism as at least in part the result of the weakness of the China’s government and advocated the modernization and strengthening of China as key to ending racism in Canada. Although promoting its benevolent intentions, it tried to forcibly overthrow the Empress Dowager through an abortive uprising. Cumyow remained active in the association for many years, serving as the secretary of its school in Vancouver. In 1920, he became the president of the Vancouver branch.
In 1936, Won retired from his court interpreter position. He was succeeded by his son, Gordon Wo, the first Chinese Canadian to study law at the University of British Columbia and the first Chinese notary public in Canada. After years of tireless advocating, on May 14, 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed and voting rights were at last restored. In 1949, Won Alexander Cumyow, cast his vote in the federal election, at the age of eighty-eight. This made him the only Chinese person to have voted before and after disenfranchisement. A photo of him voting has been reprinted many times. On May 6, 1955, he passed away at the age of 94, leaving his brother, eight surviving children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
He left a lasting impact on Chinese Canadian history. The Vancouver CCBA would continue to advocate for the rights of Chinese Canadians, notably in reforming the country’s immigration system. In life and death, he was featured in multiple newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun and the Daily Province. In 2016, there were calls for a new Vancouver school to be named after him, but ultimately the name Crosstown was chosen. In 2020, he was shortlisted by the Bank of Canada for the newly redesigned five dollar bill alongside seven other important historical figures.
It was Chinese Canadians like Won Alexander Cumyow who paved the way for those to come including the twenty-sixth Governor-General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson.