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Chinatown 12th & Cambie: Gone but not forgotten

Lee and Mah helped build memorial
Chinatown Memorial
Roy Mah (left) and Daniel Lee at the Chinatown Memorial unveiling ceremony in 2003. photo Dan Toulgoet

Let me again introduce you to Roy Mah and Daniel Lee.

I’ve written about these two gentlemen over the years and think of them each time I pass by the Chinatown Memorial Square on Keefer Street.

I was thinking about Mah and Lee this week as we at the Courier prepared to put our Chinatown edition together as part of our ongoing series featuring the city’s neighbourhoods.

These two men, who served overseas at a time when neither of them were allowed to vote because of their race, were important to Chinatown, the Chinese community and the battle against racism.

After living long remarkable lives, both men died within three years of each other. Mah, who was 89, died in June 2007 and Lee, who was either 89 or 90, followed him in January 2010.

I was saddened to hear the news of their deaths since I considered the time I spent with them a privilege and an education, learning more about Chinese-Canadian history than I would in a textbook.

So, as you read the stories of Chinatown in this edition, I thought it important to remind readers about a day in November 2003 when both men were alive and literally had their day in the sun.

Dressed in their traditional navy blue blazers, grey slacks and dark berets, they sat in plastic red chairs at Chinatown Memorial Square on what was one of those crisp, blue sky days in Vancouver.

Mah and Lee gathered with about 30 other aging, frail men for the unveiling of a monument to honour Chinese war veterans and long-forgotten Chinese railway workers of the late 19th century.

The monument, as many have seen, has a 20-foot concrete column at its centre, flanked by a six-foot bronze casting of a soldier armed with a rifle and a railway worker resting a shovel on his shoulder. A gold maple leaf relief is at its base.

Both men told me they thought the monument was a fitting tribute.

Mah was born in Edmonton and grew up in Victoria and Vancouver. He was forced to attend a segregated school, sit in Chinese-only sections in movie theatres and barred from city-owned swimming pools.

In one of his many interviews with the Courier, Mah said Chinese people were “a social pariah” outside Chinatown. He and his Chinese friends were the object of ridicule all the time, he said.

Lee, who was born in an apartment at Main and Pender, had similar stories. He spent a great deal of his later years writing letters to the federal government, requesting an apology for imposing a head tax on his father and grandfather when they arrived from China.

“I’m not asking for money, or any compensation, just an apology,” he told me in 2005. “How hard can it be?”

Both men believe their decision to enlist pressured the government to eventually allow Chinese-Canadians the right to vote. The monument, Mah said, was a reminder of his and other Chinese-Canadians’ tireless efforts to see wrongs made right.

“This is the dream we were fighting for,” Mah said from a microphone that day. “The statue, symbolizing this dream, will stand as a constant reminder of the tremendous struggles and sacrifices the railroad workers and the Chinese-Canadian veterans had made to ensure that this country, this province and this city is a better place in which to live.”

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