Vancouver Sun: Chinatown's 'quiet revolutionary'' – story about Roy Mah

Vancouver Sun: Chinatown's 'quiet revolutionary'' – story about Roy Mah


The Roy Mah (sitting) fan club: Todd Wong, Gloria Leung, Claudia Ferris, Ramona Mah, and Lynn – attending the Chinese Canadian veterans dinner for the 60th anniversary of Canadian Citizenzhip – photo Todd Wong

It is always great to see a story about Roy Mah in the media.  Somehow I missed posting this story earlier.  While I was out of  town to help celebrate Roy's “90th Birthday Party” on Easter weekend, I did get to see him at the May 12th Chinese Canadian veterans dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Canadian Citizenship.

Roy played an important role for Canadian born Chinese to gain full franchise rights, and no longer be called “foreign residents” – even if they were born in Canada.  After serving in WW2, he helped lead the campaign to overturn the Chinese “Exclusion” Act, gaining the vote for Chinese-Canadians in 1947.

The founder of Chinatown News, Roy was also a creator of the Canadian Multi-cultural Press, and he was invited by Prime Minister Trudeau to join the canadian press corps on Trudeau's first-ever historic trip to China in 1974. Mah organized the first public celebration of Chinese New Year in 1963. He sat on the board of the Vancouver Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society when it planned and built the park in Chinatown.

I remember looking at  the Chinatown News, when I would find it at my great-grandma's house.  In the 1980's, I submitted theatre reviews that were published in the Chinatown News.  And in 1993, my picture was on the cover after I received the SFU Terry Fox gold medal.

In 2002, the Asian Canadian Writer's Workshop honoured Roy with it's inaugural Community Builder's Award.  I was on the ACWW board, and one of the event organizers.  It was great to get a story about Roy into the Vancouver Sun that same weekend.

Over the past few years, Roy has been on kidney dialysis.  Part of his regular routine was to walk over to the Vancouver Public Library to read the newspapers.  He would always wave to me whenever he would pass by the information desk where I worked.  Often times we always chatted, and sometimes we would go for coffee. Hunched over when he walked, he always had a big smile for me.   He always enjoyed attending the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinners when he could, and at the 2005 dinner I asked Roy to stand up and I introduced him to our 570 strong audience.  Roy received a standing ovation.   Roy Mah is definitely one of my heroes!

Chinatown's 'quiet revolutionary'

Roy Mah has left his imprint on almost every major event
in Vancouver 's
Chinese community over the past 80 years


Jenny Lee

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, May 12, 2007

He gives every impression of being gentle, unassuming — harmless, even.

But Roy Mah, union organizer, soldier, publisher and civil rights crusader, conceals a lifetime of community activism behind a deceptively mild exterior.

A long list of firsts is associated with his name.

He was Canada 's first full-time Chinese-Canadian union organizer back in the 1940s. During the Second World War, he was among the first Chinese-Canadians to volunteer for service, and he persuaded others to join him. Prove your loyalty first, he argued, and the right to vote will follow.

As publisher of Canada 's first English-language news magazine for Chinese Canadians, from 1953 to 1995 Mah doggedly used his Chinatown News to connect and encourage Canadian-born Chinese as they began to explore broadening social and economic boundaries.

“He mobilized Chinese Canadians to become active participants in mainstream society,” says Paul Yee, historian and Governor General's Award winning author.

Look carefully at almost any significant event in Vancouver 's Chinese-Canadian community over the past 70 or 80 years, and you'll find that the ever-pleasant, ever-unobtrusive Mah was somehow intimately involved. When the government of B.C. and cities of Burnaby , Richmond and Vancouver declare Chinese Canadian Citizenship Week on Monday, Mah will likely nod with satisfaction.

Mah was campaigning for multiculturalism long before most us had heard of the word, says his niece, former CBC journalist Ramona Mar.

Born in Edmonton in 1918, Mah came of age at a difficult time in Chinese-Canadian history.

Up until 1947, people with Chinese ancestry were not allowed to vote and faced restrictions on practising professions such as law, medicine and pharmacy. The Chinese Exclusion Act restricted immigration, and it was not illegal for employers to refuse to hire workers on the basis of ancestry alone.

Canadian-born Mah was ineligible for citizenship until after he returned from military service, at which time he was denied a $20-a-month basement suite in Vancouver because he was Chinese.

No one is sure what originally spurred the young Mah to become socially active and Mah himself is not telling, but at age 11 he was already campaigning against Canadian scrap iron being sent to Japan to be turned into munitions. By 1943, he was the key union organizer of Chinese sawmill workers in Victoria for the former International Woodworkers of America.

“The white people were getting up to a dollar and the Chinese were getting 30 or 40 cents an hour,” Mah says. “The difference was so great. I would go and offer them equal pay for equal work.”

He remembers tension with the Chinese labour boss and being “a little bit scared,” but his response was to just keep quietly plugging on.

It's a style Mah, now 89, has retained throughout his life.

Graham Johnson, a retired University of B.C. sociology professor who studies Chinese immigrant communities, calls Mah “a quiet revolutionary.” Jan Walls, the high-profile, retired Simon Fraser University humanities professor, calls him a “master of diplomatic yet pragmatic rhetoric,” who used “patient, persistent, prodding” to achieve his aims.

“I think he's very good at using the popular cultural expectations to get your attention, then he subtly changes the agenda to his agenda,” Walls says. “What caught your eye [in the Chinatown News] was the typical Chinatown imagery based on the prototype from San Francisco [ Chinatown banquets and beauty queens]. If you read beyond that, he would insert his more serious social agendas.”

Mah's one, overriding lifetime goal has been to help transform Canada into a multilingual and multicultural society from one that was bilingual and bicultural.

Looking back, “society was so divided, not only among Chinese and English Canadians, but among the Chinese themselves,” Mah says.

He used the Chinatown News to celebrate the achievements of people such as Vancouver Sun columnist Der Hoi Yin, and to protest the portrayal of Chinese students on the now infamous 1979 Campus Giveaway episode of CTV's W5, in which all students with Asian faces were portrayed as “foreign” and stealing university spots from “Canadians.”

In its heyday, the Chinatown News had a circulation of 12,000, and in the 1970s was considered essential reading in Canadian political circles for being the only eye into the Chinese community.

Mah encouraged generations of young Chinese Canadians to take an active interest in their community. Hayne Wai, one-time Chinatown News photographer, became a longstanding Vancouver community leader in his own right and president of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C.

Mar also got a start at Chinatown News and became B.C.'s first full-time Chinese-Canadian female radio newscaster.

“During my childhood I had no idea how much of an impact Roy had on Chinese-Canadian life,” Mar says. “In my naivete he was merely my Dad's cousin who posted too many photos of Asian beauty queens on the cover of his seemingly quaint news magazine. It wasn't until the early '80s, when I found my own way to Chinatown, that I began to appreciate what Roy had done.”

Mah's campaigning days are now over and he lives in a Yaletown condo with his second wife, Lynn. He's on hemodialysis and has been in and out of hospital more times than he'd care to admit.

But 2007 marks the anniversaries of Chinese Canadians receiving the franchise; the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 (Exclusion Act); the formation of Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, Pacific Unit 280; and the 50th anniversary of the election of Douglas Jung as the first Chinese Canadian member of Parliament. And Roy Mah can look back on his life with satisfaction over a job well done.

“Before, we were second-class citizens,” Mah says. “Now we're equal.”

Jenny Lee got her start in journalism at the Chinatown News.

– – –


The Chinese Canadian Military Museum , which lobbied for the newly named Chinese Canadian Citizenship Week to be proclaimed by the B.C. government and the cities of Burnaby , Richmond and Vancouver , will mark the event with several celebrations.

These include a launch today of several museum projects celebrating Chinese Canadian veterans' contribution to Canadian history; and a dinner with a veterans' re-affirmation of citizenship ceremony and proclamations by the B.C. government and the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond.

In addition, the mayor of Vancouver will hold a formal proclamation ceremony for Chinese Canadian Citizenship Week at Vancouver City Hall on Monday at 10:30 a.m.

For more information on any of the above events, contact Lt.-Col. (retired) Howe Lee at, or 604-299-6775.


The prodigiously active Roy Mah was also a founding member of the Chinese Cultural Centre; the B.C. Ethnic Press Association; the Sun Yet Sun Garden Society; the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society; and Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans in Canada, Pacific Unit 280, among other organizations. He organized the first public Vancouver Chinese New Year celebration in 1963, and was the only Chinese journalist invited by Pierre Trudeau to join his press corps on his first state visit to China in 1974.

He was among the first Chinese Canadians to join the Men's Canadian Club (now the Canadian Club) and the Vancouver Board of Trade, and was awarded the Order of B.C. in 2003.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007


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