Canada 150: Yip Sang, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown

June 13, 2017

By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun |

You can’t overstate Yip Sang’s importance to Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Working as the superintendent for the Kwong On Wo company in the 1880s, he imported 6,000 to 7,000 Chinese labourers to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Yip Sang held several positions: bookkeeper, timekeeper and paymaster. Legend has it he used to pay the Chinese CPR workers by riding his horse to the Chinese campsites carrying a sack of money, and a gun, just in case.

After the railway was completed, he founded the Wing Sang Company, which became one of Chinatown’s biggest import-export firms.

In 1889, he built a brick building for the Wing Sang company at 51 Dupont, which is now East Pender. The main floor was the unofficial bank of Chinatown, where workers could send money to relatives in China.

It was also where Chinese Vancouverites booked passage on steamships to the homeland, because Yip Sang was the CPR’s Chinese passenger agent for its steamship line.

Yip Sang became a wealthy man, and so well-respected he was dubbed the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. But he never forgot his humble beginnings. He co-founded the Chinese Benevolent Association, and built a seven-storey building in Shanghai Alley for new immigrants to stay until they found work in Canada.

Family legend has it that when members of the Chinese community told Yip Sang his largesse would bankrupt him, he built an eight-storey building on Carrall Street to house even more immigrants.

He also built a six-storey building behind the Wing Sang offices to house his large family — four wives and 23 children.

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