#862 The remarkable Victoria Chung
A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung
by John Price with Ningping Yu
Vancouver: Canadian Chinese Historical Society of British Columbia and UBC Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies, 2019
$30.00 / 9780993659324
Reviewed by May Q. Wong
An immigrant girl, born in Victoria in 1897 and a boarder at the Methodist church’s Chinese Rescue Home there, receives a full scholarship from the Women’s Missionary Society to attend the University of Toronto. She is the first Chinese (male or female) to graduate as a doctor in Canada, and is one of the first women to intern at the Toronto General Hospital. Posted at the Marion Barkley Hospital as a medical missionary, she is the only Canadian missionary to have worked throughout the Japanese invasion of China, the Second World War, and the Communist revolution. When she died in 1966 of cancer, thousands lined the streets to mourn her as the People’s Heroine. This was Dr. Victoria Toy Mea Chung, whose story as a trailblazer should have been included in Canadian and Chinese history, in medical history, and in missionary literature long before this book. But perhaps the ephemeral quality of her existence in the literature reflects the racism, sexism, and political turmoil rampant during her lifetime.
As the title so aptly points out, Victoria Chung was a “woman in between,” and the book is full of examples of in-betweeness in her life and work.
Chung was born during a time when Canada did not want the Chinese; when only immigrants from China were forced to pay a head tax. Her parents named her Victoria, perhaps hoping she would be better accepted by the dominant white society if she had the same name as the English Queen, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the year of Victoria’s birth.
Her father was Sing Noon Chung, a small business owner and one of the first Chinese converts to Christianity in Victoria. Her mother, Yin Han, a highly educated woman, had become a Christian in China. The couple’s involvement in the church in Victoria brought Yin Han and young Victoria into contact with the Chinese Rescue Home. Originally a place of refuge for at-risk girls and women of Asian descent, it became a segregated school offering a public school curriculum, evangelical teachings, and lessons in the domestic arts. Yin Han, a busy midwife, became involved in the work of the Home and boarded there after the births of subsequent children. Enrolled as a boarder at its school, Victoria could visit her family at home, which was only a few blocks away.
At the University of Toronto, Victoria Chung was one of only 14 women in a class of 79 graduates in 1922. While medical training had been offered to women in Canada since 1883, women still faced sexist attitudes from male students as well as professors. When she graduated, she would not have been able to practice her profession in British Columbia, simply because of her race.
Upon completing her medical education requirements, she sailed to China in 1923. This was the same year that the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act that would shut all doors to Chinese immigration until 1947. Price and Yu suggest that it may have been “the heightened racism in Victoria” (p. 80) that prompted her parents, after thirty years or more in BC, to return to live in China in 1925.
As a Canadian citizen, Chung travelled with a British passport. What was strange was that her name was not included in the British consulate’s list of female missionaries in China, a list that was used in times of crisis for emergency evacuations (e.g. during uprisings). Price and Yu suggested the omission was “related to the notion that missionaries were, by definition, of European heritage and an assumption that ‘Canadian’ women were white” (p. 100). At one point, when the Chinese Communists were taking over, and as the white staff started to leave, she complained: “no one asks me whether I am going to stay in the hospital or not” (p. 119). But on another occasion (during the Japanese occupation), she took control of her own destiny and hid her citizenship, preferring to “pass” as a Chinese national so that she could stay with her family in Kongmoon and continue her work.
Victoria was a devout Christian. At first, she was able to practice her religion freely in China in the Christian churches of Kongmoon. But it must have been difficult for her when the Communists took over and religious freedom was banished. Surprisingly, the authors note, “Dr. Chung’s ashes had been interred in a Christian ceremony. Religious freedom in China, however limited, has allowed this dimension of her story to also be told — even if it remains somewhat outside the official narrative” (p. 138).
On John Price’s very first trip to China, he learned that the administrators of the Marion Barkley Hospital, now known as Jiangmen Central Hospital, were planning a memorial for the late woman doctor, who had played a “crucial role at the hospital as its director for many years” (p. xxi). This posthumous recognition was significant in light of the perils Dr. Chung faced as a Canadian-born missionary when the Communists first took over the hospital in 1949, and later during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Although during the intervening years she was recognized at the highest levels of government as a “National Cultural Hero” (p. 131), after her death — just as the Cultural Revolution was starting in 1966 — her family “destroyed or hid her personal effects…[and] none of her personal correspondence has been recovered” (p. 137). Anything and anyone with connections to the West was suspect and subject to severe penalties. This meant that Dr. Chung’s personal voice was quieted forever.
Of her personal life, motivations, and ideals, little is known. In the newspaper clippings and her reports to the Women’s Missionary Society, Chung very rarely spoke about her own feelings or experiences, but rather turned the focus on her patients and colleagues. She never married, but generously supported a niece, a cousin, and in her fifties she adopted a son. She also formed a life-long intimate relationship with Dr. Annie Wong, who joined the staff of the Marion Barkley Hospital in 1936. But even after ten years of searching in Canada, where she was born and educated, and six trips to China, where she spent the rest of her life working, Dr. Victoria Chung, the person, remains an enigma to John Price and Ningping Yu.
Thankfully, her story was intriguing enough for historian Price and Chinese feminist researcher Dr. Ningping Yu to dedicate a decade of their lives in a search for information about her. A Woman in Between is also about the process of discovery and the excitement and encouragement that the search engendered: it was a 1948 newspaper article — given by a colleague to Price just as he was on his way to Japan and China on a separate research project — that started the search; it was a retired doctor from Jiangmen Central Hospital who shared a photograph album that allowed the first family connection to be made to Victoria Chung; it was on a bike ride through Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria that Dr. Price came across the memorial stone to Chung’s siblings; it was a local Victoria woman, who knew Victoria and her mother Yin Han, who responded to a newspaper article; an archival search yielded more documents; and so it went.
The result of the search and of the research is A Woman In Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung, a path-breaking book that, fortunately for scholars and interested readers, truly does contain the “essential elements of Dr. Chung’s [remarkable] story” (p. xxvii).
May Q. Wong writes: I had known about Dr. Price’s research on Victoria Chung and been in touch with him while I was researching and writing the chapter “Dr. Victoria Toy Mea Chung: Courageous Trailblazer” in my book City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past (Touchwood Editions, 2018). I had already read some of the same third person sources listed in his book, and had hoped his access to first person accounts and far-flung archival materials would provide more information about Dr. Chung’s personal life. Unfortunately, my book deadline came before his. I am delighted to provide this review of the first full-length biography of Dr. Victoria Chung. Editor’s note: see the review by Tom Koppel of May Q. Wong’s City in Colour in The Ormsby Review no. 513 (April 2, 2019). May Wong has also reviewed Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, by Catherine B. Clement, in The Ormsby Review no. 836 (June 7, 2020).
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