SSUC and “The Chinese Department”
Chinese festivals seem unexpected in a United Church. Not so for Sydenham Street United Church. A group of Chinese Kingstonians were an integral part of the congregation in the mid-20th century.
Think about Chinese New Year – often referred to as Lunar New Year. It’s about fireworks, special foods, big celebrations. Now think about a large downtown church in Kingston. Do these two thoughts seem mismatched – fireworks and feasts in Chinese, and a sober Christian community of non-Chinese people? Let’s find out about the “Chinese Department” at Sydenham Street Methodist/United Church.
The first Chinese immigrant to Kingston likely arrived in the late 19th century. Chinese newcomers were overwhelmingly male, coming to Canada to work, many of them labouring in very difficult conditions to build the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Alberta and British Columbia. Most of these Chinese workers had lived in poverty in their homeland and chose a life in Canada to earn enough to send money home to support their families. After the railroad’s completion, Chinese work crews were disbanded and made to feel very unwelcome by ongoing, sometimes violent racist actions and policies in Western Canada. The Government of Canada enacted a Chinese Head Tax in 1885, aimed at discouraging further immigration. Chinese labourers laid off by the railway contractors began to move east searching for jobs, a daunting prospect.
Kingston’s Chinese businesses
Some enterprising Chinese families opened small businesses, particularly restaurants and laundries, knowing that self-employment provided some shelter from the discrimination and racism most suffered at the hands of employers.
Kingston had its share of Chinese-owned businesses by the early 20th century. One of the best- known Chinese-owned restaurants was the Grand Café, at 222 Princess Street. The café, which opened in 1916, consisted of two floors owned and operated by Peter Lee. Peter and his wife had a son, Victor, the first Chinese baby born in Kingston.
Other Chinese-owned businesses included the Roy-York Café owned by William Lee and opened in 1927 at 271 – 273 Princess Street, the Victoria Café owned by Jewly and Sing Lee, opened in 1914, and Fung Lei’s laundry on Clarence Street.
A safe space
How does Kingston’s Chinese population fit into Sydenham Street United Church? Many of the members of the Chinese community, including Peter Lee were a part of the congregation at Sydenham Street Methodist Church, with the Lee family ties being particularly strong. The church played a crucial role in the Chinese community as it actively encouraged and welcomed newcomers into the congregation. Undoubtedly facing racism, isolation and discrimination, Chinese community members found a place where they were safe: SSUC as haven. One of the church clergy, Rev. Donald Drew, took a special interest in supporting local Chinese families, and was instrumental in expanding the role of the church in working with them. He was well known in the local Chinese community, performed weddings and funerals, and was of course very familiar with the menus of their restaurants. Rev. Drew was an ally and friend. Here are some memories of his time at SSUC, provided by a family member in 2020;
“Don officiated at several baptisms, marriages and funerals, as he was well-known by the Chinese community. Colleen and I both recall one funeral where the burial was at the cemetery at Cataraqui where you would, of course, know Sir John A. is buried. I think it was in January, and it was cold and windy and sleeting. There is a section in that cemetery where the Chinese were buried, my recollection being that it was along the north side. Two of the customs they had then, and probably still do now, is to (1) pass out candies following the burial service, the significance being to sweeten the sorrow of death and (2) to have a picnic right there among the stones. Most of the crowd stayed, despite the weather. We both had memories of that.“
Seeing how important the church was becoming to the Chinese community, the congregation created a Chinese Department to provide local Asians with assistance. One area of the department was dedicated to recruiting Chinese immigrants, but more essential were the services the congregation offered. One of these was teaching English to the newcomers, a very valuable support providing immigrants the chance to learn the language of the wider community and navigate somewhat more easily in their new Canadian life. 1923 was said to be the peak year for the department with 26 ESL students and 22 teachers.
The congregation’s inclusion of the Chinese community continued throughout the early 20th century and well into the 1960s and 70s. In 1967 the church introduced a Chinese Sunday service and a Chinese Sunday school, both offered in Chinese, likely Cantonese. Worship services were not the only Chinese-inspired activities at SSUC. Some traditional customs continued, including an annual celebration of Chinese New Year in the large upper hall of the building – something most unusual and unexpected in a church hall in the 1950s and 60s.
The Chinese department at SSUC was a part of life for many Chinese families, an example of the importance of social justice, inclusion and community-building for this congregation.
Special thanks to Kaitlyn Macdonald, Queen’s University History intern, 2018, and the Drew Family. ED.
Updated 2020 10 14