Local author Frances Hern takes readers on a journey from one end of the world to the other with a young Chinese immigrant and the generations that followed in her new non-fiction book Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians.
“This is the fourth book I’ve had published,” said Hern, who found her writing passion later in life. “I’ve been writing most of my life, but it never occurred to me that I might actually get books published. So I really came to it seriously as my kids started to grow up.”
Canadian history is Hern’s area of focus, despite being brought up in England, and she found the story of Chinese immigrant Yip Sang too irresistible to ignore.
She met one of his great granddaughters. And after she suggested several times that Hern write about him, she decided to look into it. Hern quickly became fascinated by Yip Sang’s life, and noticed that the stories were not really being told.
“He was a Chinese man who came to Canada in 1864… he came, I think hoping to improve his life, but it was very difficult for the Chinese immigrants. They were resented in many ways,” she said.
“I explain in the book why so many Chinese wanted to come to places like Canada. The conditions there were not particularily good. There was a lot of poverty and civil unrest. So North America looked very attractive.”
The book follows Yip Sang, as well as his children and grandchildren, through two world wars and the great depression in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
“He has quite a remarkable life. He started off with very menial jobs because that’s all he could find… he eventually settled in Vancouver and became a very successful man,” said Hern.
Yip Sang brought three wives with him from China, who eventually gave him 23 children. And those 23 children in turn gave him 81 grandchildren, which means he has many living descendants.
Hern was able to speak to several of these grandchildren, who are now in their 70s and 80s, during her research process.
“I wanted to get as many details as I could before these stories got lost,” said Hern.
The research took Hern roughly a year to a year and a half. Given that she did not grow up in Canada, she had to do a lot of background reading to catch up on her Canadian History.
“So I did a lot of reading, and talked to as many of the relatives as I could, and visited the archives,” she said. Luckily enough, the family had saved many documents in a safe. When they were forced to move homes, they decided to donate them to UBC archives.
“So I was able to look through those too, and that was very helpful.”
Hern will be reading from her new book, followed by a discussion, at Bacchus Books on Monday Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians will be on sale at the store as well.