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UVic historian reconstructs a life covered up
As a medical missionary in China, she touched the lives of thousands.
Victoria Chung – named for her hometown – was honoured in that country as a national hero of culture.
And yet her accomplishments overseas may not have been recounted on this side of the Pacific, had a single news clipping from 1929 not caught the attention of historian John Price.
“It announced the upcoming visit of Victoria Chung to Peterborough, where she was going to be talking about China,” said Price, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria.
In the Toronto Star article, Chung dismissed questions from the reporter about her experiences. But it was enough to spark Price’s interest.
For the past four years, he and fellow researcher Ningping Yu have scoured records and recollections of Chung, both in Canada and China, trying to reconstruct her life.
“I began from scratch – where she had gone, where she had worked. We made contact with the hospital in Jiangmen in the process of recovering her memory,” Price said.
To date, he’s established a solid account of her education and career. His bigger challenge is painting a picture of her personality and personal life.
“Were trying to piece it together,” Price said. “We don’t have access to her personal papers, so we really don’t know.”
• • •
Born Toy Mea Cheung in 1897, Victoria was the daughter of one of few Chinese women from that era who ventured to the B.C. capital.
“(The mother) was quite a force to be reckoned with,” Price said.
She was a Christian and midwife with advanced medical training. With such a strong role model, it’s not hard to imagine where Chung got the strength to pursue a medical career, amidst rampant racism toward the Chinese community and sexism against women.
After graduating from Vic High, she received a medical scholarship from the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Society. She studied in Toronto, as she was barred from doing so in British Columbia.
In 1923, she departed for South China to work at the Marion Barclay hospital in Jiangmen and was soon joined by her mother, who grew up nearby. Over the years, Chung furthered her training in New York and London.
Unlike most of her missionary colleagues, who abandoned their posts during the Second World War and later the Korean War, Chung stayed. She set up community clinics and returned to the hospital after the conflict as its director.
Despite earning a modest missionary salary, she paid back her scholarship and helped fund the hospital in times of need.
When she died in 1966, “thousands lined the route of her funeral in China and 3,000 flower wreaths adorned her casket,” according to research by Price and Yu.
In wasn’t long, however, before her contributions were suppressed from the public record.
“Right after she died, the cultural revolution began,” said Price. “Because she was an overseas Chinese, she was suspected of being a spy (and she) represented foreign imperialism.”
Her papers were destroyed and her family lived in fear.
On this side of the Pacific, Chung’s story also fell through the cracks for similar reasons of distrust between the two governments.
“After 1949, the Canadian government refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Travel to China was very difficult. Communication was difficult. The family stories were easily lost,” Price said.
Historians also missed Chung because she doesn’t fit any standard profile, he said. Research looking at both white missionaries and female physicians working in Canada overlooked Chung, because she fits neither category.
Price continues to search for living connections to help fill in the gaps.
Chung’s brother stayed in Canada, but has vanished. Another relative, aged 88, lives in Toronto but can’t trace his family’s roots because the documents of Chinese immigrants were often lost.
“All of these mysteries remain,” Price said.
Chung never married, but did adopt a son in the 1950s. He holds some of the answers.
“Her son says the family table was always properly set in European style and they weren’t allowed to speak at the table. This comes from Victoria Chung’s mother – her children lived in fear of the mother – and Victoria had some of those same characteristics.”
Back in Chung’s hometown, there is one person who remembers her.
Edna Chow is now 92, and the two women became connected via their mothers, who were friends. When Chung visited her hometown on furlough, she stayed with Chow’s family.
“When she’d go out to visit people, she would bring me along. I was about six years old,” said Chow. Years later, Chow and her husband toured Chung on a drive up Island because she wanted to see the farmland.
“She couldn’t get over the waste,” Chow recalled. “On the farm, you just cut the cauliflower out and the rest is composted.”
It’s one of the only anecdotes she remembers. All the letters were also discarded over the years.
“It’s terrible, but we just got rid of them,” Chow said.
While hazy on the details, she describes Chung as a lovely person who kept in touch with many friends in the city.
The recollections suggest Chung had another side to her often strict personality.
• • •
This week, Price is in China for a sixth time, following Chung’s trail. Tomorrow (Dec. 8) he will attend a ceremony to commemorate the Jiangmen hospital’s centennial and pay tribute to Chung.
Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe will also attend, thanks to sponsorship from the hospital.
“I’m honoured to represent the city,” said Thornton-Joe, whose family originates from the same province.
The City of Victoria has also declared Dec. 8 to be Victoria Chung Day.