Yip Sang was known as the “unofficial mayor” of Chinatown. He was a businessman, political activist and social reformer. Yip Sang, also known as Yip Chun Tien, was born in 1845 in China. In 1864, he left his home village Shengtang, in Guangdong province, to move to San Francisco for work as a dishwasher, cook, cigar maker and laborer in the goldfields.
In 1881, Yip Sang came to Canada and settled in Vancouver. He started selling coal door-to-door, then became employed by the Canadian Pacific Railroad Supply Company, where he performed several roles bookkeeper, timekeeper, paymaster and as the Chinese superintendent.
In 1888, after leaving his job, going to China, and returning to Vancouver, Yip Sang established the Wing Sang Company, which later had its name changed to the Yip Sang Company in 1950. The company offered several services, including importing and exporting merchandise from China and Japan, money transfers from Vancouver to Hong Kong, and contracting Chinese workers for the Canadian Pacific Railways. It was so successful that by 1908, the Wing Sang Company was one of the four largest Chinese companies in Vancouver.
Yip Sang also contributed to the establishment of the Chinese Benevolent Association, Chinese School and the Chinese Hospital in Vancouver. He was governor of the Vancouver General Hospital, a benefactor of the Public Hospital in Guangdong and acted as principal of a Chinese school in Vancouver.
Our Yip Sang Collection contains over 600 items, from the Yip family and the Wing Sang/Yip Sang Company records. Correspondences, advertisement, and financial records are part of the collection.
Yip Sang’s history is very interesting and foundational to Vancouver’s history. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and some other sources:
- Yip Sang was the son of a wealthy man who became impoverished. The family situation worsened with the passing of his father and the subsequent death of his mother not long after. After his older sister was kidnapped by bandits, Yip Sang sold his possessions and bought a ticket to the United States in 1864.
- Over the course of his life, Yip San had four wives, the first of whom passed away young after giving birth to two children. Yip Sang then took a second wife and, upon deciding that his second wife couldn’t adequately manage a household, a third wife. He married his fourth wife in 1885 while in China.
- He had 23 children, who became successful professionals. His daughter Susan was one of the first Chinese Canadian women to attend university, while his son Kew Dock Yip was the first Chinese Canadian to become a lawyer and his son Ghim Yip was the first Chinese Canadian doctor. Another son, Quene Yip, was a local soccer legend.
- In 1901, Yip Sang brought his three wives, 23 children, close relatives and their servants over from China. They all lived in the same building in Chinatown. Yip Sang was the only person with the key and used to close the building door at 10 pm.
If you’re interested in checking out more photos from Yip Sang and his family, search on our Open Collections!