CHU LAI (Lay) (Xu Quanli in Mandarin; also known as Wing Chong), merchant; b. c. 1847 in Panyu county, Guangdong province (People’s Republic of China); d. during the night of 3–4 June 1906 in Victoria, survived by four wives, five sons, and three daughters.
In many ways, Chu Lai’s activities were representative of those of the class of Chinese merchants doing business in British Columbia during the last half of the 19th century. He arrived there in the 1860s and carried on an extensive trade in the Cariboo. By 1876 he was able to open his own firm, Wing Chong Company, at the corners of Store and Cormorant streets in Victoria. Like other Chinese merchant houses, Wing Chong was involved in diverse endeavours, including selling general merchandise and importing Chinese goods. At various times the company also manufactured clothing on a small scale and engaged in labour contracting, even supplying workers to Vancouver Island’s Cumberland mines, a major employer of Chinese labour in the province. By the time of his death Chu was one of the wealthiest Chinese merchants in British Columbia, reportedly having half a million dollars in assets. Such holdings would have made him one of the two or three most important Chinese merchants in the province and probably the richest one in Victoria.
His business activities, like those of other Chinese merchants, were built upon ethnic and linguistic links within the Chinese community as well as family and village connections. His people, the Hakka, were an ethnic and linguistic minority in Guangdong province, and his store quickly became a point of contact and base of operations for Hakka in British Columbia. For example, upon arrival the young Chang* Toy (Chen Cai) stayed at Wing Chong Company until taking up employment in New Westminster. It appears that Chu was able to draw upon similar links through a friend in China to provide the source for his imported merchandise. If so, it is also likely that he assisted the migration of other Hakka. His firm certainly sent remittances back to China on behalf of Chinese workers. Since his store was a contact point for others of the same ethnic background, it was a small step to contracting labour. Chu helped immigrants to get established as well. In 1887, for instance, he supported his friend Chang Toy in gaining control of the Vancouver-based Sam Kee Company, by acting as Chang’s wholesale supplier.
Chu’s origins, and linguistic isolation from the rest of the Chinese community, may also explain his pattern of activity within this community. In 1885 he was one of the applicants for incorporation of its principal political organization, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, founded the previous year. Appointed one of the trustees of the body upon its incorporation, he apparently continued to be a member but does not seem to have sat on its board of directors again. It is likely that he was active in the Yan Wo Tong (Ren He Tang), a fraternal organization of Hakka established in Victoria in 1872, one of the earliest Chinese locality organizations in British Columbia.
In 1885 Chu was the principal in an important test case for the Chinese community. The previous year the British Columbia legislature had passed the Chinese Regulation Act, one of over a hundred anti-Asian measures enacted by the province during the 19th century. This act imposed an annual tax of $10 on all Chinese over the age of 14. In essence it established a kind of pass law which licensed the Chinese to work in the province. In May 1885 Chu Lai and another Chinese were charged under the act, and the following month they were convicted of failing to pay the tax by a police magistrate. Rather than pay a $20 fine, Chu posted a bond of $250 and appealed to the British Columbia Supreme Court, where Mr Justice Henry Pering Pellew Crease ruled that the act was ultra vires the province. The province entered an appeal with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council but did not proceed with it.
Chu does not appear to have been active in other organizations until the turn of the century, when he became a member of the Chinese Empire Reform Association. This political party had been established by the Chinese reformer and exile Kang Youwei following the abortive 1898 Hundred Days’ Reform in China. It sought the continuation of reform through the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in China. At the time of his death, Chu was vice-president of the Victoria chapter of the association, which arranged his funeral, even renting a military marching band for the occasion. This, in conjunction with the size of the funeral, attracted considerable attention from Victoria’s English-language press.
Chu had been involved in promoting the development of educational opportunities for members of the Chinese community, in particular the children of merchants. Although the level of his own education is uncertain, he appears to have been literate in Chinese and actively supported the education of his own children. In 1899 he subscribed $20 to the Le Qun Yishu, the first formally constituted Chinese-language school in Canada and a free school financed through community contributions. In 1902 he was one of a handful of Chinese parents who had children in the Victoria public-school system. He was among ten Chinese merchants in Victoria who protested attempts that year to place Chinese children in a segregated school. At the time of his death, his eldest son, Chu Poy, was studying at the University of Cambridge in England while two more sons were attending the Chinese Empire Reform Association school in Vancouver and a fourth was at school in Victoria.
The élite status Chu had acquired in the Chinese community was reflected not only by the size of his funeral, but by the size of his family. He had had four wives, two living in China and two in Victoria. This arrangement was likely for business reasons and would have ensured that his family controlled his activities in China as well as in North America.
The author had access to an undated manuscript on Chang Toy, a translation from the Chinese in the possession of Dr Theodore Y. Chang of Vancouver.
BCARS, Add. mss 101. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 26 Aug. 1885, 18 Jan. 1899, 12 June 1902, 7 June 1906. Victoria Daily Standard, 5 June 1885. Victoria Daily Times, 6 June 1906. Harry Con et al., From China to Canada: a history of the Chinese communities in Canada, ed. Edgar Wickberg (Toronto, 1982; repr. 1988). In the Privy Council . . . between William K. Bull, appellant, and Wing Chong, alias Chu Lay, respondent (n.p., ; copy at BCARS). Jianada Weiduoli Zhonghua Huiguan chengli qishiwu, Huaqiaò Xuexiao chengli liushi – zhounian jinian tekan, ed. D. T. H. Lee [Lee T’ung-hai] [Seventy-fifth anniversary of the Victoria Canadian Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assoc. and the sixtieth anniversary of the Overseas Chinese School, special memorial publication] (Victoria, 1960). D. T. H. Lee, Jianada Huaqiaò shi [History of the overseas Chinese in Canada] (T’aipei, China [Taiwan], 1967). P. E. Roy, A white man’s province: British Columbia politicians and Chinese and Japanese immigrants, 1858–1914 (Vancouver, 1989). Paul Yee, “Business devices from two worlds: the Chinese in early Vancouver,” BC Studies (Vancouver), no.62 (summer 1984): 44–67; “Chinese business in Vancouver, 1886–1914” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1983); “Sam Kee: a Chinese business in early Vancouver,” BC Studies, nos.69/70 (spring/summer 1986): 70–96.