Questions about celebrating the Lunar New Year soon draw Salmon Arm dentist, Gerry Chu, to speak of his much-admired father, Frederick.
Gerry, who grew up in Vancouver, does, however, take a few minutes to talk about the excitement as a child of receiving little red envelopes – lai see – that were often filled with silver dollars from aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. He manages to dig out three red packets adorned with Chinese figures and symbols that he’s kept all these years.
He talks about the fun of going to Chinatown to see the dancing dragons and having a big banquet-style dinner with extended family at a favourite restaurant. He talks about the strings of small firecrackers – lady fingers – thrown around the parade of dragons as they danced down the street.
“It was a big thing for kids – really kind of neat.”
And he talks about a favourite vegetarian meal called Buddha’s Feast with rice noodles, Chinese mushrooms and all kinds of vegetables that his wife Rita still cooks for their family on Chinese New Year – this year on Feb. 12.
However, it’s not long before his father’s life story begins to unfold, filled with accomplishments that opened doors for others of Asian descent.
Gerry’s father, who died in 2011 at 98 years, was born in Vancouver in 1913; Gerry’s mom, Lavender, in 1920.
Frederick was one of eight or nine kids. Their family was very poor and lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
When he went to school the first time, school officials turned him back.
“There was so much malnutrition, he didn’t weigh as much as a sack of rice,” Gerry recounts.
When he was nearly nine, his parents sent him again to the Caucasian school.
Gerry’s dad was asked by the teacher, ‘What’s your name?’
His parents did not speak English, so he stood, looking blank. A couple of neighbours behind him told the teacher he didn’t have an English name.
The teachers said, ‘We’ll call him Fred.’
‘Frederick’ progressed well, graduating when he was just 16.
Back then, Chinese-Canadians weren’t allowed to vote or have professions, Gerry pointed out. Not until 1947.
Nonetheless, Frederick went to the University of British Columbia, where he started playing tennis. He was good and ended up on the tennis team.
He graduated from UBC when he was just 20.
With support from a couple of UBC professors, Frederick was accepted by McGill Medical School in Montreal.
He told his dad he was going to be a doctor and his dad laughed, asking how he was going to do that. Montreal may as well have been on the other side of the world. Frederick said he’d take the five-day trip on the train.
He took a blanket, a few personal belongings, his tennis racket and a few pork sandwiches that friends with cafés had given him. The sandwiches went bad as the trip drew on, so at train stops in small towns Fred would run to find a Chinese restaurant, ask for a cup of coffee, tell them he was on his way to become a doctor, and they would feed him.
For his five years of medical school, Frederick stayed in the equivalent of the YMCA where he paid five dollars a month for a room, a light bulb and a hotplate. He knew his brothers and sisters in Vancouver would be suffering, as his dad would send everything he could to help pay for the hefty tuition.
Fred had no money or food at one point and it was so cold, he rolled himself up in a blanket to die. However, a minister friend noticed his absence, went begging for some cabbage and rice, and heated it up for him.
They would become best friends.
Frederick graduated from McGill but, unlike all the other students, he couldn’t get an internship in a hospital because he was Chinese. Without an internship, his ability to practice medicine was very limited. Some Chinese medical students would return to China because they couldn’t access a hospital.
However, Frederick’s tennis skills paid off.
At a tennis tournament at McGill, he had beaten a player who would later become head of the intern program at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Montreal. That man let Fred in.
“He said, ‘Fred Chu, he’s not a Chinaman, he’s a tennis player,’” Gerry explained.
With this, Frederick became the first Chinese intern in Canada.
Frederick opened an office in Vancouver’s Chinatown, where, working seven days a week, he became well-known for his knowledge and abilities.
Asked what his father thought about all the prejudice, Gerry said Frederick felt positive and privileged because, despite the problems, he was still able to become a doctor.
Gerry wrote a short book about him.
A quote from its epilogue reads: “During the sixties and onward, many Asian students chose to pursue careers in medicine – some of these students were brought into this world and inspired by Frederick.
“No longer are they viewed as a minority in this profession and certainly they will not have to rely on their tennis skills to gain an internship. Dr. Frederick S. Chu has already opened that door for them.”