New Places, Familiar Faces

Finding Community as an International Student

In the summer of 1951, two young men drove from Seattle, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia. They toured the University of British Columbia’s campus and posed for a photo underneath a totem pole at Malahat, some 27 kilometres north of Victoria. Both were Chinese students at the University of Washington: Stephen Kah-Sun Sim had just received his Master’s degree, and his companion, Hakchill Chan, was an undergraduate. Like many migrants, Sim had built a friendship with someone who shared a common identity with him, even as he explored and adapted to his adopted culture.

Stephen Sim (right) and Hakchill Chan at Malahat, Vancouver Island.
Courtesy of University of Toronto Archives. UTA Stephen Kah-Sun Sim, B2009-0017/001P(10)

Migrating for Education

Stephen Kah-Sun Sim was born in Singapore in 1917. Throughout his life, Sim’s pursuit of education drove his migration story: each move was inspired by the beginning of a new program or position. His family moved to China when he was a child, and he attended boarding schools in several Chinese provinces and college in Hong Kong until his medical studies were interrupted by the Second World War. He moved to Washington in 1946 to pursue a pre-med program and completed his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington.

Like Sim (and my father, also born in Singapore) I moved abroad for university, leaving Canada for the U.K. Although I embraced new experiences, I was always happy to meet other and international students with whom I shared the experience of being a stranger, and to explore our temporary country of residence with them. People who have migrated, even as students or tourists, seem to be continually looking backward and forward: as we experience a new place, we seek to share it with people who understand where we’ve come from. This desire to build on a shared place of origin and culture creates and maintains diaspora and immigrant communities.[1] For Sim and Chan, sharing a native language and an identity as Chinese students abroad might have strengthened their friendship as they acculturated to life in the West.

Becoming Chinese-Canadian

Sim moved to Victoria to teach at University of British Columbia in 1955. He was among the first Chinese immigrants to Canada in thirty years. The 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had made it virtually impossible for Chinese people to immigrate, was repealed in 1947, and only 11, 000 Chinese entered between 1947 and 1954.[2] Like Sim, most of them settled on the West Coast, where Chinatowns had been well-established in Vancouver and Victoria since the nineteenth century.[3] However, the transition to Canada was still a complex process. Although most of the newcomers shared a language with the Chinese-Canadian community, their worldview and experience was dramatically different from those of the locals and the two groups frequently clashed.[4]

This photograph of two students and tourists enjoying a Canadian attraction speaks of the companionship newcomers often share as they experience and adapt to their place of migration. Sim found people with whom he shared identities as a student, a tourist, and an immigrant – all important parts of his migration story.


Jennifer Lee was born in Toronto to parents originally from England and Singapore, who gave her two passports and their love of travel. She moved to the U.K. in 2013 to read for a B.A. in classical archaeology and ancient history at Oxford University and was thrilled to fly back home to pursue a master’s degree. She is interested in historic interpretation, preservation, and performance in the museum space.

[1] Kenny, 2013, 41.

[2] Yee, 2006, 118.

[3] Yee, 2006, 118.

[4] Yee, 2006, 124.

“As we experience a new place, we seek to share it with people who understand where we’ve come from.”