William C. Wong
CITIZENSHIP & THE RIGHT TO BELONG:
The Life Story of William C. Wong
Click on the photo gallery above to view photo captions and to scroll through images.
William C. Wong (Wong Wai Ching) was born in Guangzhou (Canton), South China on August 29, 1907.
Early life and arrival to Toronto
William C. Wong (Wong Wai Ching) was born in Guangzhou (Canton), South China on August 29, 1907. He was one of ten siblings, half of whom immigrated to Canada during the course of their lives. In his early 20s, William began studying political science at Sun Yat-Sen University in Canton, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Szeto. After completing his undergraduate degree, William made the decision to pursue a master’s degree in political science at New York University. While living in New York, William had to work three separate jobs in order to make ends meet, including working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, as a Chinese-English interpreter at an immigration office and as an editor and writer for the Min Zhi Pao, a Chinese newspaper. He had just completed his master’s degree in 1936 when the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Unable to return to China, and under threat of deportation, he moved to Toronto in 1937 after receiving a job offer from the Shing Wah Daily News, a Chinese newspaper located on Hagerman Street. Upon arrival, he rented a room at 61 Elm Street in the Ward. Once again, William had to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. In addition to working at the newspaper, he held a position as headmaster and teacher at the Toronto Chinese Middle School until July 31, 1944, and also worked part time as a grocer. In 1944, while he was still not a Canadian citizen, William obtained his insurance agent license and began a career at Prudential Assurance Company.
Community support in the Ward
William had been accepted to Canada on a student visa in spite of the restriction on Chinese immigration to Canada enacted in the Chinese Immigration Act (commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act). Although the Act was officially repealed in 1947, in large part due to a successful campaign organized by community leaders like William who spoke out for the rights of Chinese immigrants, the fight against discrimination continued.
Shortly after moving to Toronto, William was able to secure an interest free loan from members of the Chinese community so he and Elizabeth could buy their first home on 66 St. George Street. Like many immigrants at the time, particularly during the Chinese Exclusion Act, it was next to impossible for Chinese immigrants to get a loan from traditional banks. Instead, Chinese family organizations, like the Wong Society, began to collect contributions from the community and started to give out interest free loans. Like so many immigrants, this loan helped to jumpstart William and Elizabeth’s lives in Toronto. They married on June 21, 1938 at the Knox Presbyterian Church and started their family of four children: their daughter, Marilyn, a dietician,; and three sons, Nelson, an architect, Franklin, a Chemical Engineer, and Victor, a lawyer. In addition to raising their family at 66 St. George, they converted the home into a rooming house for University of Toronto students, with the majority of their tenants being Jewish, Indian and Chinese foreign students. The rooming house was so profitable that it inspired Elizabeth to become the first female Chinese Canadian Real Estate Agent in Toronto.
William’s eldest son, Nelson, was directly affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act, having been born in 1940. The Exclusion Act denied Canadian Citizenship to Chinese Canadian children born between 1923 and 1947, and therefore despite being born in Canada, Nelson was not automatically granted Canadian citizenship at the time of his birth.
Advocating for the Chinese Community
Twelve years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, in May 1959, the Canadian government launched a countrywide investigation into the illegal entry of Chinese immigrants to Canada. Raids were conducted on residences, offices and businesses in search of illegal Chinese immigrants. As president of the Chinese Community Centre of Ontario, William drafted a petition in protest of this unfair treatment and led a group of Chinese community leaders to Ottawa on several occasions to meet with Canadian government officials, including Prime Minister Diefenbaker and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Ellen Fairclough.
In addition to his advocacy work, as the editor-in chief of the Shing Wah Daily News, William translated the local news into Chinese so members of the community who could not read English could remain informed and politically engaged. Despite his contributions to Toronto, he did not become a Canadian citizen until 1957, 19 years after coming to Canada.
Despite his lifelong hope to return to China, William never moved back and spent the rest of his life in Toronto, visiting Taiwan occasionally. Throughout his life, while maintaining full time work, he used his political clout and savviness to building bridges and advocating for the rights of the Chinese-Canadian community. William retired in 1973 from Prudential Assurance Company, and passed away peacefully on August 6, 1998 at the age of 91. His wife Elizabeth died just a few years later in 2002. The couple is survived by his four children and eight grandchildren.
“My father came to Toronto during the Exclusion Act, when racial intolerance for Chinese people was the status quo. He knew the Chinese community and he knew how to work with critical leaders and politicians in Toronto and in Ottawa and was able to build bridges to change prejudicial laws not only with the Act but with attitudes towards Chinese immigrants who came after.”
– Nelson Wong, son of William C. Wong