During the Second World War, many universities in Canada cancelled or curtailed classes owing to the decline in enrolment because of men away at war. In 1942, all universities suspended graduate studies altogether in the basic sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) because the government needed researchers to work on projects related to the war effort. At the time, Hin Lew was in the middle of work towards his doctorate in physics at the University of Toronto. One of his professors found him a position at the National Research Council in Ottawa, where he worked on the use of ultrasound to detect submarines.
“The war effort was enormous in Ottawa,” recalled 90-year-old Hin. “The government recruited any talent it could get; the best available were graduate students and professors.” Other projects that former classmates and professors worked on included: radar; de-magnetization of ships to make them invisible to German magnetic mines; anti-aircraft shells with proximity fuses so that they explode near but not directly on a target; special optical instruments; and the atomic bomb.
When the Second World War ended, Hin resumed his studies and completed his doctorate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then rejoined the National Research Council. He would spend his entire career there, working for a time alongside Gerhard Herzberg, a future Nobel Prize laureate.
As a child, Hin thought that he’d never be able to afford to go to university. His father had died penniless, leaving his mother to raise four young children. The Deaconess at the Good Shepherd Mission, Dr. Hilda Hellaby, lamented to Hin’s mother that if only her husband been a Canadian citizen, she would have been eligible for a modest monthly mother’s pension under a program of the B.C. government. Hin’s mother recalled her husband having told her that he’d been naturalized; Miss Hellaby was able to find a record of it in Ottawa.
After he finished high school, Hin signed up for a correspondence course in radio repair but he had ambitions to go to university. With the help of his mother’s pension and her savings and his own, he enrolled at the University of British Columbia. He was one of about 20 Chinese students at the university at that time.
Upon graduation, Hin moved east to attend graduate school and to work. He found that the farther east he went from Vancouver, the less racial prejudice he encountered. For example, he could go on a date with a white girl without suffering the censorious looks one could expect in Vancouver. “The amount of prejudice in Vancouver was so much more than in Toronto or anywhere in Ontario,” Hin said. “I felt liberated when I left [Vancouver] and came to Toronto.”
Hin married Marion Lim, a fashion model in Vancouver and one of the first Asian models in Canada. Among the first of the new immigrants to arrive after exclusion was lifted, Marion was sponsored by her father, the owner of W.K. Gardens, one of the most popular restaurants at the time in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Hin Lew: “A lab coat like this”
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong