Jessie Cheng

A working girl…

Jessie (Kam-Yee) Cheng grew up in Nanaimo, B.C. Her high schooling was interrupted when her grandmother took her to China for one year. Back in Canada, Jessie went on to graduate from high school and to complete courses in stenography. In the early 1940s, she got a job in Ottawa with the federal department responsible for the postal service. Worried about a young woman traveling alone across the country, her widowed mother and her grandmother had an uncle and brother accompany her on the train. In Ottawa, Jessie lived at the YWCA. During the war years, her work involved censoring mail.

Jessie Cheng and her work colleagues, Ottawa, circa. 1940s. (Courtesy of Judy Chang)

During the early 1940s, the influx of a younger generation like Jessie’s into Ottawa enlivened the social scene for Chinese youth here. The ambassador of the Republic of China, from the Nationalist government, hosted many parties. Jessie’s future husband, Paul (Yung-Pao) Chang was a military attaché at the embassy. Upon their marriage in 1947, Jessie had to resign her position in accordance with federal public service regulations against employing married women.

A co-worked and Jessie Cheng, Ottawa, circa. mid-1940s. (Courtesy of Judy Chang)

Jessie and her husband started a family in Ottawa. In the early 1950s they left Ottawa and lived briefly in Quebec City before moving to Vancouver. Their daughter Judy recalled fondly how Christmas heralded the arrival of a stack of cards from friends in Ottawa: “My parents regarded those friendships [in Ottawa] as their longest lasting friendships.”

Major Paul Chang and Jessie Cheng, before they were married in 1947. (Courtesy of Judy Chang)

Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong

Excerpt from The Concubine’s Children, by Denise Chong, pp. 188-89

Book cover (Courtesy of Denise Chong)

Vancouver’s Chinatown, 1946. The author’s mother, Hing, and her best friend, Doreen, both aged 16, discuss what the future holds for them. They see Jessie Chang in Ottawa as a role model of a working woman.

“. . . How can I even think of going to university, Hing? Where am I going to get the money?” Doreen gave voice to Hing’s own sad truth. The girls’ decision to pursue the dream of university had been their own; nobody was pushing them. Hing knew personally of no university graduates in [Vancouver’s] Chinatown to look to as role models, other than an aunt of a classmate, who had reportedly become a dietician. The few who went to university came from middle-class families living outside Chinatown, families that had taken one step up the social ladder. Living among white neighbours, some of whom were professionals, encouraged their own children’s ambitions. There were virtually no professionals among the generation of Hing’s immigrant parents, most of whom were rural-born and poorly educated. Enfranchisement—a requirement for practicing a profession—would come only after exclusion was lifted. However, the reality was that other barriers would have to fall before there were more Chinese engineers, lawyers, accountants, pharmacists, doctors or dentists. Most parents in Chinatown, even if they could afford it, saw little practicality in paying for a university degree only to have their children end up no further ahead than they were—waiting tables, driving taxis, working in laundries, mills or wholesale houses—in other words, either working in Chinatown or where whites allowed Chinese to work.

Hing and her brother, Vancouver (Courtesy of Denise Chong)

Hing, along with Doreen, was forced to acknowledge this harsh reality; she decided to make the transfer to Grandview [a commercial high school]. Knowing her disappointment, Doreen tried to console her: “Of all of us you were the one to go on to university, Hing; you had the marks.” But Hing was already putting any regret behind her. She recalled the success story of Jessie Chang from Nanaimo, from the family who owned the store and the pig farm. Jessie could reportedly type seventy-five words a minute and worked in Ottawa for the federal government, an employer that offered the job security few Chinese had.”

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