William (Bill) Poy and his family’s entry to Canada was an exception during the period of exclusion. Because of exclusion, Chinese-Canadians could not take their families out of the danger and desperate conditions of war in China to bring them to Canada. In the case of the Poys, the Canadian government invoked “special circumstances”—as provided for in the act—to admit them into the country.
Born in Australia to a British-Chinese mother, Bill was a teenager when his father sent him back to Taishan county to his first wife there. In the 1920s, Bill made his way back to Hong Kong. He found success as an amateur jockey at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which secured his entrée into British colonial society. He married Ethel Lam, the daughter of a retiree who’d returned from Dutch Guyana where he’d gone as an indentured servant and had ended up the owner of a plantation.
Bill worked in Hong Kong at the Canadian Trade Commission. In the defense of Hong Kong (when Canadian soldiers first saw service during the Second World War) against the Japanese, he volunteered as a motorcycle dispatch rider for the Allies. The British decorated him for devoted military service: “Both on the mainland and on the island, [Poy] was indefatigable in delivering messages although his routes were usually subjected to bombing from the air, shell and mortar fire.”
In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. Six months into life under occupation, governmental negotiations produced a list of Allied nationals to be exchanged for Japanese nationals. Hours before the boat carrying the Allied nationals, sailing under the auspices of the Red Cross, was to depart, the couple learned that they and their children, Neville, aged 7, and Adrienne, aged 3, had made it on to that list.
The Poys settled in Ottawa. Neville recalled the first winter, when his mother “over-dressed” him in layers of sweaters and overcoats: “I felt like a wooden puppet climbing up the steps of the street car.”
Having been raised in a non-Chinese community, Bill embraced his new life. Ethel, who’d had a traditional Chinese upbringing, and who missed the sophistication of her life in Hong Kong, never really adjusted to life in Ottawa. Still, Neville recalled his mother’s enjoyment of the family’s cottage on McGregor Lake in the Gatineau Hills: “She loved the open space [in Canada] that Hong Kong didn’t have.”
Adrienne also spoke of another of her and her mother’s favourite weekend pastimes—fishing. Among the friends the two of them made was an older gentleman they knew as “Shawville”, after the town on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. “He was a terrific hunter and he would show up at our house with pheasants,” said Adrienne. “He taught my mother how to strip the breasts and discard everything else.”
Bill Poy eventually left his clerking job at the federal Department of Trade and Commerce. He formed Allied Trading, and also used the trading and investment company to hold a share in the Ho Ho Café in Ottawa. Neville became a renowned plastic surgeon. Adrienne Clarkson, a household name during a career in CBC television, was installed in 1999 as Canada’s 26th Governor General. In her memoir, Heart Matters (2006) she recalled arriving at Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, and thinking back to the family’s first home in Ottawa at 277 Sussex at the other end of the street. In Adrienne’s memory, that unit in a row house, found for them by Wartime Housing Limited, the federal crown corporation that built and managed rental units for war workers and veterans, was “a house with a coal furnace that terrified my mother and a backyard that became a Victory Garden with Swiss chard and tomatoes.”
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong