The following was edited on 3 June 2023 to include corrections and additional information provided by a descendant of Chu Shee.
The Register of Chinese Immigrants to Canada, 1885-1949 records four Chinese women entering the country through Vancouver on November 21st, 1893. Two of these women, recorded in the ledger as Jew Nuey and Jew Guey, proceeded from Vancouver to traverse the country towards their destination in Montreal. In a sense, this journey from Hong Kong to Montreal was a historical novelty. The ship that carried them across the Pacific, the Empress of China, had only been built two years prior, and the Canadian Pacific Railway, which linked the two sides of the country, was less than ten years in operation. And, as an overwhelming majority of Chinese immigrants entering the country during this period were men, the two females represented a departure from the norm. The 12,000 km journey from Hong Kong to Montreal these two endured (and perhaps at times enjoyed) was motivated by an immigration strategy new to the nascent Chinese community in Montreal — an immigration not sparked by the promise of temporary work but by an intention to set down family roots. It was a strategy made difficult and dangerous by institutional and cultural racism directed towards the Chinese people of Canada.
The 20-year-old woman recorded as “Jew Nuey” in the Register was Jew (Chu) Nuey and headed to Montreal to marry Ho (or Haw) Sang Kee, a man 14 years her senior and a prominent hotel operator, merchant, and figurehead within the city’s nascent Chinese community. An account of their wedding dinner found in The Montreal Star on December 20th, 1893 refers to her as Chu Shee (meaning from the Chu family and now married) and states she is from Peking (Beijing), although the Register states she is from the Cantonese village of Lai Yee Gong in Hoiping. After their marriage, history records her as Mrs. Ho Sang Kee (or variations thereof) or as Chu Shee.
Travelling with her and settling within the Ho residence and hotel on rue de la Gauchetière was a nine-year-old girl described by Chinese Canadian author as Jew Nuey’s “slave” — although, as Eaton notes, “slave” is a misnomer of sorts, as “it is custom in China to look upon slaves as family” (Eaton 1894). It was noted in papers of the time that Chu Shee, her young companion, and Mrs. Wing Sing (a friend and acquaintance of the Ho family) were the only Chinese women living “in all Canada east of the Rocky Mountains” (“Sang Kee and Miss Chu See” 1893).
An 1897 photograph shows Chu Shee with baby Avis on her lap, and son George standing beside her (“Le Groupe de Mme Sang Kee” 1897). George died young, in 1908 at the age of 12, and Chu Shee died later that year, both of unknown causes. After her death, Chu Shee was buried in the same plot as her son George in the hilltop cemetery at Mount Royal (“George Sang Kee” & “Mrs. Sang Kee” 1908). She was survived by her husband and four children. In terms of recorded history, so ends the singular and pioneering life of one of Montreal’s first Chinese women.
However, these biographical details say little of Chu Shee’s personality and experience — except we might assume that the end of her young life was marred by tragedy and pain with the loss of her son. In terms of Chu Shee’s character, we are left with a series of newspaper accounts written at the time. These accounts are of a likeness: they describe her as small, diminutive, bashful and “hidden away”. Montreal journalists constructed her identity through an orientalist lens, as simultaneously a mysterious foreign presence and a benign automaton, whose adherence to Chinese customs of patriarchal obligation and obedience rendered her as less than human. In a description of Chu Shee during her wedding banquet, one journalist states that “bashfulness is far too weak a word to convey any sense of her embarrassment” and noted her seemingly strange behaviour, stating “her position on the chair was at right angles to that of the guests who sat beside her. Her face was constantly turned to her husband, with eyes apparently fixed on her feet” (“Sang Kee and Miss Chu See” 1893). This is read by the journalist as timidity.
An alternate reading is that her behaviour during the banquet represents a performance of defiance, perhaps against the nature of the ceremony or her fiancé. In a painting of a Chinese wedding banquet from the latter 19th century the seated bride faces outwards, away from her husband and towards the guests at the table, as was customary (“Hun yan = A Chinese wedding banquet” circa 1850-1900).
Admittedly, this painting cannot be taken as representative of all Chinese wedding banquets of the time. However it does suggest that Chu Shee’s seated posture might not be accounted for by ceremonial tradition alone. In a speculative mode (although no less speculative than the journalist who interpreted her actions as an expression of timidity), I venture that it would have been difficult, in terms of social pressure, to remain seated at right angles to her guests, and that Chu Shee’s posture might show a certain strength of character and resolve. Regardless of one’s interpretation, the image of Chu Shee sideways in her chair during her wedding is a moment worthy of further contemplation.
Ward, W. Peter & Yu, Henry (2005). Register of Chinese immigrants to Canada 1885-1949. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0075988
“Sang Kee and Miss Chu See” The Montreal Star, 20 Dec 1893: 8. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/740890294/
Eaton, Edith. “Girl Slave in Montreal. Our Chinese Colony Cleverly Described. Only Two Women from the Flowery Land in Town.” Montreal Daily Witness, 4 Mar 1894: 10. From Becoming Sui Sin Far. ed. Mary Chapman. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
“The Chinese Colony” The Montreal Star, 15 Jun 1895: 8. Retrieved from https://www.newspapers.com/image/740718942
Laurence Lee (great grandson), correspondence, May 2023.
“Le Groupe de Mme Sang Kee” (1897). Musée McCord-Stewart. Montreal, QC. Retrieved from https://collections.musee-mccord-stewart.ca/fr/objects/142147/mrs-sang-kees-group-montreal-qc-1897
“George Sang Kee” (1908) Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968. Retrieved from https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/2877535:1091?tid=&pid=&queryId=3b0d297ac5599a2fa81168c6f10104cc&_phsrc=Fld47&_phstart=successSource
“Mrs. Sang Kee” (1908) Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968. Retrieved from https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/2377416:60527?tid=&pid=&queryId=3b0d297ac5599a2fa81168c6f10104cc&_phsrc=Fld46&_phstart=successSource
“Hun yan = A Chinese wedding banquet” (circa 1850-1900) National Library of Australia Digitised Item. Retrieved from https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-300139263/view