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Tribute to medical pioneer on both sides of the Pacific

Dec 06 2012
Edna Chow was given a gold bracelet, ivory necklace and locket by Dr. Victoria Chung in 1946. The City of Victoria has proclaimed Dec. 8 as Dr. Victoria Chung Day in honour of the medical missionary, who spent 43 years in China. 

Edna Chow was given a gold bracelet, ivory necklace and locket by Dr. Victoria Chung in 1946. The City of Victoria has proclaimed Dec. 8 as Dr. Victoria Chung Day in honour of the medical missionary, who spent 43 years in China.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

A Victoria native renowned in China for more than 40 years of medical missionary work will finally get her due in the city where she was born on Dec. 8 - now declared Dr. Victoria Chung Day.

That same day Jiangmen Central Hospital in southern China will pay tribute to her on its 100th anniversary. It's a recognition of a woman with an unquenchable humanitarian ethic, deep dedication to the health of Chinese people and quiet professionalism amid intense political turmoil.

Despite her influence and contributions - and gaining recognition as a "national hero of culture" by the Chinese state - Chung remained almost totally unknown to Canadians, even experts in Asian-Canadian history such as University of Victoria historian John Price. He's now co-authoring a book on her life, tentatively titled Searching for Victoria.

"We're searching for her story in both Victoria and China, because it's forgotten in both," he said.

Toy Mea (Victoria) Cheung was born in 1897 and attended Victoria High School before becoming the first person of Chinese heritage to graduate from the University of Toronto medical school. She was unable to practise medicine in B.C. due to her ethnicity, a form of racism not rescinded until the Second World War, said Edna Chow, 92, whose parents were friends of Chung.

Chow treasures a gold bracelet with a locket containing Chung's photo. The gift was given to her in 1946, during one of Chung's few trips back to North America during her 43 years in China.

"After 1947, she told my mother not to write to her," Chow said. The Communists had taken over and it would be smarter not to communicate with Westerners. She continued her medical work, training many young women as nurses, Chow said.

A member of the Chinese Presbyterian Church who switched to Methodism, Chung served longer than any other Canadian medical missionary in China, Price said. Her Christian faith gave her an entry that she would not otherwise have had.

"She wasn't proselytizing, she was delivering medical services, so she didn't try to make converts."

In Jiangmen, Chung's story was hidden for 50 years because of the Cultural Revolution, which began days after her death in 1966. Within short order, the Red Guards consigned her to unwelcome-person status.

"Her family got rid of a lot of her stuff and her story was basically buried," Price said. It's only in the past four or five years that it's been recovered.

Price will attend the ceremony in Jiangmen, as will Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe, who will be hosted by the Chinese hospital and represent Victoria as acting mayor.

"It's important for us to be able to be there and to honour her name, since she's named after our city," said Thornton-Joe, who was praised by Price for her work in making the proclamation happen. It reads: "Dr. Chung's accomplishments, long forgotten on both sides of the Pacific, stand as a beacon of China-Canada friendship and deserve recognition."

Chung served the people of China through the 1930s invasion by Japan, the Second World War, Mao's 1949 Revolution, the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution.

When she died in 1966, her body lay in state, the casket adorned with 3,000 wreaths.

"She was a consummate professional, she pursued continuing education, she was very devoted to her mother and her extended family," Price said.

"I think it's very intriguing and wonderful that her memory is being resuscitated on both sides of the Pacific at the same time. It's an important example of the friendship between Canada and China that deserves to be thought about."

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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