Alexander Cumyow

It was a long wait, but in 1949 Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese born in Canada, was finally eligible to vote at age 88 (courtesy University of British Columbia Library/Rare Books and Special Collections/BC1848-9).

Alexander Won Cumyow was born in 1861 at Port Douglas, BC, reportedly the first Chinese born in Canada. His father came from China during the Barkerville gold rush, and his mother, came with a returning missionary family. In his father's supply store for miners, which served a clientele of Whites, Chinese and First Nations, Cumyow learned to speak English, several Chinese dialects and Chinook Jargon.

The family later moved to British Columbia's lower mainland. Cumyow was appointed court interpreter in New Westminster in 1888, and later held the same position for more than 30 years for the Vancouver police. A prominent merchant and a community leader in Chinatown, he supported causes ranging from modern government in China to a playground in Chinatown.

Cumyow had 10 children. A son, Gordon, wanted to be a lawyer, but the provincial law society resolved that the Chinese didn't have the vote so they could not study law. His sister, Aylene, had ambitions to be a nurse, but found no school to accept her. "My dad tried all the well-known white doctors," recalled Gordon. "No dice. My other sisters wanted to get in too, but they couldn't… they took up stenography. But it was hard to get into an office also because they said, ' We're doing white people's business, why would we hire Chinese?' "*

In 1949, at age 88, Cumyow voted for the first time in a federal election, two years after the Chinese in Canada were enfranchised. In 1950, his son Gordon was appointed a notary public, one of the first two Chinese appointees in British Columbia. Both, however, were restricted to doing business in Chinatown.

*Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of The Chinese in Vancouver, by Paul Yee (Douglas & MacIntyre, 1988). p.67

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