In Canada, there is currently a move to put the effigy of Won Alexander Cumyow (1861-1955; Wen Jinyou 溫金友 in Mandarin), a court interpreter, polyglot and early Chinese-Canadian community leader, on Canada’s new polymer $5 bill . To say that this petition has become a cause célèbre in Sino-Canadian communities would be an understatement; nothing since the near-universal condemnation of Imperial Japan’s massacre in the 1937 Nanking Rape of China has attracted so much attention and support from them. I wholeheartedly support the effort to see him appear on the new $5 bill, and I hope large numbers of Canadians will too.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Chinese living in immigrant and overseas Chinese communities across much of the world have suffered from racialization and violence, much of which goes unreported. In Canada, many people in Chinese communities have looked to Won Alexander Cumyow and his story for inspiration to face, endure, and ultimately overcome anti-Chinese racism and bigotry. His life story resonates with Chinese Canadians today in a way that would have been quite unlikely even five years ago. In recent decades, many Chinese-Canadians seemed to assume that anti-Chinese racism is largely a thing of the past, as it is no longer a big part of their world today. But as Chinese-Canadian Brandt C. Louie, owner and CEO of London Drugs, noted in a recent op-ed, COVID-19 recently changed all that “as anti-Asian racism resurfaced and the stories told our parents and grandparents telling us became our reality.”
The story of Won Alexander Cumyow is in many ways the story of Canada. According to many accounts, his life represents and typifies the first Chinese person ever born in British North America, the opportunities, setbacks, struggles and hopes that shaped Canadian identity and national experience. Despite being formally trained as a lawyer, he was not allowed to write the bar exam based solely on his Chinese ethnicity. He played a leading role in countering racial segregation, Canada’s infamous Chinese capital tax, and the disenfranchisement of Chinese people in Canada. In the end, however, he had the satisfaction of living long enough to witness the repeal of the spectacularly unjust Chinese Exclusion Law in 1947. He first voted in a federal election in 1949.
Attempts by the Obama administration to have American abolitionist and social activist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) appear on the US $20 bill were (surprise, surprise) thwarted by (surprise, surprise) the succeeding Trump administration because she couldn’t bear to see President Andrew Jackson (the patron saint of liberality). and racist, populist, paranoid and anti-“elitist” demagoguery in American political life) with anyone, let alone a black woman.
Canada can and should of course do better. Canada has already managed to take compelling new and innovative directions with its distinguished vertical $10 bill, first issued in 2018, featuring Viola Desmond (1914-1965), a successful black Canadian businesswoman and civil rights activist who died in 1946. refused a white-only section of a Canadian theater. Prior to the issuance of this new bill, Desmond and her story were largely unknown, especially (and sadly and tellingly) among Canadians. But this is no longer the case; she is now increasingly known in Canada and internationally. She deserves this, and so does Canada.
With Desmond and Queen Elizabeth II, Canada has surpassed its multicultural Republican Republican counterpart in the South in terms of gender representation on its paper money. Let this now also be the case for ethnic representation. Indeed, Chinese Canadians matter and are extremely important to what and who Canada is today, economically and otherwise. Figuratively speaking, they are very on the money in Canada, and they literally should be.
Canada characterizes and treats its multicultural reality with less tension and anxiety, and more finesse and ease, than the US. And vive la difference! Canada can and should continue to show North America and the rest of the world a better way. Three cheers, I say, for presenting Won Alexander Cumyow, a very distinguished and talented Canadian, on Canada’s new $5 bill. Canada and the multicultural ideal and the civility it symbolizes and projects for the world deserve nothing less.
David Curtis Wright is a history professor at the University of Calgary specializing in East Asian history. He is also a fellow of the University of Calgary’s Center for Military, Security and Strategic Studies; a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; and member of the board of directors of the Northwestern Chinese Community Association of Alberta.