Shirley Chan was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother, Mary Lee Chan (née Lee Wo Soon), was also born in Vancouver but migrated to China as a child in the 1920s with her family. Mary’s refusal to enter into an arranged marriage with a Chinese Canadian businessman angered her father, causing him to stop sending remittances to the family. This determination helped Mary survive war-torn China and long bouts of separation from her husband, Wah Goh (Walter) Chan, whom she met while teaching in China. Pregnant with her second child, Shirley, Mary set out alone for Canada in 1947 with her Canadian birth certificate in hand. She began to work in factories immediately upon her arrival, saving up enough money to bring over her husband in 1949 followed by her first daughter, Jane, in 1951. Mary was an outgoing, vocal presence in Vancouver’s Chinese community; Shirley says she challenged gender and cultural stereotypes.
When planners and politicians threatened to bulldoze Vancouver’s Chinatown and the nearby Strathcona neighbourhood, which had already been partially redeveloped, Mary took matters into her own hands. She went door-to-door to alert her neighbours with her teenaged daughter, Shirley, in tow. When Shirley was in university in the late 1960s, the two became instrumental in forming the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA), which successfully halted the city’s plans. Since then, Shirley has continued her work with communities in various capacities: in social service organizations, in government agencies, and in politics. In 2007, Shirley became the CEO of Better Opportunities for Business, a non-profit organization that supports local business development and job creation in inner-city Vancouver.
Mary Lee Chan (née Lee Wo Soon) discovered this photo on display as Unidentified family, c. 1910 in the 1985 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition Gum San / Gold Mountain. The photograph is in fact a portrait of the Lee family, taken in 1924 behind the family’s home on Slocan Street in Vancouver, British Columbia. Mary’s parents Joe Lee and Lim Hop Lee (man and woman, seated) intended that the photo be cut up and used as individual passport photos for the family’s migration to China after The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was passed. 8 year-old Mary is standing in the back row behind her father. Some of Mary’s younger sisters are dressed as boys because their father was told that he could more readily sell birth certificates and citizenship papers for boys rather than girls.