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 (second-from-left) breaks ground for the Mau Dan co-op with members and friends of SPOTA. From left to right: Margaret Mitchell, Mary Lee Chan, Mike Harcourt and Tommy Ma. As part of the rehabilitation of the Strathcona neighbourhood, Mau Dan Gardens Cooperative Housing on Gore Avenue, between Keefer and Pender Street was established to offer families affordable apartments and townhouses close to the heart of Chinatown.