"Do you think you could have done it? Could our generation have done what they did?"

- Cindy Leong

Cindy Leong

At family gatherings, Vancouver broadcast journalist Cindy Leong jokes with her cousins that they are "Chinese Canadian royalty," because her paternal great-grandfather Willy Nipp worked on the railway from 1881 to 1884. "We were here a long time, a long time. So then that defines us in a different way," Cindy says.

Willy Nipp, the youngest of five children, was the only one in his family to leave the village in Yenping county. He worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway then moved to Cumberland, on Vancouver Island, to open a shop that tailored clothing for the town's coal miners. In 1894, Nipp bought his wife, Ng See, from China, paying a $50 head tax to the Canadian government when she arrived. They had nine children, all Canadian-born, some in Cumberland and others in Victoria, where they eventually settled and ran a store in Chinatown, and a greenhouse, in nearby Saanich.

The children grew up speaking and writing Chinese, receiving instruction at a local school built by the Chinese Canadian community. At the time, Chinese were barred from English schools in Victoria. The family took advantage of their education, and the eldest daughter, Kate, Cindy's grandmother, eventually became a schoolteacher.

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Kate married another teacher, Leong Chap Kwong, from China, and they opened a Chinese school in Vancouver. The third youngest of their seven children was Cindy's father, Wilfred, who grew up in a Chinatown grocery store, the family's second business. Her father later sold real estate and insurance, and he still has a storefront in Vancouver's Chinatown. "Surprisingly, he never spoke Chinese well enough until he went into Chinatown and started working as a 15 or 16 year old," says Cindy.

Exploring their family's roots in China and Canada lead to the discovery of her grandfather's second family in China and a reunification of sorts in the mid 1970s, after Canada's immigration policy was revamped. After school, Cindy traveled to China, "learning not Cantonese, but Mandarin of all things," and she became the first in her generation to visit the family's ancestral village.

"When I first found out my great-grandfather worked on the railroad, I said, 'Yeah! I didn't know we went that far back ... Makes you think, 'Whoa! Our roots are deep, man, deep in Canada."

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