City Councillor George Chow: Chinatown/DTES Native Son
George Chow, Vision Vancouver City Council incumbent, said he might even be able to do more for the downtown eastside, if not re-elected, but if re-elected, he'd also be effective, he indicated, because he grew up on the downtown eastside and knows it from the inside out, and because it was his home of many years, he cares about it deeply, and not just in the stand-off-ish way that people might if they had no real roots there.
"My parents immigrated from China because the condition was such there that they needed another place to earn a living. They were peasants,” Chow, a Vision Vancouver city council incumbent said, during a recent interview. "We lived at 634 Main Street, on the second floor of a rooming house. Before that we lived in another rooming house near the viaduct at Union and Main, where the first London Drugs was."
His father, a cook, and his mother, a farm-worker, didn't speak English when they arrived in Canada from Hong Kong and enrolled the then fourteen-year-old in a class at William Dawson School (now the Wall Centre), which was full of immigrants from all over the world. "There were kids from Japan, Korea, Portugal. They ranged in age from eight-years-old to sixteen-years-old,” Chow said. Chow's father's restaurant "was a greasy spoon with thirty seats. There were no other employees other than my dad, his business partner, part-time help, and me."
His mother was " herded into a truck" every morning and taken out to Richmond or Ladner, where she worked on farms. "Of course she had no idea where she was anyway,” Chow said. “She just worked with the women she was with. Most of the farm workers back then were Chinese. That was before the influx of Indo-Canadians."
At his school teacher's suggestion, he changed his name from King-Wah to George. "The teacher said, 'Look, you should pick yourself a name so people can call you easier.' My younger brother was with me. His name was Koon-Wah. I thought, ‘what name do I use?’ I thought of King Richard, but he wasn't a good king, so I picked King George. I knew about Robin Hood and King John. I picked John for my brother. Basically, we were then stuck with those names. My parents didn't have any knowledge of this. It didn't matter to them. They called me what they called me at home. Eventually they realized, 'Hey, people call you Georgie.'"
After the first year of studying English, Chow was “booted" into a regular program at Britannia, where the kids called the new immigrants "imports."
"We were outcasts. Even the Chinese kids were either born here, or, second generation. I remember when we went to school, we (new immigrants) wore a sports jacket, we were clean cut, we didn't wear jeans and just by looking at you the other kids would know you're an import."
"We had to study poetry and my god we were just learning English and you had to read about Dylan Thomas. We just looked at those poems and said how come these things they aren't complete sentences, how come they're just chopped off and moved to the next line," he recalled with a laugh. "I got a D in that English. English was hard, but Math and Science were no problem." He succeeded in those subjects and went to study engineering at UBC.
"In those days going to UBC was not much of a barrier," he said. "Engineering school cost only $500 a year. I remember we spent a hundred dollars for books and that was a big deal. Even if you were a dishwasher, you were able to buy a house. The houses down there were maybe $5,000 in the Strathcona area, back in those days. The opportunities were just there. There was low tuition and academically we could make it and there was not so much competition."