Jean Lumb, C.M., 1919-2002

On October 24, 2009, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Jean Lumb Foundation unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate Jean Lumb, C.M., 1919-2002.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

JEAN LUMB, C.M., 1919-2002

    Jean Lumb was born Jean (Toy Jin) Wong in British Columbia, and came to Toronto in 1935. She was soon operating a profitable fruit store and, by 1959, she co-owned the well-reputed Kwong Chow restaurant with her husband, Doyle Lumb. Energetic and outgoing, she established strong links with prominent politicians and, in the 1950s, lobbied successfully for the removal of discriminatory immigration regulations in Canada. Wide-ranging community work earned her numerous honours, including appointments to Women’s College Hospital Board of Governors and the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism. President of the Women’s Association of the Chinese Dramatic Society for 25 years, she is best remembered as the dynamic spirit behind the remarkable “Save Chinatown” campaigns. In 1976, Lumb became the first Chinese-Canadian woman and the first restaurateur appointed to the Order of Canada. Jean Lumb served as a voice for her community for over 40 years and left a legacy of social activism and cultural pride for future generations.

JEAN LUMB, C.M., 1919-2002

    De son nom de jeune fille Jean (Toy Jin) Wong, Jean Lumb est née en Colombie-Britannique et arrive à Toronto en 1935. Elle tient un magasin de fruits qui remporte aussitôt un franc succès. En 1959, elle devient la copropriétaire avec son mari, Doyle Lumb, du restaurant réputé Kwong Chow. Vive et pleine d’énergie, elle noue des liens solides avec d’éminents politiciens et milite avec succès en faveur de la suppression des lois discriminatoires en matière d’immigration au Canada dans les années 1950. Son important travail communautaire lui vaut de nombreux honneurs, tels sa nomination au conseil d’administration de l’Hôpital Women’s College ainsi qu’au Conseil consultatif des relations multiculturelles de l’Ontario. Présidente de la Women’s Association of the Chinese Dramatic Society pendant 25 ans, on se rappelle surtout d’elle comme l’inspiratrice et l’animatrice des campagnes à succès : « Save Chinatown ». En 1976, Jean Lumb devient la première femme sinocanadienne et la première restauratrice à recevoir l’Ordre du Canada. Jean Lumb s’est imposée comme la porte-parole de sa communauté pendant plus de 40 ans. Elle laisse aux générations futures un héritage d’activisme social et de fierté culturelle.

Historical background

Jean Lumb lived an extraordinary life. She was cherished by her children, admired by her community and respected by friends and opponents. Born Jean (Toy Jin) Wong in Nanaimo, British Columbia on July 30, 1919, she was the sixth of 12 children. Jean Lumb is representative of those Chinese Canadians who persevered through a dark period of Canadian immigration history — and excelled. The recipient of many honours and awards, Lumb became the first Chinese-Canadian woman — and first restaurateur — appointed to the Order of Canada.

Her father, Fun Gee Wong, came to Canada in 1899 to work as a farm labourer.1 A few years later, while working as a coal miner in Nanaimo, he brought his wife and son from China. Employment opportunities for the Chinese in British Columbia were restricted through formal and informal means. Undaunted, the Wongs, like many other Chinese-Canadian families, took control of their livelihoods through family businesses. During the Great Depression, Fun Gee Wong operated a fruit store in Vancouver. In 1931, at the age of 12, Jean left school and began working in her father’s store. Four years later, she and her younger sister moved from Vancouver to Ontario. She moved to Sudbury before relocating to Toronto to open her own store.2 The store was successful and, within a few years, Lumb was able to bring her parents to Toronto.

As a child in the 1920s, Lumb had experienced racial discrimination. She often mentioned that she was taunted by white children and felt like an outsider.3 From an early age, however, she developed characteristic strength in the face of adversity. Though she was devastated at having to leave school when she was only 12, she determinedly kept up her studies under her father’s tutelage using her brother’s schoolbooks.4 The fact that she was among the earliest women to settle in Toronto’s male-dominated Chinese community hardly hampered her.5 She thrived in her new environment and became an independent and positive woman.

Aided by a matchmaker, Jean was married to Doyle Lumb in 1939. Because Doyle was a Chinese national, Jean was stripped of her Canadian citizenship, which was not reinstated until 1957.6 She and Doyle worked in their Toronto fruit store located at 2914 Dundas Street West, and raised six children in the small apartment above the store. The couple defied convention, however, with both Jean’s community activism and Doyle’s well-known support of his wife’s public life. In 1950, Lumb was elected President of the Women’s Association of the Chinese Dramatic Society and she quickly became a pillar of her community.

Lumb gained a national profile through her work in challenging discriminatory immigration legislation. The Chinese Immigration Act (Exclusion Act), which since 1923 had prohibited the entry of Chinese into Canada, was repealed in 1947. An order-in-council, however, stipulated that only Asians who were Canadian citizens could sponsor family members, with the class of eligible family members restricted to unmarried minor children and parents over the age of 65.7 These restrictions were felt strongly in the Chinese-Canadian community as political troubles in 1950s China meant that many people wanted to bring over family members. But the vast majority were not Canadian citizens.8 As a result, concerned Canadians established a committee in 1956 to lobby for the lifting of these restrictions. Since Lumb was already a community leader, MP Roland Michener recommended that she participate in the appeal for family reunification.9 Lumb was the only female member of a delegation of 40 Chinese Canadians who met with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker invited her to sit beside him and, because he had difficulty hearing, he requested that she repeat what was said in the briefing. Thus, she became an “unofficial spokesperson of the Chinese community.”10 As she later reflected, “It was important to have a woman delegate because we were fighting for family unity.”11 As a result of the delegation’s efforts, the government changed immigration regulations in 1957 to extend the right to sponsor relatives to Asians who were legal residents of Canada.

In 1959, Lumb and her husband opened the Kwong Chow Chop Suey House on Elizabeth Street in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown. The restaurant, which operated for 23 years, was popular with both Chinese and non-Chinese Canadians. Excellent reviews,12 Lumb’s magnetic personality and Kwong Chow’s famous 85-cent full-course lunch made the restaurant very successful.13 Within a few years, it had become a favourite gathering place for prominent politicians and celebrities, and a venue for important events in Toronto’s Chinese community.14 Kwong Chow was much more than a business: cultural integration was important to Lumb, and food provided one of the means through which she shared Chinese culture with other Canadians.

Lumb was able to introduce Chinese culture to a wide audience, through food as a restaurateur and, through dance, as the founder of the Chinese Community Dancers of Ontario (1959). This organization worked to blend Chinese and Canadian cultures through physical movement.15 By 1967, the group was performing at celebrations and parades all over Canada, including a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at Canada’s centennial celebrations.16 As Lumb told The Herald in 1969, “We must learn to live with our dual identity as Canadians and Chinese.”17

Lumb’s commitment to the preservation and promotion of Chinese culture and heritage was most evident in her work on the “Save Chinatown Committee.” From the early 1910s, Toronto’s Chinatown had stretched north along Elizabeth Street from Queen to Dundas streets. During the 1950s, more than two-thirds of the street was destroyed to construct the new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square.18 In 1967, city planners proposed that Chinatown be moved again to facilitate the erection of large office buildings north of city hall.19 This proposal threatened many businesses, and prompted Lumb and other community leaders to establish the “Save Chinatown Committee,” with Lumb acting as coordinator.20 She quickly became the face of the campaign. The Toronto Star published a number of articles on the planned expropriation; Lumb was often quoted and pictured speaking out against this development.21 Lumb saw Chinatown as a place where the Chinese could preserve and celebrate their heritage in Ontario, and where Canadians could learn about Chinese culture.22

The crisis gave the Chinese community an opportunity to consider its connection to Chinatown, and to articulate a group identity to Toronto’s political leaders. Chinatown was portrayed not only as important to the community, but also as key to recognizing the struggles of the generation that had come before. The “Save Chinatown Committee” made compelling arguments steeped in notions of heritage preservation and cultural pluralism. Lumb emphasized the important connection between the urban streetscape of Old Chinatown and the heritage of the Chinese community in Ontario. “If they leave it as it is,” Lumb emphasized, “Chinatown will flourish. But if they pull up the root, they will kill what our forefathers have left us.”23 The Committee’s arguments prevailed. The plan for the Preservation of Chinatown was adopted without amendment by the city council on June 16, 1969.24

By this time, Jean Lumb had become a highly respected Chinese Canadian who relished building bridges to the broader Canadian community. Her influence was reflected in the positions she held and the awards she received. She served as president of the Women’s Association of the Chinese Dramatic Society for nearly 25 years. She also broke new ground for Chinese-Canadian women as the first of that group to hold several prominent positions, notably on the Board of Governors for Women’s College Hospital25 and the Boards of Directors for University Settlement House and the Rotary-Laughlen Centre.26 From 1973 to 1982, she served on the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism. In 1976, cited for her outstanding activism and dedicated work on behalf of the Chinese-Canadian community, Lumb earned the highest civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government with her appointment to the Order of Canada.27 She was presented with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Award in 1977, the Fran Deck Award in 1982 and the City of Toronto Award of Merit in 1984.28 By 1965, Lumb was the subject of a National Film Board documentary, Quo Vadis, Mrs. Lumb?,29 which would be followed by two others.30

Jean Lumb died on July 17, 2002. The woman with “magnetic energy,” “bubbling talk” and “matching laugh” had acted as the voice of her community for over 40 years.31 She left a legacy of social activism and cultural pride for future generations through the annual Jean Lumb Awards, recognizing high school students of Chinese descent who excel academically, artistically, athletically and socially by contributing to their community.32 Lumb fought for diversity and integration through the celebration of theatre, food, dance, heritage conservation and efforts to make immigration legislation more equitable.

Jean Lumb was an individual who had many firsts to her credit. In 1976, she was the first Chinese-Canadian woman to receive the Order of Canada for her tireless community work. Most notably, Lumb was recognized for her role in changing Canada’s immigration laws and for her support to preserve Chinatowns in Toronto and other Canadian cities. In addition, she was the first Chinese woman to sit on the Women’s College Hospital, University Settlement House and Rotary-Laughlen Centre boards of governors. Lumb was also the first woman and the first Chinese restaurateur to receive the Fran Deck Award (1982) for outstanding achievement in Toronto’s restaurant industry. These are just a few of Lumb’s notable accomplishments — in addition to the numerous awards that have been bestowed posthumously. These include both the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee Awards (1977 and 2002 respectively). Although she had to leave school after Grade 6 and experienced the loss of her Canadian citizenship for 18 years, Lumb accomplished much. Her capacity for hard work from a young age helped develop her business acumen, and her outgoing personality and amiability marked her long life and became the platform for her incredible dedication to civic and community work.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dora Nipp in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2009

1 Arlene Chan, Spirit of the Dragon: The Story of Jean Lumb (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1997), 9.

2 Dora Nipp, “But Women Did Come: Working Chinese Women in the Interwar Years” in Jean Burnet, ed. Looking into My Sister’s Eyes: an Exploration in Women’s History (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1986), 192.

3 Jean Lumb Interview with Dora Nipp. Multicultural History Society of Ontario Collection, August 18, 1983.

4 Chan, Spirit of the Dragon, 10.

5 See F.N. 6 on explanation regarding male-dominated culture in Canadian Chinese communities.

6 Spirit of the Dragon. Directed by Gil Gauvreau, Convergence Productions, 2002. In 1923, the federal government passed a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prevented the immigration of anyone from China until it was revoked in 1947. The law also ensured that single Chinese men who had arrived in Canada prior to 1923 were not permitted to marry. Because Doyle Lumb had arrived prior to 1923 he should not have married in accordance of Chinese Exclusion Act. When he did marry Jean she was stripped of her Canadian citizenship because she married a man who broke the Act. The Chinese men who had wives had arrived alone when they came to work in Canada, with the intention of bringing their families to Canada after they became established. As a result there was a preponderance of single Chinese men and husbands without their wives living in Toronto (and other Canadian cities) at this time.

7 Peter S. Li, The Chinese in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), 88-9.

8 Richard H. Thompson, Toronto’s Chinatown: The Changing Social Organization of an Ethnic Community (New York: AMS Press Inc, 1989), 92.

9 The Women’s Book Committee, Chinese Canadian National Council, Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1992), 48-9.

10 Kay Kritzwiser, “The Informal Jean Lumb” The Globe and Mail, December 12, 1977.

11 Nipp, “But Women Did Come”, 192.

12 “Actors take world tour of eating without stepping outside Toronto” The Toronto Star, September 4, 1970: 31.

13 Arlene Chan interview with Barbara Legault, Toronto, Ontario, June 30, 2009.

14 “Chinese Seamen Enjoy Toronto Christmas” The Toronto Star, December 25, 1964: 4.

15 Margaret Daly, “Why Toronto’s Chinese insist we must retain a Chinatown” The Toronto Star, March 8, 1969: 11.

16 Jean Lumb Interview with Dora Nipp. Multicultural History Society of Ontario Collection, August 18, 1983.

17 “Woman speaks for Chinatown” The Hamilton Herald, April 9, 1969.

18 David Chueyan Lai, Chinatowns: Towns in Cities within Cities in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1988), 146.

19 Thompson, Toronto’s Chinatown, 138.

20 See correspondence between Jean Lumb and Alderman Horace Brown. Fonds 1307, “Horace Brown Fonds 1970 - 72”. File 6 “Chinese Community” City of Toronto Archives. Toronto Ontario.

21 “Chinese start drive to save Chinatown” The Toronto Star, Wednesday August 30, 1967, 23; also “Why Toronto’s Chinese insist we must retain a Chinatown” The Toronto Star March 8, 1969, 2.

22 “Chinese set to celebrate the Year of the Horse” The Toronto Star, February 5, 1978, A3.

23 Bob Pennington, “Chinatown: It’s moving to the west” The Toronto Star, March 2, 1976: E1.

24 “Plan for the Preservation of Chinatown,” 1730.

25 Merna Forster, “A Chinese Voice, Jean Lumb 1919 - 2002” in 100 Canadian Heroines (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2004), 139.

26 Civic Awards of Merit. Appendix A: City of Toronto Executive Committee Report No.1. Council of the Corporation of the City of Toronto Minutes of the Proceedings for the Year 1984. (Toronto, 1985), 98-100.

27 “Jean B. Lumb, C.M.” Order of Canada Citation. Governor General of Canada.

28 Chan, Spirit of the Dragon, 28.

29 Ron Kelly, Dir., Peter Jones, Prod.

30 Spirit of the Dragon, Gil Gauvreau, Dir., Prod., Convergence Productions, 2002. Loving Spoonfuls, Episode 2. Indivisual Productions, Inc., 2001.

31 Kay Kritzwiser, “The Informal Jean Lumb” The Globe and Mail, December 12, 1977.

32 Sarah Jane Growe, “Leaving a legacy important for us all”, The Toronto Star, November 24, 2001: M21.