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by Nandika Ravi

The Bank of Canada released its shortlist of Canadians who could have their image printed on the new $5 bills. And the first ever Chinese born baby in Canada, Won Alexander Cumyow (1861-1955) is on the list.

Cumyow attended high school in Vancouver and went on to a career as a court translator speaking English, Cantonese, Hakka, and also Chinook Jargon.

Cumyow was involved in the causes of the local community, and the politics of China. He was the English language secretary of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Victoria, an organization that was established in 1884 to look after the welfare of the Chinese in Canada.

Being a translator, he became the means of communication between the Chinese people and the government. He revealed to the Royal Commission of 1901 the loneliness of many Chinese men in Vancouver.

“A large proportion of them would bring their families here,” he said, “were it not for the unfriendly reception, which creates an unsettled feeling.”

Cumyow voted in 1890, but that right was taken away from him in 1895 when the provincial government took away the right to vote through a series of legal moves. He challenged the law in 1902, but the laws limiting his democratic rights would not be repealed until after the Second World War.

In 1949, at the age of 88, he voted again in the federal election held in that year, making him the only person of Chinese descent to have voted before and after the disenfranchisement legislation.