By Terrie Todd
If I asked you to name the first Chinese Canadian (male or female) to graduate as a doctor in Canada, could you? How about if I asked you to name the only Canadian missionary to have worked in China throughout the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the Communist revolution? Hint: it’s the same person. Don’t feel bad, I couldn’t have named her either.
Victoria Toy Mea Cheung was born in Victoria, BC in 1897, the same year as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Cheung was born during a time when Canada did not welcome the Chinese, when the only people forced to pay a head tax were immigrants from China. Did her parents name her Victoria in hopes that she would be better accepted by the dominant white society?
Victoria’s father, Sing Noon Cheung, had immigrated from his South China village, lured by the Canadian Pacific Railway to help build the transcontinental railway. After the final spike was driven in 1885, he began a small business in Victoria and saved enough money to bring his wife to Canada. He was one of the first Chinese converts to Christianity in the city. His wife, Yin Han, a highly educated woman, had become a Christian in China.
At age five, Victoria attended kindergarten at the Oriental Home run by the Women’s Missionary Society. Originally a place of refuge for at-risk girls and women of Asian descent, the Chinese Rescue Home had become a segregated school offering a public school curriculum, evangelical teachings, and lessons in the domestic arts. Enrolled as a boarder, Victoria could visit her family at home only a few blocks away.
A popular and smart girl, Victoria taught Sunday school, participated in girls’ groups, and resolved to become a medical missionary to China. The idea was preposterous in British Columbia, where provincial legislation prohibited Chinese people from entering professions. Being Chinese wasn’t Victoria’s only hurdle. The University of Toronto was the only medical school accepting female students. Thanks to a full university scholarship from the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Society, Victoria joined the medical school there in 1917. When she graduated in 1922, she was one of only 14 women in a class of 79 graduates.
After interning at Toronto General, Victoria joined the South China Mission, taking charge of a hospital in Kongmoon and serving as both a skilled surgeon and an efficient administrator. Despite political upheavals that forced most other Canadian doctors and missionaries to return to Canada, Victoria stayed for 43 years. As a Canadian, she traveled with a British passport. But somehow her name was not included in the British consulate’s list of female missionaries in China, a list used in times of crisis for emergency evacuations. Some speculate that, since “Canadian women were white,” and since “doctors were male,” and since “missionaries were, by definition, of European heritage,” Victoria Cheung could not possibly have been all three. Whatever the reason, this oversight worked in her favor during the Japanese occupation. Victoria kept her Canadian citizenship hidden, preferring to pass as a Chinese national so that she could stay and continue her work.
Victoria Cheung continued to serve through war, invasion, and the communist takeover that made her Christian faith illegal. Any connections to Canada or the west had to be kept strictly hidden. Her patients included residents of four refugee camps where she vaccinated against or treated smallpox, cholera, malaria, dysentery, and typhus. Times proved so bad at one point that a starving mother tried to sell her two daughters to Dr. Cheung.
Victoria Cheung stayed in China until her death in 1966 at the age of 69. For more on this remarkable woman, read “A Woman In Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Cheung,” by John Price and Ningping Yu.
100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces, by Merna Forster, Dundurn Press, 2004
The Canadian Encyclopedia
One is desperate to discover the truth. One wishes the truth would simply go away. And one would give her life to keep the truth hidden forever.
“I couldn’t stop turning the pages of this compelling story! … With God’s help, good can come from evil, and that lesson is beautifully shown in April’s Promise. I recommend this story for lovers of Christian fiction and compelling stories.” --Jeanne, Goodreads
April’s Promise was short-listed in both the 2020 Word Awards & the 2020 Braun Book Awards.
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