Chinese Freemasons celebrate 160 years of community and cultural support in Canada

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A man in a suit is sitting in a chair.

Cecil Fung’s first visit to central BC was instructive, and not just because he’d lived most of his life in Vancouver since arriving from Hong Kong in the 1960s.

In 2003, Fung and other Chinese Freemasons members installed a 140th anniversary tombstone at the historic Barkerville Chinese Gold Miners Cemetery, where the organization established its first Canadian branch in 1863.

“[I] I saw a lot of historical value and a lot of personal satisfaction in touching on our roots and the history of Chinese people in Canada,” he said of the visit.

Twenty years later, Fung, a leader of Canada’s Chinese Freemasons, is now poised to celebrate another milestone for the organization.

Up to 600 members from 19 branches across the country will gather at the national headquarters in Vancouver on Sunday, where they will perform rituals such as B. the homage to Chinese deities and the greeting with hand gestures inherited from their founders.

Started as secret societies in southern China

The Chinese Masonic Organization of Canada, which predates the Confederacy – also known as Hongmen (洪門) in Chinese – has played a crucial role in supporting Chinese communities, for example by providing settlement services to immigrants and promoting Chinese culture and preserved.

It also has a controversial side in its stated goal of promoting Chinese unity, despite a history riddled with revolutions.

The organization’s history can be traced even further back to the mid-17th century in southern China, where, according to University of Notre Dame historian Dian Murray, it began as a group of secret societies aimed at bolstering the Manchu-led imperial government Overthrow Qing Dynasty and overthrow restore the Han-controlled Ming Dynasty.

Two centuries later, many Hongmen members—predominantly male—migrated to California because of the gold rush and founded their organization’s first North American chapter in San Francisco in 1849. Most of them later moved to BC’s Cariboo region to make new gold claims to the late Chinese Masonic leader Harry Con.

It is not known how Hongmen acquired his English name and his connection to the broader Freemasonry movement.

People join the organization by invitation and are sponsored by existing members.

Unlike much of Western Freemasonry, Chinese Freemasons have always been open to female membership, according to their leaders.

Over the last century, many Chinese Masonic branches throughout BC – including Barkerville, which has become a ghost town – have been disbanded due to aging members, but many new ones have sprung up across America, Australasia and Europe as mutual aid societies.

In Mainland China and Taiwan, Chinese Freemasons are a recognized political party called the Zhigongdang (致公黨).

The situation is different in Hong Kong, where police consider Hongmen societies to be organized crime groups. The societies are also known as triad societies (三合會), a holdover from the British colonial era which, according to sociologist Harold Traver, made it a criminal offense to become or claim to be a triad member, and to perform triad rituals. who taught at the University of Hong Kong. The law is still in effect today.

Funding the Chinese Revolution

Canada’s Chinese Freemasons also played a key role in Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s successful revolution against the imperial regime to establish Chinese democracy in 1912.

Known in Vancouver for the classical Chinese garden that bears his name, Sun — who became a member of Honolulu’s Chinese Masons in 1904 — made three trips to Canada to raise funds for the revolution, according to organization records.

Vice Chairman Ken Liu says the organization has mortgaged several properties in Vancouver’s Chinatown — including the old lodge at 5 W. Pender St. where Sun once lived — to fund the riot.

dr Sun Yat-sen while in Vancouver in 1911 prior to the success of his revolution against China’s imperial regime. The image was taken by Chinese-Canadian photographer Yucho Chow. (University of Victoria Archives)

After the successful uprising, Sun became the first provisional president of the ROC, a regime that retreated to Taiwan during the civil war in 1949 and has been based there ever since. He also remains a revered political figure in the communist-led People’s Republic of China.

But Chinese Freemasons don’t remember him fondly, claiming Sun didn’t return the money he had raised as promised.

“His nickname, Dapao Sun [Sun, the Big Liar] actually hails from Hongmen,” said Liu.

Cultural Preservation

Despite the shortfall from the debt restructuring, the organization raised enough funds to maintain its properties, including the Chinese Times newspaper building (大漢公報) at 1 E. Pender St. The publication sustained Chinese communities across the country from 1906 to 1992 Up to date.

Like the newspaper, the organization’s promotion of Chinese language and culture extends beyond Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In the southern interior, the Kamloops Chinese Freemasons Association renovated a historic Chinese cemetery and offers Chinese classes to young people.

President Elsie Cheung said she originally joined the association to promote female membership and, more importantly, to preserve Chinese culture in Kamloops, a city where only 1.3 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese.

“If I don’t start it, that’s the end of it [Chinese] legacy – it will fade quickly,” she said.

A woman in a purple down jacket is standing in a cemetery.Elsie Cheung, President of the Kamloops Chinese Freemason Association, at the city’s Chinese Cemetery. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

Despite their history of good deeds, Canada’s Chinese Freemasons remain controversial for some.

The organization’s stated goal of promoting Chinese unity has led it to side with Beijing on political issues such as the 2019 Hong Kong protests against a proposed law allowing extradition to mainland China.

It also stands by its goal of promoting the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan, as well as harmony among Canada’s diverse Chinese communities.

Ken Tung, former chairman of the Vancouver-based immigrant support agency SUCCESS, says that as a non-member he has tremendous respect for Chinese Freemasons and understands that the organization supports any regime that represents China.

But he also says the organization should remember its revolutionary history and the ideals behind it.

“You should see that it’s important to reflect … the Canadian values ​​that we cherish today in terms of freedom and democracy,” he said.

A man in a suit makes a sign with both handsCecil Fung signals the word “Harmony,” a hand gesture inherited from the founders of Chinese Freemasonry. (Ben Nelms/CBC)