For many years, Roy Mah was the face of Chinese journalism in Vancouver. The long-time publisher of the Chinatown News was also a pivotal figure in many of the equal-rights struggles fought by Chinese Canadians.
For the past six decades, people of Chinese ancestry have enjoyed the right to vote as Canadian citizens. They're free to pursue their dreams in the various professions. And they owe no small thanks to Mah, who died at age 89 on June 22.
The head tax on Chinese immigrants had been in place for 33 years when Mah was born in Edmonton in 1918. He was five when the federal government introduced a law that barred Chinese people from entering the country. As a young boy, he attended a segregated school.
During the Second World War, Mah and hundreds of Chinese volunteered to fight for Canada, a country that didn't even allow them to vote. They believed that recognition would come later. Two years after the war, in 1947, the Chinese were finally granted the franchise.
"He was very proud of where the Chinese Canadian community is at today," Mah's niece Ramona Mar told the Georgia Straight. "He looks around and they're everywhere in all professions, and these are professions that used to be barred to him during his time."
Mar, a former CBC journalist, interviewed her uncle for a documentary project for Veterans Affairs Canada. "I know that we can't have everything we want in life, but we can always strive to achieve our objective," Mah said in that interview. "So I always want to fight for a cause, especially for a just cause. Fight for civil liberty, fight for equal rights, fight for a fairer society. It has become reality now, you know, it's just a matter of daily life."
Mah was also a labour organizer. According to a profile drawn by the B.C. Federation of Labour, he organized thousands of Chinese workers in Vancouver, from the Fraser River to Hope, and throughout communities on Vancouver Island. The same account noted that Mah was also the editor of the Chinese version of the BC Lumber Worker, then the only Chinese-language labour paper in North America.
In the early 1950s, Mah started the Chinatown News, Canada's first English-language newsmagazine for the Chinese community. Howe Lee, president of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, recalled to the Straight that the publication was known as much for its coverage of society events as for Mah's editorials and for the feature stories he ran about social issues such as the need to end discrimination.
Mah edited and published the paper until the mid-1990s. In 2002, the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop presented him with its inaugural Community Builder Award. In his acceptance speech, Mah insisted that Asian Canadian writers can compete with anyone because they're now "free from the racist barriers imposed on earlier generations".
Cultural activist Todd Wong was among the writers who listened to Mah's speech. "At that dinner”¦he said it would be wonderful if we were just known as the Canadian Writers' Workshop," Wong told the Straight. "It means that we should be able to transcend race and ethnicity and all be recognized as oneness."
Head-tax activist Sid Tan was also present at that event. He has been an advocate of compensation for all victims of the head-tax policy, a position not shared by Mah, who had argued that government apology was sufficient.
"I just wonder what life would have been like if Roy Mah had joined me and said, 'We want a just and honourable redress for all head-tax families'," Tan told the Straight. "It wouldn't have been as much work as it is now. He has a lot of influence within the community."
A public memorial will be held for Mah on July 12 at the Chinese Cultural Centre.