Nellie Yip Quong (1882-1949)


Nellie Yip Quong, a Caucasian woman who mastered five Chinese dialects, achieved acceptance, respect, and even admiration within the Chinese community through her long years of community service. She served as a trusted midwife for some 500 Chinese Canadian women, and in so doing, she represents the thousands of midwives working in similar communities across Canada where access to maternity care was constrained by prejudice or poverty. Known as “Granny Yip”, she provided health and social services to immigrant Chinese women and their families in their own language, played the respected role of adoption broker and foster mother within the Chinese Canadian community, provided Chinese immigrants, especially women, with translation services, and campaigned against injustices, particularly in health care. As a bold and outspoken advocate for her adopted community, she served as an intermediary between the Euro-Canadian and Chinese Canadian societies, achieving renown in Vancouver’s Chinatown – home for about 30 percent of Canada’s Chinese population by the 1930s.

Born Nellie Towers in Saint John, New Brunswick, Nellie was teaching English in New York City when she met Vancouver jeweller Charles Yip Quong, and married him in 1900. He was then a widower with a seven-year-old son. Nellie and Charles Yip Quong had an early, rare, and unusually successful interracial marriage. However, it was at the cost of losing touch with her family and the Roman Catholic Church in which she was raised. Neither would recognize her marriage.

Settling permanently in Vancouver’s Chinatown in about 1904, Nellie Yip Quong worked during a difficult period for the Chinese, when both racial intolerance and immigration restrictions severely constrained family life. Most working Chinese sojourners in Canada could not afford to bring their wives and/or children to Canada. Despite this, there was a small population of women consisting of respected merchants’ wives as well as the more vulnerable servants, waitresses, and prostitutes. In a community where women and working-class Chinese were not encouraged to learn English, Nellie Yip Quong took on the respected role of interpreter, becoming an outspoken and fearless advocate on behalf of the Chinese, particularly Chinese women.

Nellie Yip Quong became something of a legend in her community not only for her midwifery, but her piercing wit and amazing language skills. Indeed, she was able to provide a bridge between the Chinese and the larger Canadian community. She worked with court interpreter Won Alexander Cumyow in helping immigrants to deal with Canadian authorities; campaigned to have the Vancouver General Hospital end its practice of confining Chinese (and other ethnic minority) patients to its basement; and advocated for workers before such bodies as the Workers Compensation Board. She was active in the Anglican Good Shepherd Mission, the United Church in Chinatown, the Chinese Benevolent Association and Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association. During years of racial hostility directed against the residents of Chinatown and at a time when few professional health care or social service resources were available to them, Nellie Yip Quong provided needed services, especially for Chinese-Canadian women.

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