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Breaking the ‘Silence’: A Review of Tong: The Story of Tong Louie, Vancouver’s Quiet Titan

By E. G. Perrault

Review By Shelley Chan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 141-2

THIS BOOK is a biography of Tong Louie, a second-generation Chinese Canadian businessman whose name, for several decades, has been tied to two of the most well known retail chains in western Canada — IGA and London Drugs. Published posthumously to celebrate his lifelong achievements, this biography also marks the hundredth anniversary of the H.Y. Louie Company, a family-owned corporation founded by Hok Yat Louie and inherited by his sons in the mid-1930s. Like most biographers, E.G. Perrault faces the challenge of crafting a coherent, focused, and balanced portrayal of his subject. Perhaps more important, Perrault picks Louie’s silent reputation as his central theme. He refers to this silence as “a common Chinese trait” (13) that makes it rather difficult to fully account for the man whom he considers to be a quiet titan largely unknown to British Columbians. But Perrault’s book is more than just the biography of a prominent business figure who survived severe financial hardships and racial discrimination during Vancouver’s early years. It reaches far beyond that to encompass a family history of three generations and to establish it as constituting a Vancouver-grown success story achieved against all odds. It is a statement that attempts to reclaim a voice that has been somewhat denied.

The reader will find that the book follows a common narrative – one that has guided the popular telling of most immigrant experiences in Canada (as well as those of native-born ethnic minorities). It is mainly about people like Tong Louie, who weathered the hard times, assimilated into the “mainstream,” and emerged triumphant and vindicated, especially after Chinese Canadians received the vote in 1947. The Louies were said to live far better lives in Canada than they would have done in China, despite having to face white racism in their new home. This type of narrative is also concerned with a sense of rootedness felt by those who swallowed their bitterness and remained to build Canada into its present shape. As Perrault notes, unlike those who were broken by the immigrant experience, Louie rose to the challenge to “improve [the Chinese Canadians’] corner of the world to the benefit of all” (17). This image of Louie may also be contrasted to those marginalized but feisty Chinese Canadians who sought head tax redress, stubbornly clung to Old World ties, and seriously questioned or rejected Canada. As Perrault says, quoting Roy Mah, Tong Louie was an example that “blazed the trail for future generations to follow” (15). This reflects the narrative framework of heroic agency and final victory, which remains tempting and powerful, and downplays the sufferings of the past, seeing them as necessary to the achievement of present glories (enjoyed by most, if not all). 

Moving through the book, one discovers that Vancouver’s quiet titan was not so “quiet” after all. As a successful multi-millionaire, Tong Louie was indeed frugal and modest, and consistently shied away from publicity. He was a man of very few words. As Perrault observes, Louie did not seem to know how to talk about himself in interviews, and it is other people who speak for him on such personal subjects as the shock of his wife’s death. Nonetheless, as a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, and as a committed philanthropist, Louie managed to create a significant stir in various social and political circles. And Perrault points out that as many as 2,000 people attended his funeral in 1998. 

Given his wealth, influence, and list of honours, what was it about Tong Louie that made Perrault refer to him as “quiet” (other than the fact that he was self-effacing)? Was it because of his “Chinese” upbringing and heritage (to which Perrault frequently refers when explaining everything from the practice of polygamy to a mother’s enormous responsibility to her family)? If Louie’s quietness may be explained by his Chinese heritage, then how do we explain the “noisy” behaviour of some Chinese Canadians who engaged in anti-W5 protests in 1980 or the urban renewal projects in Strathcona during the 1960s? In implying that certain Chinese values ought to affect behaviour, are we not in danger of creating a uniform, essentialized image of Chinese Canadians and their social and political attitudes? Furthermore, to what extent was Louie’s apparent “quietness” assigned and imposed by others, and/or self-consciously acted? What aspects of Canadian society motivate certain groups of people to become successful while also making it clear that they should be “quiet” about it? This theme of quietness as applied to Tong Louie’s remarkable life leads to some stimulating questions for those interested in BC and Canadian history. Perrault assumes the validity of this theme, and it is up to the reader to consider whether or not he should have done so.