Our Town Stettler: Local immigrant first Chinese person elected to council in Canada

Came to this country with little, faced racial exclusion and ridicule but became successful

Poon Yick

By Carson Ellis

For the Weekender

The early days of Stettler were unlike what most people might think.

Many of the early buildings were made entirely of wood, and most of them small, simple structures made for function on non-existent budgets. These simple structures, lined streets of dirt, which would easily become thick mud at the slightest rainfall. Life was not easy for many of the early settlers who came to the new community, many of whom were new to the country, to begin with, and had travelled with very few belongings.

READ MORE: Our Town Stettler. History of Stettler Cigar Factory

One such newcomer was a gentleman by the name of Poon Yick, who worked for his cousin in his restaurant for a year until he learned enough English to manage on his own and open one of Stettler’s first laundry operations around the north end of Main Street. Poon Yick was a frugal man, who existed on little more than rice, and who slept on his ironing board. After 10 years of sparse living, he managed to become the head of the primarily all-male Chinese community, as well as become a man of some means, which he used to open the Club Cafe in the former Van Rogen liquor store, while keeping his laundry open, operated by his cousin. Poon Yick then sent for his son, whom he had known only briefly as an infant.

READ MORE: Our Town Stettler. The store that many remember

(Harry)Poon Thing-Gue arrived in Stettler in October of 1920, at the age of 13. His arrival in Stettler was a brief welcoming feast of rice, chicken, fish, and pork, enjoyed by the members of the town’s Chinese community, which ended when Poon Yick set a wooden box down in front of the Club Cafe’s sink, and his son was quickly thrust into his new duties as dishwasher, which was the job he was to do every day immediately after school.

As an adult, Harry Poon was a driving force in not just the Asian community but the community as a whole. He became the first Chinese in Canada to be elected to town council. He was responsible for starting the Stettler Recreation Commission. He was a noted leader in the Alberta Chinese Benevolent Society. When he moved to Vancouver, he continued working with the Benevolent Society there as well. While helping the society with their teaching, and citizenship programs, he worked to form the Chinese Canadian Friendship association.

READ MORE: Our town Stettler. 1920s a decade of change for health care in Stettler

Harry Poon died of heart disease while living in Vancouver in 1984. He came to this country, with very little, and worked alongside his father. Both of them, as well as countless other Chinese immigrants, faced racial exclusion, and ridicule by many in the white community. Despite this, both men were successful, and well-respected member of both the Asian, and business community. Harry, and his wife Star worked tirelessly to raise their six children. Through his efforts, Mr. Poon helped more than 3,000 Chinese-speaking people become citizens. He was a proud Canadian, but his heart was always in China. His ashes were deposited there after his death, alongside his mother.

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