Meet Chow Dong Hoy — a photographer who humanized everyone
The Chinese businessman helped shape contemporary views of Canada's West
Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on.
Chow Dong (C.D.) Hoy immigrated to Vancouver just after the turn of the century in 1902. Despite encountering low wages and a surplus of racism, he eventually became a pillar of his community and a chronicler of everyday life.
Here are five things we learned about the businessman, father and extraordinary photographer whose humanizing work was almost lost to time.
1) His family paid dearly to send him to Canada.
Hoy was born into poverty on July 2, 1883 in the southern Chinese village of Sui Soon Lee. His father borrowed $300 — equivalent to more than $8,000 today — to send him to Canada. Much of that fee was used to pay the Chinese head tax, a charge imposed by the Canadian government on anyone coming from China between 1885 to 1923.
2) He was nothing if not resourceful.
Over the course of his life, Hoy worked as a houseboy, barber, watch repairman, cook and fur trader. He also tried his luck heading North to mine for gold. Like thousands of other prospectors, Hoy never did find the precious metal — but he did find the camera that would lead him to his legacy.
Eventually, he saved up enough money to open his own photography studio and general store in Quesnel, B.C.
3) He humanized everyone who sat before his camera.
Hoy's work honoured the everyday person. His subjects, paying customers, were in charge of how they would be photographed.
People of many ages, races and income levels sat for his camera, often alongside one another. At a time where portraits were largely for the rich, Hoy captured the missing buttons, frayed cuffs and calloused hands of Indigenous, Chinese and white labourers.
Instead of treating Indigenous people like anthropological subjects — which many other photographers did at the time — Hoy's work showed their humanity and helped develop relationships between settlers and Indigenous populations.
His portraits became an invaluable record of the rich cultural diversity of B.C.'s Cariboo region between 1909 and 1920. Decades later in 2014, his image "Unidentified Chinese Man" was added to an official Canada Post stamp series honouring master photographers.
4) His personalized postcards connected separated loved ones.
Hoy's photography business was thriving against a dark backdrop.
As the Asiatic Exclusion League was banning Chinese and South Asian people from entering Canada and the U.S. between 1923 and 1947, Hoy's photographs allowed loved ones to see each other across great distances.
He came up with the ingenious idea of gluing postcards to the back of his photographs so Chinese miners and labourers could send a photo back home to their families with a written message.
5) His work was almost lost to time.
Hoy passed away in 1973 and his photography was almost forgotten. But in 1995, a researcher came across 1,400 of his negatives in local archives and recognized the importance of Hoy's work.
His images offer a rare look at life in rural B.C. at the turn of the century and help to dispel romantic notions about the Canadian frontier. His work has gone on to be published, studied and exhibited around the world.