Canada to China – Jewish-Chinese connections unite a family

by Valerie (Chan) Hum

Little did we realize when our son, Jeffrey, married Sharon Szmuilowicz in August 2008, that we would find ourselves visiting China nine months later as a family and visiting all our ancestral homes. 

My family comes from the village of Sui Nam, Toi San district, Guangdong province. My grandfather was sponsored by a tailor and moved to Victoria, BC in 1893 as a 16-year-old from a very poor family.  He eventually married, started a restaurant business, and fathered twelve children. Today over 140 Chan family members have been born in Canada over five generations and 131 years. 

My husband Len’s family was from a small village of 30 houses in Chongkou, Kaiping district, Guangdong province. Len’s father traveled back and forth between China and New Westminster, BC to earn money to support his family. In 1950 Len and his grandmother left China for Vancouver and then met up with Len’s father who had moved to Ottawa. Two years later the rest of Len’s family arrived in Canada. The family owned a number of restaurants over the years including one called “Sun Luck” at Carling Ave and Broadview Ave.

When our son married a Jewish woman from Toronto, we never thought we would learn that her family has ties to China as well. 

The idea for the trip to China was initiated by Sharon. She felt it was important to learn about Jeffrey’s culture and family history. However, since the Szmuilowicz clan also had a direct link to China via Shanghai, it was an opportunity to explore both their histories.

On May 13, 2009, sixty-two years after Sharon’s family left China, our tour guide Hao brought us to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, the former Ohel Moishe synagogue at Sharon’s request. Here we were able to access a computer database listing all the refugees who had lived in Shanghai.  We were so pleased to see Sharon’s grandfather and great-grandfather listed in the database, including their former address. Jacob and Samuel Szmuilowicz age 59 and 21 were listed as Polish refugees living at 30/50 Zangyang Road. What a tremendous discovery!  And to top it off 30/50 was next door to the synagogue and was still standing. 

We decided to knock on their door and see if anyone remembered Sharon’s family. The present residents moved in in 1950 and had no recollection of the previous Jewish residents who had crammed into these small apartments over 70 years ago. Although we could not find anyone who knew Sharon’s family, it was still a remarkable discovery to find the records and the house they had lived in.

Sharon’s story begins with her grandfather, Samuel. To escape conscription into the Russian army Samuel, who lived in Vilna, and his father, Jacob who was in Lida, left Poland/Lithuania by foot in 1939 making their way to Japan via Manchuria. 

Their transit visas were issued by a Japanese diplomat named Chiune Sugihara. He was giving out these visas without the knowledge of his government. It was dangerous for him to do so, but he knew that he needed to do something to save the Jewish community of Western Poland/Lithuania. In 1985 Sugihara was the first and only Japanese citizen to be listed by Yad Vashem as a “righteous among the nations

With visas in hand, the journey took nearly two years to complete. They traveled by day and hid at night, and they finally arrived in 1941. In January 1942 they were transferred to Shanghai where they joined up with 20,000 Jews who had migrated there in three waves beginning in the 1800s. They stayed in Shanghai for 5 years selling rice to the Chinese locals and made enough money to leave for Mexico City in 1947. They prospered there and started the Spanish-speaking arm of the Szmuilowicz clan. Sharon’s parents met in Mexico and moved to Canada so her dad could pursue a career in medicine.

We learned that there were many Jews who fled Eastern Europe and ended up in Hong Kong or China.

The next part of our discovery trip found us travelling by ferry from Hong Kong over to the mainland city of Zha Hai where we were then met by distant Hum clan relatives who drove us to my paternal grandfather Chan’s hometown of Sui Nam. I suspect I am the only descendant who has made the trek back to the town of Sui Nam which appears very old, very dirty and somewhat decayed but still standing.  

Half an hour later we arrived in the small village of Lohk Hing Leih, a cluster of 27 buildings housing the remaining Hum clan. Len’s family left the village in 1949 spending a year and a half in Hong Kong awaiting their papers for entry into Canada.  The village remains very poor, comprised of mostly vacant buildings surrounded by rice patties and vegetable gardens.

Ninety-year-old Mrs. Tam, looking remarkably spry and pleasant, incredibly, remembered Len who used to play with her eldest son. The other village residents were too young to remember him, but they swiftly brought out some food offerings, the incense, paper money to burn before the family altar, and lit some Chinese firecrackers. These are age old traditions in honour of the Hum ancestors. There were no young people living in the village. They had all left to find jobs in the cities. We wonder if the village will even exist in 20 years’ time. 

Call it fate or as the Jews say “bashert”, that from the 1940s three different families who started off in China, one a Jewish refugee family in Shanghai and two native Chinese families living in small villages near Canton would be reunited in Canada through marriage seventy years later.    The biggest blessing is that in May of 2024, a Szmuilowicz-Hum great-great-granddaughter will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah in Toronto.  We will be thrilled to be there.

Valerie (Chan) Hum lives in Ottawa and this column was submitted as part of “Voices,” a section of the E-Bulletin where the community can share their stories. Please email Jodi for more information