“Who’s the kid?” the waiter asked, as a young child and an old fellow sat down together at the Pender Café in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Bill Young responded, “This is my son Henry.”
The waiter looked again, this time in surprise, saying “Oh! He’s a boon look meen bow.”
This was a slang phrase used by the Chinese community, meaning a half loaf of bread, to signify a person with mixed Asian blood.
In that moment, Henry didn’t understand the comment, but the phrase continued to surface for years to come. Ever since that incident at the café, the demeaning phrase was etched in his memory.
Vancouver guitarist Henry Young has been involved with crafting music of the highest calibre throughout his career and is a well-known Chinese icon in our city. A previous Juno nominee, Henry’s work has drawn praises from the likes of Ray Charles, Wes Montgomery, and Miles Davis. As a former principal member of Nina Simone’s superlative band, he has received international critical attention, having performed at the prestigious Montreux, African and Newport Jazz Festivals.
Henry’s talent is not only as a guitarist, but as a conductor, arranger, composer, and musical director, encompassing a musical spectrum ranging from vintage rock & roll to rhythm & blues, funk, standards, big band and jazz.
After writing many untold stories about growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown (Sum Yung Guys) I realized that there were other, and sometimes younger friends who had achieved greatness in spite of the challenges and adversity that they faced early on, whose stories should be told.
Henry was a younger friend, and as I interviewed him about his lifelong walk to fame it almost seemed that the many events we reminisced about had happened what seemed like a hundred years ago!
I had known about this young man’s talent for many decades, but the space of time between our first meeting to now had me wondering. How did he reach this pinnacle of achievements? “This young guy had to have an interesting past,” I thought. Who helped him reach this crescendo of guitar greatness? The easy flow of improvising in jazz harmonics that puts life into one’s soul. When you listen to him play, his notes and his rhythm floats into another time zone.
On my first visit to his home in North Vancouver, I was greeted by the friendly smile of his wife Yvonne. It was an early summer’s day in June 2015 and the cool breeze off the Burrard Inlet filled the air with smells of fir and cedar trees. We climbed the upstairs landing of their open style three-storey home. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming with everything neatly in its place. Henry quickly credited his wife Yvonne for their home’s artistic flair, including pictures and artifacts showing musical instruments.
The one thing that really captured my eye was the alcove off the living room, embracing all his musical history. A sophisticated arrangement of electronic equipment for recording and taping was intricately set up and ready to prepare him for his next gig. It was like a mini recording studio. Shelves with multiple compartments were filled with hundreds of CD’s and records.
Henry’s self-taught training skills came from constantly playing recordings from his peers over and over again until he was able to master the chords and technique. He practiced for perfection and his talent was achieved in part by his patience to “get it right.”
As we began our interview it was clear that many of Henry’s childhood memories were very vague, yet in some instances, his recall was vivid.
Where It All Began
Henry’s father, Bill Young, was born in Canton, China and immigrated to Canada through Brandon, Manitoba. While Brandon had a major influx of Chinese people arriving from the Orient, Bill chose to move on to Saskatchewan and was ready to conquer the new world.
This is where he met and married Henry’s mother, Katy Oryschuk, a Ukrainian girl with auburn curly hair who had settled with her family in a town called Weyburn. In 1940 Weyburn had a population of about 6,000 and was located on the Souris River.
Saskatchewan had a large settlement of immigrants from the Ukraine that settled into the farming community. During the 1940’s getting enough to eat was a constant source of worry, which meant very long hours tilling the soil and harvesting the crops in order to put food on the table. For people living on the prairies, life was harsh, especially during the relentlessly cold winters.
Both of Henry’s parents spoke very little English, resulting in limited communication between one another. In the presence of strong cultural and communicative barriers, it’s hard to imagine how the couple came together. Perhaps it was these same barriers that caused their marriage to fail.
Henry was between 3-4 years old when his father made the decision to move to Vancouver. Henry’s mother had serious health issues and was unable to look after him. Through the grapevine, Bill Young had heard that this west coast city had the best Chinese schools and education facilities for his young son and also knew he could find work there. He also wanted his son to be able to speak Chinese.
Bill was fifty-nine years old when Henry was born and raising a child as a single parent must have been a great challenge, yet he eventually made sure his son had learned the life skills he would need.
Arriving at the CN Rail station at Terminal and Main with a young child, Bill was able to find accommodation at a rooming house in Chinatown and began the search to find a family to take care of Henry. He was taken in by the Eng family and other families for short periods, until staying with Judge Randall Wong’s family for about a year, which allowed Bill Young to look for a job.
Mr. Bill Wong and his wife Violet were happy to help out. They had a son a year older than Henry….. his name was Randall. The boys were great companions for one another, resulting into a lifelong friendship. Henry preferred to call him “Buddy.”
Randall’s parents owned and operated the Ovaltine Café which is one of Vancouver’s oldest restaurants, situated at 251 East Hastings Street near Main. Their very successful operation afforded their son a Law degree at the University of British Columbia. Randall went on to become the first Chinese Canadian to be appointed to the Provincial Crown Counsel in 1967, and then became a BC Provincial Court Judge in 1974. In 1990, he was honoured to be the first Chinese Canadian Supreme Court Judge in British Columbia. Back then, few Chinese chose to study law for their career.
Henry’s father had no formal training, but managed to find work as a cook at two small eateries that were located behind Chinese gambling clubs. The entrances were from the back-alley or through the front of gambling rooms in Chinatown. These cafes accommodated a dozen or more guests with a wooden table and chairs plus a countertop with stools.
One of the establishments where he worked was called the ”Green Door.” Meals were simple; one dish of food with a free bowl of rice and soup for a reasonable price. He was later employed at the White Lunch Cafeteria on Hastings Street. This was a popular eatery with reasonable prices for the blue-collar crowd. There were three locations in Vancouver including the one across from the retailer “Woodward’s Department Store.” A few years later he accepted a position with the English Bay Café owned by the Yuen family. This was a very busy location situated in one of Vancouver’s most beautiful beach areas. It was a seasonal operation relying on tourists and local vacationers.
By the time Henry was 5-6 years old, he was living with the Lee Family, on the second floor apartment above a green painted storefront, which encompassed a barbershop in Shanghai Alley at the center of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
One of Henry’s vivid memories as a young boy was visiting the barbershop below his home in Shanghai Alley, where the owner and barber, Gee Yim Sook, worked. (Sook means uncle and is used as a sign of respect).
The shop was a large open room which featured three swivel leather chairs, each with a light bulb strung overhead by a dangling black wire. Brave little Henry climbed onto the board placed across the arms of one of the chairs. The board was needed for elevation so that Gee Yim Sook could style his hair using old-fashioned hand clippers. Henry still remembers when the barber upgraded to electric clippers but did not have a polarized plug handy (no grounding). Henry felt the electric current running under the seat of his pants. “
“It was like receiving an electric shock” he says.
Gee Yim Sook smoked a cigarette over his head while he was cutting. The cigarette never left his mouth once during the entire time. What astonished Henry was that the ashes never fell to the floor. As the youngster made an effort to be still, his eyes wandered to a corner of the shop….. where he saw a group of men smoking a water pipe.
This long smoking device was about 2 inches in diameter and 2 feet in length that rested inside a 5-gal pail which contained water. Tin cans of various tobaccos lined the shelf along with boxes of matches.
When Henry was 13-14 years of age, his straight black hair gradually changed to curly waves, similar to his mother’s hair. It was rare to see an Asian with curly hair.
The streets were lined with retail stores of all kinds; hand- laundry, tailor shops and confectionery while the majority of the floors above housed Chinese bachelors. Some of these men were married but had been forced to leave their spouses and family abroad due to the restrictions of the Immigration Laws of Canada. Of course the imposition of the “head tax” was also an unjust burden and costly affair. Also, the wages paid for Chinese workers were half of what their Caucasian counterparts received.
Reminiscing back to his childhood years, he said, “We lived across the street from a pollution plant.”
I asked him, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he laughed, “Marshall Wells Hardware Ltd. was manufacturing paint across from our home and we would constantly get headaches from the fumes. Sometimes I wonder if it had any effect on me.”
The Lee’s had four children: daughters Mari and Kareen, sons Albert and Henry Dan, and later, Henry Young. They soon needed a larger home and moved away from Shanghai Alley to 446 East Cordova Street.
Kareen, the younger daughter was Henry’s babysitter, and immediately took a real liking to the new family member, though was only a year older than Henry.
Henry left the United Church kindergarten school and began his elementary education at Strathcona, the largest public school on the east side of Vancouver. In high school he attended Vancouver Technical.
In addition to his English classes, Henry attended Chinese School each day at about 4pm. The school name was WK (Wah Kui), located in the heart of Chinatown. He remembers having two Chinese teachers, Siu Bing Kee and Dean Leung, who he says were relentless. Because hs still able to converse in his Chinese dialect, Henry is always grateful to his father for enforcing the discipline to attend classes.
Henry’s living accommodations with the Lee Family weren’t cool, but downright cold; yet the freezing temperature didn’t freeze his memory from those years of growing up.
The house at 446 East Cordova had no central heating. “As a young boy, I can only remember going to bed cold and hungry. My stomach ached and I shivered a lot.”
The only source of heat was a coal burning potbelly stove in the basement. In order to heat the upstairs bedrooms, holes were drilled in the ceiling to allow the heat to circulate upstairs. Each floor had only a cold water tap.
The family’s ingenuity to counter the cold temperature was done by collecting Heinz 57 ketchup bottles made of thick glass. After thoroughly washing them, they filled the bottles with hot water and placed at the bottom of their beds to keep their feet warm.
Henry was given a lot of freedom as a youngster and was able to wander about his home district, becoming quite familiar with all the alleyways and every nook and cranny. He discovered and made many new friends that way.
As we continued our interview, Henry’s mind was very active, recalling his survival from those early years to the present.
“Do you know why we all went to school?” he explained.
“The main reason we went to Strathcona was because it was better than being at home. The inside was always warm and we received a hot meal.” He can still taste that delicious Mac and Cheese combo they served for 12 cents.
Two neighbourhood school friends Al and Jeffrey Lee, who lived across from the Cordova home, puzzled Henry. How was it that they drove a shiny year old car parked on the street and their mother wore fur coats?
Mr. Lee worked as a cook like his father at another White Lunch Cafeteria next to the Lux Theatre on Hastings Street. How is it his father, who was doing the same type of job, was barely getting by? Growing up, life seemed quite unfair to Henry. His attitude was, “someday I will have those things.” This was always his challenge, to overcome any obstacle in order to achieve his goals.
Henry’s mother did not want to move to Vancouver, and continued to live with her family on a farm in Saskatchewan. Henry never stopped wondering why his Mother had stayed behind in Weyburn, but this was never a topic of conversation that he could have with his Father. As far as he knows, his parents never communicated with one another after leaving Saskatchewan.
Having no mother or an active father, these shifts from one family to another should have been confusing for a young boy, but was quite the opposite. They were positive moves that made Henry feel like the adopted son who inherited a new family. Reflecting back to those years, Henry is forever grateful to the families that welcomed him to board at their homes and the important role they played in his life thereafter.
Henry has remained in contact with the Lee’s and the Wong’s and the friendships have remained strong over the years.
Edwin Lee was born in Vancouver in 1936 and grew up in Chinatown with a close group of family and friends. For years, he had been talking with them about compiling a book of their memories. Eventually, he decided to do it himself and after three years of research and interviews he is proud to have completed his book, Sum Yung Guys: Untold stories of growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. As a writer and historian, Edwin documents the history of Chinatown. More Untold Stories from Vancouver’s Chinatown is Edwin Lee’s current project on Vancouver musician Henry Young. Stay tuned for the following installments of this profile on one of Vancouver’s great musicians.