The Vintage Appeal

Walking into Wallace Chung’s private library feels like entering the epicentre of a highly creative mind. The lower-floor room is small and windowless, yet the bookshelves are thick and alive – like a wildly overgrown forest. On the bottom shelves and in boxes on the floor are black binders, manila envelopes and heaving accordion files, all neatly arranged and labelled by year or contents. Amidst family pictures and a photo of Chung receiving the Order of Canada from former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, there are clocks, sculptures, plaques, porcelain, silverware, a bin of maps and lovely old leather-bound books.

Dr. Chung in the library of his former home on Belmont Avenue. (Courtesy of Chung family private collection)

In one corner, a striking mahogany podium holds open an aging copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary with Chinese Translation. The dictionary is the only item Chung’s father-in-law brought with him when he emigrated from Hong Kong. Above the fireplace mantel is an original oil painting of Canadian Pacific Railway’s 1891 ocean liner, the Empress of India. The painting was found in the Shaughnessy home of a deceased railway executive in the mid-80s; Chung then purchased it at an antique shop on Main Street in Vancouver. A vintage wool blanket embroidered with the initials CPR lies over the back of Chung’s brown leather reading chair. There is also an antique pair of mast lamps from CPR’s first Empress of Japan steamship. Major C.H. Edmond had salvaged the lamps, along with some handrails, a copper egg boiler and other odds and ends, when the ship was demolished in North Vancouver in 1929. Chung acquired the ship relics after Edmond passed away in 1963.

A retired vascular surgeon and UBC professor emeritus, Chung, now 87, spends a little bit of time in his library every day surrounded by these remnants of Western Canada’s history. It’s a zoo of memorabilia, and this is only 10 per cent of the odd and wonderful treasures that spilled from the basement of the Chungs’ nearby Belmont Avenue home, which they sold in 2005 in order to downsize. Chung and his wife, Madeline, donated the bulk of the collection – more than 25,000 items – to UBC Library in 1999. It was appraised at $5M and designated as cultural property by the National Archival Appraisal Board. In this room, however, are the more personal materials that Chung elected to keep at home. There is so much to see, and a story behind everything.

Remember that inkling you once had to collect coins or stamps? Hockey cards or McDonald’s Happy Meal toys? When was the last time you went abroad and purchased a memento made by locals, or a custom piece of pottery that would remind you of your adventure? For some, relishing in a small stash of collectibles is a passing fad. But for serious collectors like Chung the hobby can be thrilling and lifelong. In the posthumous foreword to the second edition of J. Paul Getty’s memoir The Joys of Collecting, Kenneth Lapatin notes that Getty was unable to “kick the habit of buying art” before his death in 1976. “For him, as for many others,” Lapatin writes, “collecting had become an addiction.”

The seed of Chung’s collecting interest was planted 81 years ago, in Victoria, BC. At the age of six, he fell in love with a ship.

So what makes a collector tick, and what sets a serious one apart from the dabblers? Collectors can amass whatever they like: teapots, rocks, cars, toys, spoons, piggybanks, dolls, firearms, photographs, watches, jewellery, comic books or virtually anything else that qualifies as an object. The common process is finding, acquiring, organizing and maintaining the stuff. But most collectors are not hoarders. They tend to be extremely knowledgeable and diligent about preserving the items in their collection, and Chung is a prime example. The desire to collate things is an ancient concept in and of itself. For as long as humans have created objects, we have been putting them into organized groups and creating meaning out of them.

Wallace Chung’s father’s tailor shop, located on Cormorant Street in Victoria, BC (X-5-6). (Photo courtesy of UBC Library Chung Collection)

The seed of Chung’s collecting interest was planted 81 years ago in Victoria, BC. At the age of six, he fell in love with a ship. Dreaming of the journey his mother took when she emigrated from southern China to Canada in 1919, the young boy wanted to experience her oceanic voyage, including the rollicking Pacific waters and what he imagined were magnificent nautical sunsets. He longed to run his hand across the ship’s finely carved railings, stand at the top deck and look out at infinite seas. Of course, as a Chinese resident without the full rights of a Canadian citizen at the time, he would never have been allowed to set foot in first-class quarters. Like his mother and other early immigrants from China, Chung would have made the 21-day trip from Hong Kong to Vancouver in steerage class, the bowels of the ship.

Empress of Asia (painting) ca. 1920 (CC -GR-0009).

But there she was, CPR’s great Empress of Asia, immortalized in an illustrated poster on the wall of his father’s Chinatown tailor shop. Every day he dreamed of her. Most parents would be concerned about their child falling in with the wrong crowd, or lacking motivation at school. Chung’s parents should have been warned about what would happen when their boy started a scrapbook. The early signs were there – he’d clip articles from newspapers as soon as they came in, sometimes before his parents even had a chance to read them. He’d visit the CPR ticket office in Victoria and beg for any kind of paper product they’d give him. If he had a quarter, he’d buy himself a postcard. He’d keep track of the Empress of Asia’s incoming cargo and list of esteemed passengers. While other kids were busy sorting out their social hierarchies, Chung was learning how to be a collector.

That little scrapbook of Chung’s grew into a worldwide quest. In the 1960s, after he’d graduated from medical school and obtained a stable income, the young doctor sought anything he could find on the CPR, particularly regarding its former Empress fleet of ships. He then learned that Chinese labourers built most of the railway through BC in the early 1880s, so he began to search for artifacts and ephemera on early Chinese settlement in Canada – adding that to his collecting focus. His third interest was in voyages by European explorers to the Northwest coast of North America. “I started collecting CPR things first and then the others followed,” says Chung. “All I had to do was add to each section.”

There are terms for those with specific interests. A person who collects postcards is a deltiologist. A person who accrues stamps is a philatelist. A wine lover is an oenophile. A coin collector is a numismatist. (Try saying that ten times quickly!) Chung’s collection is so vast he could claim several multi-syllabic titles. For more than 40 years, Chung spent his weekends scouring bookstores, antique shops, flea markets, auctions and garage sales for what became a massive array of print and physical materials, all of which were carefully documented as they were added to the collection. He worked with book and antiquarian dealers, museum staff, academics and friends around the globe to acquire diverse and eccentric items. Among his findings are photographs of the first Chinese workers in Canada, an antique mahjong set with playing pieces made of bone, opium pipes from a Chinatown basement, former anti-Chinese propaganda, CPR silverware and rare books about Captain James Cook’s eighteenth-century voyages. Together, the collection starts to show a picture of what life was like for early Chinese immigrants to Canada. Where a typical collector has the single-pointed focus of gathering multiples of a particular object, Chung’s love is for the knowledge he gains by accumulating fragments of history.

“What is important here – and why I gifted this collection to be used and handled in the public domain – is that we don’t forget the past,” says Chung, “otherwise we are likely to repeat our mistakes.”

But there comes a time, says Vancouver book dealer Stephen Lunsford, who has worked closely with Chung since the ’70s, for every collector to decide what to do with his or her possessions – usually when they can accumulate no more. Do you resell everything, or donate it to an institution? “I was happy to help Wally get his collection to UBC,” says Lunsford, who coordinated the appraisal process for the Chung Collection, “but on another level I would much rather have seen it go back into the marketplace, to inspire people to own collectible items.” Chung believes otherwise. “What is important here – and why I gifted this collection to be used and handled in the public domain – is that we don’t forget the past,” he says, “otherwise we are likely to repeat our mistakes.”

For a collection to take the leap from being personally significant to being worthy of display, it must contain a broader appeal. In this case, a cohesive set of items assembled around a clear theme tells a story. It adds to our collective knowledge about the early Chinese experience in Canada, including the sacrifices many immigrants made to build the railway, details that many people – both researchers and Canadians in general – are seeking.

Dr. Chung hard at work on the Empress of Asia model. (Courtesy of Chung Family private collection.)

Today, the Chung Collection occupies a permanent exhibition space in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre where visitors can see some of the highlights in person. In the middle of the exhibit is a 14-foot builder’s model of the Empress of Asia. Having found the model broken and neglected in Toronto, Chung spent six years restoring it using some of his surgical instruments. Although he never set foot on the real Empress of Asia before it sunk during World War II, the prototype constructed by the same shipbuilding company in 1913 has, appropriately, found a forever home at UBC.

So why spend a lifetime collecting? “In times of stress, you can retreat into your library,”
says Chung. “You close the door and then you’re in a different world.” He explains that he has encouraged his children and young interns to find hobbies that interest them – not only to keep stress at bay while working, but also to provide focus later in life. “So many of my friends fell apart when they retired,” he says. “They are very good surgeons, and they worked like heck, but I know three of them that died within a year after retiring. Others went into depression. But if they have an interest, they can pursue that. It’s one of the major benefits of collecting.”

After his UBC donation, which freed up quite a bit of space at home, Chung started collecting again, this time on a very selective basis. Now he focuses on elusive items – ones that seal the smallest fissures in his collection or continue to link him with parts of his heritage. “It’s a disease that’s incurable,” laughs Chung. He’s only half-joking. “It’s an activity that’s engrossed my entire life. Just because you give part of your collection away, you can’t cut it off. It’s in my blood.”

One such elusive item is a sheet of paper dated July 24, 1858, which he keeps under protective plastic. It’s the original bill of sale for 13 lots that formed Canada’s first (and now oldest) Chinatown in Victoria. The land was purchased by Chang Tsoo, a forward-thinking merchant who moved north to Victoria from San Francisco at the start of the Fraser River gold rush. Representatives of Hudson’s Bay Company signed the document, which predates Confederation. Victoria-based bookseller Bjarne Tokerud found this valuable fragment of history for Chung in 2009. Chung is positively giddy about the record, which represents the very beginnings of his boyhood home.

And isn’t it ironic. A confidential land deed that was once in the hands of Victoria’s powers-that-be long before the Chinese had rights to Canadian citizenship, is now safeguarded by a collector who never stopped being curious about his heritage. Chung’s parents would have been proud.

Larissa Buijs is the author of Golden Inheritance, a limited-edition book about the Chung Collection. The book will be available in February 2013 through the UBC Library system and a copy is also available for viewing at Rare Books and Special Collections, where the Chung Collection is on display.

Detail of the fully restored Empress of Asia model. (Photo: Martin Dee)



  1. What an amazing collection! Mr. Chung is one of those very focused “hoarders”. Good for him for donating the collection to the public realm.

    Great article!

  2. Michael A. Williams says:

    Thank goodness for generous folks like Wallace Chung. I hope to see some of his gift to UBC, especially the model of the Empress of Asia, the next time I am in Vancouver. While attending UBC I spent some summers working on tugs and will never forget the ships from all over the world that came in to Vancouver.

  3. HK says:

    Dr. Chung,
    My Mom attended the same school with you & your wife in China. I think she use to attend the same church. I’m doing research for a historical fiction that I’m writing.
    Best Regards,

  4. J E Hartley Turpin MD says:

    Hi Wally , glad you are still collecting. I remember you as one our best teachers. I too have collected a very few items from Captain A J Holland who retired as Superintendent of the CPR. I have the barograph from the first Empress of Japan, the Captain,s RNR Sword and a few photographs. Like to discuss what to do . I am well and practicing full time in Newport Beach. With best regards.

  5. John Edmond says:

    I am delighted to learn that Dr. Chung’s collection is to be the subject of a book. I only wish I had known sooner, as I could have told Ms. Buijs how my father, C.H. Edmond (1883-1970), came to acquire the artifacts of the first Empress of Japan that form a good part of the Chung collection. As the article notes, the ship was being broken up in North Vancouver. My father was horrified to see that only the steel was of value to the wreckers, and managed to secure the items later conveyed to Dr. Chung.
    These include, in addition to those mentioned in the article (and I am very pleased to see his name there), three large pieces of teak furniture. One is a “chart desk,” in which charts were stored, the hinged top of which holds three rounds windows (for want of a technical term) through which chronometers could be viewed. My father used to jokingly wonder how many officers’ “waistcoats” were worn out, because the front edge of the top was concave from wear caused by viewing the chronometers directly downward (three were needed; in case one stopped or slowed, two would still corroborate one another). The largest piece, originally an on-deck fire-hose locker, was turned into a chest of drawers by my father’s friend, a Scottish-trained master cabinet maker, Thomas Dunbar. A third item is a smaller chest, which I think was always as it is now.
    Mr. Dunbar also built a drop-leaf table from Empress teak, still in my possession, and I also have a small glass-front wall cabinet, said to be from the captain’s cabin. I hope someday to arrange to add these items to the Chung collection.
    I am extremely pleased that the result of my father’s initiative of over 80 years ago has found a permanent home owing to Dr. Chung’s life-long dedication to his passion.

  6. PY says:

    Dear Dr Chung

    Thank you so much for your hard work amassing this impressive collection and sharing it for all of us to see. As a second generation Canadian Chinese, I am very interested to see this collection and to learn more about the history of the Chinese in Canada. BR.

  7. […] about the Chung collection, which has peaked my interest in finding out more about the Asian history of my province, as well […]

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