Financing Dreams

“Make a wish!”

In the first half of the 1900s, Chinese labourers who’d come to Canada found it impossible to obtain a bank loan. A bank manager, fearing that a Chinese sojourner might pull up stakes and return to China before repaying a loan, considered him to be too great a risk. In any event, few had assets to offer as collateral.

However, like most immigrant communities, the Chinese in Ottawa helped each other out. Every clan and fraternal organization operated a co-operative system of savings and revolving credit. A variety of formal and informal social organizations, including the local branch of the Chinese Benevolent Association and a group that joined together at the Chinese Mission, also ran such banking schemes.

Meeting of the Chinese Mission and Christian Association, 314 Lisgar Street (interior), 1962. (Courtesy of William Joe)

The Chinese in Ottawa called such schemes sam yick wooi, or “three-benefit club”, in that the cooperative worked to the benefit of the saver, the borrower, and the administrator. Members made regular deposits into the savings pool and held a corresponding number of “units.” They could also borrow from the pool of funds.

Prospective members needed an existing member to vouch for them and to make good if they defaulted on a loan. The pool of savings grew with interest, paid by the highest bidder among members with collateral (usually established business and/or property owners). Borrowers received loans net of that same rate of interest, and had to make regular repayments.

Linda Yee with her grandfather, Harry Yee, Ottawa, circa. late 1960s. (Courtesy of Linda Lim)

Linda (née Yee) Lim (the daughter of Henry Yee) recalled that in the 1960s, as a young girl, she would accompany her great grandfather, Harry Yee, on his Sunday walk. Their route included a stop at the Chinese Mission, where men were already waiting in line to make a deposit, borrow from or repay a loan to the sam yick wooi. “Once my great grandfather had done his banking business, we would go out for a treat,” said Linda.

These sam yick wooi allowed men to borrow sums large and small for varied uses, from financing a visit to China to sending a remittance home, paying the rent or settling a gambling debt. More enterprising co-op members combined their units to fund partnerships to buy a café, property or land.

Typical A-frame houses in Ottawa, where the family business was on the ground floor, and the family lived in an apartment behind and/or above.

Gordon (Tsan) Wong: “They wanted to sell”

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Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong

 

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