A Chinese elder’s commitment to the DTES community

By Mercedes Eng with translation support from Deanna Wong

Chinese women seniors carry the DTES Womens' Centre banner
Chinese women seniors carry the DTES Womens’ Centre banner

I recently met with Sheung Leung, a Chinese elder better know as Popo Su, and Deanna Wong, the Chinese Seniors Outreach coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. I wanted to talk with her because of her long-time commitment to the DTES community. Many of the Chinese elders who use and volunteer at the centre do not speak English. Deanna, who has worked at DEWC for the last three years, speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and a bit of Toisanese, the three Chinese languages most commonly used by the women at the centre.

Chinese seniors had difficulty accessing services at DEWC before communication and programming was available in Chinese, and there was a lot of tension between Chinese women and the other women. They were called names and bullied. Though Deanna was hired to make relations easier, it took about six months before they trusted her enough to speak about the discrimination they face.

Popo Su has been recognized for her long history of volunteer work with several awards. Su volunteers at the DTES Women’s Centre, and carries banners at marches. Bus drivers in the area recognize her because she stops to help folks get off the bus. Su has also lends the skills she learned as a performer of Chinese opera, to assist with hair and makeup in local productions.

“Poh poh” is what grandchildren call their maternal grandmother, while a paternal grandmother has another title. Identifying Su and other Chinese elders with a matrilineal family line emphasizes the importance of women, especially women elders, in volunteering and organizing in the DTES.

When Su wasn’t working at the fishing cannery or working as cook and cleaner, she had been volunteering since coming to Vancouver from Hong Kong. She started at the YWCA in 1969 where she would cook and clean with her infant son strapped to her back. Sue says, “they wanted me to teach, but I’m a volunteer.” She began coming to the Women’s Centre in 1996 for beading workshops on the weekends and at the age of 85, continues to volunteer there several times a week. Su has worked with the Power Of Women group since it began in 2006.

Su spoke to me this past week about her life and commitment to the community.

Why is contributing to community so important?

If I can help people it’s good. If I’m home by myself, it’s isolating, so I don’t care how people criticize me as long as I do my part. That’s what matters. I donate any money I receive for volunteer work to the Children’s Hospital. I have my own home and food. I don’t need the extras I get. If it’s more or less, it doesn’t matter.

What is the most pressing issue for low-income community?

Housing. We need safe housing low-income people can afford.

Are there other issues?

Lots of people complain about drug use on the street. It’s not that dealers or users are bad but there are health issues with second hand smoke. And not having places where low-income people can be employed. Lots of low-income people volunteer when they should be paid for the work they do.

What are issues for low-income Chinese seniors?

Being isolated from or neglected by their families. For working class migrant families, the grandparents are the primary caregivers as the parents are sometimes working two to four jobs. But once the grandchildren are old enough, the seniors aren’t seen as useful and their families kick them out. They figure their parents can get into social housing and they’ve got their Old Age Security. This leaves their room available to rent out for extra income.

How do you deal with discrimination?

I’m not one to give advice. I’ve tried to solve these issues even amongst groups of Chinese seniors. I keep my opinions to myself and do what I can. Prosperity and happiness are meant to be shared, not kept to yourself.


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