Almost every day at noon, Wu Xia Ru arrives by bus to open the headquarters and clubhouse of the Ing Suey Sun Tong Association at the corner of Hastings and Dunlevy. He is the association’s secretary, but he shakes off the title, performing all odd jobs that come up during the day.
Members trickle in to chat, read the newspaper, play mahjong or fix a cup of coffee.
A Chinese florist occupies the street level with barred windows. An outer wall seals off the clubhouse yard and main entrance. Barbed wire sits on top of a shorter wall. Just in case of the Downtown Eastside’s unpredictability.
Wu, 83, left Guangzhou, China 20 years ago and connected with the association because, very simply, everybody with the last name shared by the club knew about it. Association branches existed in many major cities. The Ing surname has been anglicized with variants like Ang, Eng, Ng, Ong and Wu. For a hundred years through discrimination and immigration, the association helped members of the Ing clan adjust to their new lives in Canada.
It wasn’t long before Wu noticed the safe.
It was made of iron, 18 by 18 by 23 inches, with the fading name of the association printed in English. It sat conspicuously in the corner of the main floor’s hallway.
“Every single person said there was nothing inside,” Wu told the Courier in Cantonese.
Wu asked if there was money in the safe but members scoffed at him. They told him old Chinese immigrants always kept their money in banks.
Wu kept asking and was given a new answer.
“They told me garbage was inside,” said Wu. “Useless stuff from old times. People they named who would know about it were all dead and presidents change very fast. I knew there had to be a key somewhere.”
The safe’s contents were a mystery lost in the turnover of members and positions. And it taunted Wu from its corner over the years. He did not think the contents were garbage simply because they were old. Wu is passionate about immigrant history and collects artifacts as a hobby. Some he finds in Chinatown. Other sources he keeps to himself.
“If I see it and can afford it, I always buy it,” said Wu. He is upset when old furniture from the clubhouse is thrown away.
In 2007, he told a Chinatown locksmith about the safe. The locksmith quoted a price of $240 and required the safe to be brought down to his shop. Wu declined.
Five years later, in June 2012, Wu unlocked the clubhouse at noon as usual. Members slowly appeared and Wu ranted about the safe.
Then a member spoke up: Wu Yue Zhong, 82, a retired farmer from Taishan, China. He came to Vancouver in 1989 and visits the clubhouse to indulge in mahjong.
Yue Zhong offered to open the safe. “Paying the locksmith over a hundred dollars?” he told the Courier in Cantonese. “Forget it.”
Wu telephoned the association’s president immediately. The president left the decision to Wu because many trusted him. His faithful volunteer service did not go unnoticed; Wu was often mistaken for the president himself.
With the approval, Yue Zhong went to work on the safe.
Read the full story in the Vancouver Courier here.