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Meet Vivian Jung. Her Work for Racial Justice Taught Us All

Vancouver’s first teacher of Chinese descent lit a path that continues to inspire kids.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 27 May 2024The Tyee

Fiona Tinwei Lam is completing her final year as Vancouver’s sixth poet laureate.

Every year during Asian Heritage Month in May, there are many wonderful events to celebrate pan-Asian histories and cultures across the country. Even though I’ve attended many local events and lived in Vancouver for over half a century, I didn’t know about the extraordinary Vivian Jung until five years ago.

Then last fall, Tecumseh Elementary School in East Vancouver invited me to participate in an exciting school project to commemorate Jung’s legacy of breaking barriers not only as the first Chinese Canadian teacher hired by the Vancouver School Board in 1950, but also as a key figure in ending racial segregation at a local public pool.

Many of us are familiar with the U.S. civil rights movement and Jim Crow laws in the American South. But fewer people know about the informal and formal policies and practices of racial segregation that were common in B.C. before and after the Second World War at public pools, movie theatres, restaurants, hospitals, work sites and more, including attempts to racially segregate schools. Jung was one of many community members whose actions eventually led to social change.

Born in Merritt, B.C., Jung had to face numerous hurdles to fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher. In an interview with educator Bill Barazzuol in 2012, Jung mentioned how her father came to Canada at the age of 16 to work on the railroad.

“My father said he was lucky to survive because the cousins he came with all died working on the railway,” Jung told Barazzuol. “The severe winters and the poor food and poor housing were terrible.” Her father wasn’t able to return to China after the completion of the railway in 1885, but managed to marry and start a business and family in Merritt.

Although Jung, her two sisters and four brothers were encouraged to get a good education, prejudice was rife and opportunities were limited. She described how a school principal in Merritt told her father that he shouldn’t bother sending his daughters to Vancouver for further education as “they would not be accepted into teachers’ school and would not get a job.”

Jung would go on to prove that principal wrong.

Despite barriers, a triumphant life

After coming to Vancouver, Jung attended Strathcona Elementary School, then King Edward and King George high schools. Encouraged by her sister Velma, she obtained her teaching diploma from Vancouver Normal School in 1945.

She then met and married her Victoria-born husband Arthur Jung, who fought for Canada during the Second World War alongside his two brothers.

Despite Arthur’s status as a war veteran who had flown planes with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Britain, the couple still faced discrimination in finding housing. And Vivian was unable to get a Vancouver teaching job until 1950, when she was hired to work at Tecumseh Elementary School. She continued working there as a beloved teacher and coach until 1986, choreographing dance routines for school events, organizing basketball clinics, and coaching softball and volleyball teams.

Until her death in 2014 at the age of 89, Vivian remained very active in the community, teaching tai chi and volunteering for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, among other organizations.

An archival newspaper clipping features a black and white photo of a young Chinese Canadian man standing in front of a building with a sign that reads 'Vancouver Crystal Pool.'
A clipping from the April 10, 1943, edition of the Vancouver News-Herald describes the rule for Vancouver’s Crystal Pool that restricted racialized people’s use of the public pool to a two-hour window on Tuesday mornings. Photo by Fiona Tinwei Lam.

Changing the colour ban

Alongside her accomplishments as a teacher and coach of award-winning sports teams, Jung was involved in a pivotal incident in the summer of 1945 at a local public pool which had a racist “colour ban” in place that prohibited non-white people from accessing the pool.

Interviewed for the 2013 documentary Operation Oblivion, Jung described how pool staff denied her admission to Crystal Pool for a lifesaving course that she needed to take to qualify as a teacher.

The incident occurred at either the Crystal Garden Pool in Victoria, owned at the time by the Canadian Pacific Railway, or Vancouver’s former Crystal Pool, which was run by the Vancouver Park Board at Sunset Beach.

That day at the pool, Jung’s instructor and classmates stood with their friend, and refused to enter the pool without her.

Other acts of protest followed. Later that fall, King Edward High School’s swimming club led a student boycott in Vancouver. According to park board minutes, the Association of Secondary School Principals and the Vancouver School Principals’ Association sent letters to the board “condemning the policy of the board regarding the segregation of coloured races at the Crystal Pool.”

In Victoria, the Community Welfare Council of Greater Victoria wrote a letter to Victoria city council indicating that “Chinese, Negro and East Indian children... are not being allowed to make use of the swimming pool at the Crystal Garden.”

A letter from the Institute for Inter-Racial Friendship of Victoria stated that “members of the East Indian race have been refused permission to swim in the Crystal Garden Pool.” Both organizations asked Victoria city council to take steps to ensure the public facilities would be made available to all residents, regardless of race.

The discriminatory barrier prohibiting non-white people from accessing the pool was eventually dropped in both Vancouver and Victoria.

On Nov. 6, 1945, the Vancouver Park Board, which oversaw Vancouver’s Crystal Pool, passed a motion that “the Crystal Pool be opened to the public regardless of colour, race or creed.”

Then in May 1946, Victoria city council passed a motion to inform the Crystal Garden Pool that “it is a public institution and as such cannot ban any resident or visitor to the city from swimming there because of race or colour.”

Inspiring the next generation

The Anti-Racism Committee at Tecumseh Elementary School has co-ordinated a multi-faceted project to commemorate and celebrate Jung’s role as a beacon of equality and inclusion. There will be an annual Vivian Jung prize awarded to a deserving student who embodies Jung’s spirit of resilience, courage and advocacy, as well as a school mural project that will be led by artists Janet Wang and Stella Zheng.

A black and white photo depicts Vivian Jung standing behind a group of elementary-school-aged girls in softball uniforms. Jung stands at the back of the group. She is wearing glasses and has her hair tied back.
Vivian Jung coached a youth softball team that won the city championships in 1953. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kent.

To fundraise for the mural and share Vivian Jung’s remarkable story, the school has produced a beautiful book of student poetry and artwork, Splash! Odes to Vivian Jung. The book features vibrant collages made by Tecumseh students under the guidance of artist-in-residence Julie McIntyre, alongside terrific poems by teacher Tom Larson’s Grade 5/6 class. Those were generated from a poetry workshop that I was asked to lead at the school last fall.

During the workshop, the students brainstormed images, metaphors and similes, and looked at the poem “Rosa” by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. They also read “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, an acclaimed poet, activist and leader of the Harlem Renaissance. I worked on the poems with the students through two intensive rounds of revision.

You can find a sample of three of the students’ poems in Ricepaper magazine. Also included in the book is a collaborative cento poem republished below, which weaves together lines from all of the student poems.


At the segregated Crystal Pool,
crystal clear waters,
crystal clear rules.
Shimmering, shining pool of dreams
for those of the right race:
the Park Board permitting
only two hours a week
for Asians and Blacks to swim.

It started small:
like a bright star shining,
Vivian waited in line,
ready to learn,
needing a life-saving certificate
to become a P.E. teacher.
Pool staff tried to turn her away.
“You can’t enter here!”
But she knew she was right.
Born in Merritt, BC,
she too had sung Oh Canada
all her life.

Her coach and fellow students refused
to enter the pool without her.
Those friends, those allies
fighting for the rights
of all Asians and Blacks,
united in courage,
the courage to say
“We are equal.”
They didn’t back down.
Doors that were closed
were then flung wide open!

Diving board springing,
unfiltered laughter.
Vivian jumped off the diving board
into refreshing freedom,
into equality so clear and clean.
The pool gleaming, sparkling, glittering,
now accessible to everyone.

Imagine the pride she felt —
Exclusion from pools no more!
When she broke the colour ban,
she broke down rigid minds,
made a whole city know she was right,
and swam into teaching for 35 glorious years.

What a wonderful teacher she would become!
An inspiration:
First Chinese Canadian teacher
hired by the Vancouver School Board,
coaching girls volleyball teams
to City Championships,
sharing her love of softball, dance and phys ed
at Tecumseh Elementary for decades.

How can we solve inequality?
Thank you, Vivian and allies,
for showing us the way!

Copyright Tecumseh Elementary School Division 6 and Fiona Tinwei Lam, 2024.

All proceeds from the sale of Splash! Odes to Vivian Jung will go toward the Vivian Jung mural, and the book can be ordered online until May 31.

You can also find out more about the Vivian Jung Project online through the Vancouver School Board or on a Facebook page that the committee has created to reach out to Jung’s former students, colleagues and alumni of the school.

It was a privilege and pleasure to play a part in this marvellous collaborative project with Tecumseh students, staff and community to shine a light on a leader who has long deserved recognition.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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