Spotlight on Faculty- Henry Yu

Redefining Migrant Stories – Henry Yu’s Journey as History Professor



Dr. Henry Yu was born in Vancouver, but comes from a family of migrants—his parents, grandfather, and great grandfather migrated to Canada from China at different periods in history. As a child in school, Canadian history never resonated with him, the textbooks didn’t tell the stories of how Chinese migrants contributed to the fabric of Canada, or even how they struggled.  Later on in life, it would be this “exclusion” of these stories from history that would become his mission to address in the context of Chinese migrants in Canada. 

Dr. Yu completed his Bachelors Degree in History at UBC, followed by a PhD at Princeton, and then eventually taught Asian American History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for twelve years. Despite having a great position at UCLA and a daily dose of sunshine, Dr. Yu felt the pull to return to his hometown to help build programs in Vancouver and UBC. He set an intention to educate the public about the true histories of Asian migrants, and acknowledge the harsh politics of white supremacy and discrimination they were faced with when moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, or Canada. “My goal was to set up a series of projects at UBC and Vancouver and get students involved,” says Dr. Yu. “We can’t rely on textbooks. We need to talk to people and get their stories and backgrounds, and we need to acknowledge that their stories might not always be the same as the histories they have read.”

Today Dr. Yu teaches in the History Department and the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program at UBC, and is the Principal at UBC’s St. John’s College. He is the Director of the UBC Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies (INSTRCC) which empowers students to conduct community-based research by engaging with Chinese Canadians and other Asian Canadian communities in Vancouver.  As a form of public history research, students collect oral histories and family stories by conducting interviews with community members, and create digital media projects using video and other widely accessible means to distribute and share what they have done. The goal of this program is to share the voices of Asian Canadian families and communities and pass this knowledge down to future generations of Canadians. Asian families and communities were often misrepresented or even left out of Canadian and British Columbian history due to racism and discrimination. These exclusions of the past must be corrected in order to create a common history for all Canadians to share moving forward.

Dr. Yu recently published a book through the  UBC Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies called “Journeys of Hope: Challenging Discrimination and Building on Vancouver Chinatown’s Legacies.” This book was released in conjunction with the City of Vancouver’s official apology on April 22, 2018 for historical racism and discriminatory legislation against Chinese residents. The book documents the findings of the City of Vancouver’s own historical research on the municipal government’s extensive use of its powers to enforce anti-Chinese discrimination. For example, the City of Vancouver did not allow companies that signed contracts with the City to employ Chinese people, using the government’s legal and financial power to enforce segregation in employment, housing, and business. The book displays a Vancouver City contract with Roger’s Sugar (BC Sugar Refining Co Ltd) in 1890 showing the legal clause that forbid the company from hiring Chinese labour. Dr. Yu and the co-editors (including City of Vancouver planner Baldwin Wong, who oversaw the apology process) also present the part of the story that is often omitted from history.  Chinese Canadians transformed society— from their businesses, to their farms, to their restaurants, to their labour in helping build British Columbia.

Dr. Yu has been highly involved in Chinese Canadian history initiatives around British Columbia and Canada. Recently Dr. Yu’s research team was chosen as the consultant for the province to help implement a plan to build a Chinese Canadian Museum with hubs located in Chinatowns, such as the one in Vancouver, and with spokes to locations of historical significance all around BC. This comes after the Province of British Columbia and the City of Vancouver signed a Memorandum of Understanding in September 2018 committed to working in partnership to pursue designation of Vancouver’s Chinatown as a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site. Dr. Yu hopes this project will help create a historical heritage ecosystem which echoes the networks that Chinese Canadian migrants themselves created that linked disparate locations around the province— a rich set of connections to help spread the stories, struggles, and contributions of Chinese Canadians in BC history. 


Photo Caption:

Dr. Yu helps unveil the book "Celebration: Chinese Canadian Legacies in British Columbia" that tells the story of Chinese Canadians in British Columbia. Dr. Yu served as the Co-Chair of the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council that oversaw the creation of the book, in addition to a number of other legacy projects after the Province of British Columbia's formal apology for its history of anti-Chinese legislation."  Learn more:


Further Reading:

Henry Yu Bio:

Chinese Canadian Stories:

Info on the BC government and the City of Vancouver working towards making Vancouver’s Chinatown a UNESCO world heritage site: