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How one family's immigration story sparked a tradition of giving back

Inspired by her parents’ immigration to Canada almost 60 years ago, Shirley Tam and her husband Stan Tam are honouring her parents’ legacy by supporting UBC students interested in Asian Canadian migration studies.

L to R: Stan Tam, Ken Tow Yue, Mee Ying Yue and Shirley Tam

It was 1951 when Ken Tow Yue made the difficult decision to leave China and join his father in Canada, dreaming of building a better life for his family. He worked alongside his father in a laundromat and then a grocery store for over a decade, saving money until he could afford to bring his wife, Mee Ying, their two daughters and his mother to Canada in 1965. Ken had no way of knowing that his determination and sacrifices would lay the foundation for the Mee Ying Yue and Ken Tow Yue Award, a way of honouring the couple’s unwavering commitment to their family.

One of Shirley Tam’s earliest memories is of arriving in Canada at age seven. Born and raised in Hong Kong, this was the very first time she met her father—Ken Tow Yue. As she settled into her new life, Shirley was delighted by simple joys like playing in the grass, something she couldn’t do back in Hong Kong where walking on grass was often prohibited.

From a young age, Shirley understood how much her parents had sacrificed so she could live in Canada and how important it was to work hard. At age seven, her first job was washing floors and stamping prices on canned goods at her family’s grocery store .

“I always witnessed how hard my parents worked—they would work weekends and double shifts and never complained,” says Shirley. “They didn’t constantly remind my siblings and me about everything they’d done for us, but we could see for ourselves that they worked tirelessly to benefit us. We appreciated them because we could see that we had an easier life than our family members who were still in Hong Kong and China.”

Shirley went on to attend UBC (BA 1980) and worked as a French teacher for several years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Today, she and her husband Stan (BSc 1977) are happily retired. Shirley acknowledges that she wouldn’t be where she is today without her parents’ sacrifices, the benefits of which filtered down to her and Stan’s daughters who are also UBC graduates.

Now 95 years old, Ken has a lot to be proud of. The new Mee Ying Yue and Ken Tow Yue Award—established by Shirley and Stan—honours his and his wife’s tireless work to ensure their children could call Canada home and have opportunities they never had themselves. The award is for outstanding domestic undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts, with a preference for students with a minor in the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program or students who demonstrate an interest in the history of Chinese migration to Canada.
Shirley has developed a keen interest in learning about Asian migration. She believes that knowing the history of your ancestors is important and hopes her granddaughter will grow up understanding and appreciating the sacrifices her ancestors made.

“I live by the motto that you can be independent, but nobody gets to where they are alone—someone in your history made sacrifices so you could be where you are today,” says Shirley. “I’ve always kept that in mind, and I really think that’s the message this award embodies, while also validating my ancestors’ efforts to ensure I have a more secure life.”

Shirley wants this award to make a difference by showing students there are people out there rooting for them.

“Sometimes students lose confidence and feel like they can’t do something, when all they really need is a confidence boost by knowing someone believes in them,” she says. “I hope when students receive this award it helps them out a bit financially and also sends the message that their time and effort is worth it, and people want them to succeed.”