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William Tsui
William Tsui

Lives Lived: William Tsui, 95 Add to ...

Chemist, teacher, real estate agent, investor. Born on Feb. 19, 1918, in Hong Kong; died on Oct. 26, 2013, in Toronto, of old age, aged 95.

William Shau Piu Tsui was born in 1918, the Year of the Horse. He was the third of seven child born to Man Kit, who at 13 had emigrated from Guangdong to work as a labourer in the United States, “the golden mountain” to tens of thousands of impoverished Chinese in the twilight of the Ch’ing dynasty.

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Young William attended the Jesuit-run Wah Yan College in Hong Kong, graduated from Pui Ching Middle School in 1936, and enrolled in the chemistry department in Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. When war with Japan broke out, he transferred to Sun Yat-Sen University, which moved inland to Yuennan while the conflict raged.

In 1944, he married his university sweetheart, Hun Fan Song. After graduation he launched a chemical factory in northern Guangdong with two schoolmates, and by the early 1950s their products were being sold as far as Eastern Europe. Early on, however, the war intervened; in 1945, when Japanese warplanes attacked a compound where Fan had taken shelter, she had to run for her life carrying one-month-old Laura on her back, with William rushing from work to catch up.

His business success continued after the defeat of Japan, but only for a few years. After the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, William’s political antenna saved the lives of his family. By now the sole owner of the factory, he went to the local cadre, gave the plant to the Communist party, and was allowed to remain as its manager. If he had waited another six months, the factory would have been nationalized and he and Fan would have been sent to forced labour camps as exploiters of the workers, and likely would have died there.

William’s prescient move made it possible to eke out a living while tens of millions died from starvation, abuse and murder under Chairman Mao Zedong. It was extremely difficult to leave China, but William planned carefully to extricate his family. In 1958, with son Ken safe with grandparents in Macao, William, Fan and Laura escaped to Hong Kong. There, William forged a new career, teaching high-school science and mathematics.

In 1965, the family immigrated to Toronto. William began yet another new life as an insurance agent, but switched to real estate. After learning the business with Mann & Martel and getting his real estate licence, he and Fan opened an office in old Chinatown, behind City Hall, the first Chinese-owned real estate operation in the city. Sand Real Estate served Toronto’s Chinese community for more than 20 years.

Along the way, William also helped many friends from China move to Canada, and became honoured “uncle” to dozens of their children.

Like all Chinese of his generation, William lived through extraordinary turmoil, but his 47 years in Toronto were peaceful, marred only by the death of Fan in 2000. In his final years, he loved to read the local Chinese newspapers; a successful stock trader, he followed the markets closely, religiously charting trading activity of a few dozen carefully chosen energy stocks each week, and regularly issuing trading orders for Laura to execute on his behalf.

William was a man of immense determination, humanity, integrity, tolerance, good humour and wisdom. After 95 years of a remarkable life, he died after a short illness, early in the morning on Oct. 26.

James Hilborn is a friend of William and his family.

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