In 1956, Susie Chew signed up to rent an apartment in a new building. She ordered furniture only to have the building’s manager reject the delivery.
She was told the new owners would not rent to her because of her race.
Miss Chew, a Canadian-born restaurateur of Chinese ancestry, kept the disheartening news of the discrimination to herself for several days.
At the time, she owned the Waffle House, a diner popular with reporters for radio station CKNW and The British Columbian newspaper in New Westminster, outside Vancouver. They urged her to go public. After she did so, the ensuing outcry, including front-page stories in the Vancouver dailies, forced the owners to remove their colour bar, allowing her to move in.
The controversy led to a feature profile in Weekend Magazine and a subsequent appearance on television’s Front Page Challenge.
Miss Chew, who has died at 94, appeared often in newspapers over the years, usually for happier reasons. She was described as “svelte,” “pretty,” “glamorous,” “indefatigable,” “very photogenic,” “a bundle of energy,” “a successful businesswoman,” and “one of our finest citizens.”
From humble beginnings as the daughter of immigrant market gardeners, she worked or volunteered as a store clerk, speechmaker, Cubmaster, art model, fashion model, travel agent, society columnist, paper-flower maker, boutique owner, cabaret hostess, photographer’s scout, radio show host, and beauty pageant contestant. She enjoyed a long career as a real estate agent in Toronto.
She also appeared on stage as a hula dancer and on screen as an extra in the holiday movie A Christmas Story.
She once quit a travel agency job on a Friday, only to be hired at the Royal Alexandra Theatre at 10 a.m. on Monday thanks to a friend’s tip. The actress Jane Russell, who was appearing in Pal Joey, needed an assistant to run errands and help with costume changes during the show’s run.
“Every time I settle down to a routine,” Miss Chew once said, “something crazy happens and my life erupts.”
Born in Victoria on Feb. 1, 1927, Souie (known as Susie or Susan) Chew was the eighth of 11 children born to Yee Sze Chee and Chew Dang, both immigrants from Canton, China. Her father, born in 1867, immigrated to Canada in 1902, while her mother arrived in 1914.
The children walked three kilometres each way to attend Prospect Lake Elementary School, with chores before and after classes on the family farm in rural Saanich.
“We looked after the chicks and ducks, fed the pigs, chopped and piled wood, and sneaked in a game or two of marbles because our non-stop working dad considered games a waste of time,” she once wrote.
She quit school after completing Grade 10. Like her older siblings, she was needed to work on the farm.
After suffering appendicitis, she left Vancouver Island and gruelling days in the fields to help an older sister operate the Handy Market corner store in New Westminster. As she was preparing to close one day, a masked man flashed a handgun before rifling through her purse, netting only two quarters and a dime. He then grabbed coins and small bills from the till. He even snatched a worthless souvenir Mexican peso taped to the wall. The store’s watchdog, a black Labrador retriever named Satan, slept through the robbery. The next day’s newspaper included a photograph of Miss Chew and her dog with the caption, “Satan just sat.”
Soon after, she opened a café in a former dry-goods store, outfitting the space with a second-hand counter and 10 stools, as well as a grill-top range. A friend built six wooden tables and she ordered 24 chrome chairs. She also bought a waffle iron.
“I’d never made a waffle in my life,” she told Weekend Magazine, “but an American friend told me that waffle shops were very popular in the States. So I ordered a big batch of commercial waffle mix and opened up shop.”
The tiny restaurant was busy, but she was displeased to note many of the waffles were only half-eaten. Working from scratch, she developed her own recipe, which proved so popular she was soon selling take-home wax-carton pints of homemade batter for 35 cents. (“No battling with batter and no messy cleaning up,” she promised in a newspaper advertisement. “Just cook and eat!”) She called them Jiffy-Wiffy Waffles.
The restaurant moved to a larger location, adding another set of waffle irons, an electric batter mixer and a deep fryer. The clientele included businessmen in suits and city work crews in soiled coveralls. Politicians dropped by to gossip with reporters.
Miss Chew and a girlfriend placed a deposit on one of 49 apartments in Bermuda House, a new four-storey building. The local builder was in the process of selling the block to American interests, who he said had rejected her tenancy after seeing her name on a list.
Humiliated by the discrimination and fearing the news would harm her business, she kept the ugly truth to herself for three days. The day after the story broke, the builder announced Miss Chew was welcome to occupy her unit, as he would no longer be selling the building. “Racial furore blocks $300,000 realty deal,” the Vancouver Province reported on the front page. “Chinese girl gets suite.” For taking a stand, she received a letter of commendation from the civil liberties club at the University of British Columbia.
Before then, Miss Chew was already a familiar figure in New Westminster, the former colonial capital. She had raised funds for victims of the Fraser River’s Great Flood of 1948.
She was also active in her Anglican church, Holy Trinity Cathedral, where she was pressed into service as a Cubmaster of a pack of boys. She appeared in full uniform on the cover of an issue of Weekend Magazine.
She designed her own clothes, and modelled traditional Chinese robes and dresses. An artist painted her on velvet wearing a red cheongsam, prints of which Miss Chew signed after a fashion show at the Eaton’s department store in Victoria.
For several years, she was society columnist for the Vancouver-based Chinatown News.
In the late 1960s, The Globe and Mail employed her as a model in exotic clothing to promote sales of the newspaper’s international edition. She also appeared in a print advertisement for Employment and Immigration Canada.
Working as a model at a travel display at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, Miss Chew decided to enliven the booth with hula dancing. She honed her skills by going hotel hopping for free lessons while staying in Waikiki.
“I would go to one hula class at 9 o’clock in the morning, rush to another at 10, a third at 11:30 and so on until I was exhausted,” she said.
As a hula dancer, she appeared on stage at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on a bill including steel guitarist Arnie Nelson, Jamaican calypso sensation Kenny Hamilton and the Rhythm Pals, a popular country music trio from New Westminster.
She also appeared at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in Vancouver as a Hawaiian dancer on a bill including B.J. Cook, the Victoria singer who would later marry David Foster.
In 1966, Miss Chew travelled Western Canada as a location scout for a photographer commissioned to shoot slides for display at the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67.
Once, while on a lunch break, a friend showed her how to make paper flowers. Soon, Miss Chew’s handiwork was being exhibited in art galleries in Ottawa and Toronto, as well as at the Royal Ontario Museum. She presented Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau a paper bouquet featuring the floral emblems of the provinces and territories on his birthday in 1968.
A year later, after opening a paper-flower boutique in midtown Toronto, she was commissioned to make 480 roses, poppies, sunflowers, and night cereus in flame-proof crepe to grace the ceiling of the Canadian pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
Her talent gained her appearances on such television programs as Juliette and Friends and Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date.
For a time, she hosted a program on radio station CHIN for which she played her library of Polynesian music.
As an extra, she appeared in an episode of King of Kensington, as well as in the movies Tribute and Silent Partner.
In A Christmas Story, Miss Chew appears wordlessly in a famous scene set in a Chinese restaurant in which she delivers to the table a roast duck on a platter. The subsequent savage decapitation of the “Chinese turkey” is the punchline. Miss Chew said she received a modest residual cheque every year for her brief role.
The many media appearances over the years were on occasion contrived. This might have been the case when she was skating on the outdoor ice rink at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on the final day of the 1980 federal election campaign when Pierre Trudeau showed up to stump. She was photographed with him on the ice.
Earlier, as the owner of a clothing boutique, she gained attention by taking a vociferous stand against the appearance of a mid-calf length skirt as a fall fashion look in 1970. She posed in a mini skirt, vowed never to stock the “matronly midi,” and held a protest fashion show to “strike a blow for feminine freedom” at Friar’s Tavern on Yonge Street. She sponsored a contest in which entrants were challenged to come up with a better anti-midi slogan than The Globe’s Richard J. Needham, who wrote “biddies wear midis.”
Asked four years ago by the journalist Cornelia Naylor about her remarkable career, Miss Chew said, “I guess I was born with a lot of confidence in myself.”
In retirement, she indulged a passion for painting, as well as for the tile game mah-jong.
Miss Chew, who had Parkinson’s disease, died in Vancouver on Sept. 26, two weeks after suffering head injuries in a fall. She leaves sisters Nancy Sing and Grace Yip. She was predeceased by five sisters, including Diane Jones, who died in June, and by three brothers, including John Chew, who died in 2012, the founder of Chew Excavating, a prominent builder in south Vancouver Island.
Miss Chew never married.
“She came close many, many times,” Ms. Yip, her sister, said.
In her lone appearance as a mystery guest on Front Page Challenge, the panellists were unsuccessful in identifying her. She figured she stumped them because she was so agreeable the esteemed journalists could not imagine she would have been subjected to prejudice.
It was “difficult to connect discrimination to my demeanour,” she wrote.
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