Yukoners have no shortage of fond stories about Dr. Jim Zheng, who spent more than two decades practising traditional Chinese medicine in the territory.
But the thing friends tend to bring up first when remembering the 57-year-old Whitehorse resident, who passed away suddenly on Aug. 19 from a stroke, is his culinary prowess, and his desire to spoil his guests with those skills.
“He had a gift,” said Richard Li, vice-president of the Chinese Canadian Association of Yukon.
“His eggplant was the best in the world. I wouldn’t even have it in China because his was so good.
“I tried making it myself at home but I never got close – I think he must have kept a secret from me.”
Zheng used his lifelong passion for cooking to entertain friends at his home, and was always willing to share a new recipe or discovery he’d made while tinkering with a dish.
Li, who arrived in Whitehorse 10 years ago, met Zheng through the association.
Both from Beijing, they quickly became friends, he said. Their families spent most Christmases and Thanksgivings together.
Zheng assembled an entire “grocery store” in his garage made up of various ingredients he’d brought up from down south, Li said.
Li also credits Zheng with the association’s success over the past few years, as it was Zheng who initially registered the organization.
Sharon McConnell also fondly remembers watching Zheng cook up a storm in her Golden Horn home. She befriended him and his wife, Xiu-Mei, the year they arrived in Whitehorse.
It was 1991 and the late Dr. Don Branigan had met the couple in China. He extended an invitation to them to move to Whitehorse and work at his clinic.
The couple needed little convincing to move, as the country was going through a tumultuous time shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In a 2009 interview with the Whitehorse Star, Zheng spoke at length about dodging bullets, rushing to a nearby hospital and treating injured people on June 4, 1989. He said the crackdown by the Chinese government was a major impetus behind the couple’s move to Canada.
McConnell said the couple enjoyed visiting her home, as they were living in a small, windowless apartment in the basement of Branigan’s clinic at the time.
“One of the first English words Jim learned and remembered well was ‘windows’,” McConnell said with a laugh.
Zheng would often cook a traditional Chinese meal called bing, a popular street-food dish made of fresh vegetables wrapped in a pastry and deep-fried.
McConnell had a little preserve company going at the time, and made a red and green sweet pepper jelly that went really well with Zheng’s dish.
“At one point he told that the next time he’d go to Beijing he’d bring the jelly, market it, and I’d never have to work a day in my life again,” she said.
“He had a wonderful sense of humour. My prayer for him right now is that wherever he is, that they’re in need of a Chinese restaurant, and that God enjoys his bing.”
Zheng worked at the East West Health Centre for more than two decades, a clinic he founded with his wife in the early 1990s.
As a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, he often visited First Nation communities outside Whitehorse, including Teslin, Old Crow and Inuvik, N.W.T. His philosophies on herbal remedies and natural healing intertwined with theirs, said his oldest son David.
At their Copper Ridge home, the walls decked with Chinese decorations, Zheng observed many traditions.
He burned incense everyday at a small shrine for his parents, and left fruit offerings to them on a regular basis.
He even had a round door built for the house, the shape of which represents a full moon and happiness.
“He introduced us to all the things he was passionate about, including Star Wars and martial arts,” David said.
“He was really genuine. Even as children, he’d speak to us as if we were on the same level.
“He was ready to call this place home for the rest of his life.”
Zheng also practiced Falun Gong, a discipline that combines meditation and exercises with a philosophy centered on truthfulness and compassion.
Life in Whitehorse for the Zhengs wasn’t without its fair share of challenges.
It was only four years ago that Xiu-Mei became fully licensed to work as a doctor in the territory.
Up until that time, she’d had her Yukon license revoked and had to find work in the Northwest Territories.
Greg Anderson, pastor at the Riverdale Baptist Church, said Zheng was a “tremendous support” for his wife while she was fighting to work in the Yukon.
“She couldn’t have done it in terms of all the hours of study and practice if Jim hadn’t been there to hold down the fort at home,” he said.
Anderson was among the first to meet the couple when they arrived in Whitehorse.
The church lent its support to the couple after they struggled to obtain their refugee status.
“They were in this makeshift basement apartment with a really low ceiling, it had clotheslines crisscrossing and it had diapers on them because David had just been born,” he said.
David said he’s not surprised by the outpouring of love for his father.
“When your job is to heal people, you really touch them in a different, special way.”
A celebration of life will be held on Aug. 30 at the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Cultural Centre, from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting a donation to the Jim Zheng Cultural Fund, managed by the Chinese Canadian Association of Yukon.
Donations are welcome at the ceremony or by e-transferring to:
Contact Myles Dolphin at