The year is 1957. The world’s eyes are pointing towards the stars as the Soviet Union makes a major technological breakthrough – launching Sputnik One, the first artificial satellite to enter space.
Sputnik’s batteries die 22 days after the Oct. 4 launch, remaining in orbit until January 1958. Meanwhile, Yukoners are paying attention to another feat of technology much closer to home – the territory’s first ever supermarket.
With the space race on the public’s mind, a Whitehorse Star article published just days before the Nov. 1, 1957 opening compares the store’s high-tech freezers, coolers and heating units to the Russian satellite. A senior team member installing the equipment called the store “one of the finest of its type”.
At the time, second-generation Chinese Canadian Bruce Sung was the owner of Tourist Services, the company running the supermarket. Just a few years earlier in 1954, the Vancouver-based entrepreneur bought the business and hired Jim Smith as manager. Smith later went on to become the Commissioner of the Yukon.
Bob Sung, son of the supermarket mogul, remembers when the store was operating at full swing. The Sung family stayed in Vancouver while Bruce trotted off to Whitehorse to tend to his business. That became a point of contention between Bob and his father.
“I was 12 or 13 and I was really ticked off that I never saw him,” said Bob. “So I came to family dinner one night and I showed my temper.
“He goes ‘what’s your problem?’ I said ‘you!’”
The confrontation made Bruce realize he should be spending more time with his family – so he took Bob on three trips to Whitehorse that year.
“Not bad for a Grade 10 drop out”
The supermarket wasn’t the only foray Bruce was involved in. He broke into the business world by catering to American troops heading off from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to fight in World War II. Later he started Columbia Caterers, supplying food and running the mess hall for United Keno Hill Mines in the now ghost town of Elsa, and for Canadian Tungsten Mines near Watson Lake.
He also ran Sung Pacific Holdings, establishing a supply chain of fresh vegetables from California to Vancouver – an endeavor that helped him out in the supermarket industry.
“He brought in fresh produce from our family wholesale in Vancouver, beef from Edmonton and dairy from Fort St. John,” said Bob.
“He also started a refrigerator trucking company to bring these things up to Whitehorse.”
“It was quite exciting, I’ve been told.”
Bob attributes some of his father’s success to the fact that Yukoners were accepting of him in a time when racism against Asian Canadians was rampant. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 banned Chinese people from moving to Canada. Though Bruce was born Canadian, he was considered a resident, not a citizen.
“Not bade for a Grade 10 dropout,” Bob said of his father. “He knew how to play the game in the white business world.”
New Display 20 years in the making
The story of Bruce Sung is now being told through a new display celebrating the Yukon’s ethnographic-cultural history. The project also dives into the backgrounds of Massa Sakata – a Japanese entrepreneur who found success in the Yukon; the Randhawas – a family of social justice activists from India who settled in Whitehorse; and the Agees – a black family who came over the Chilkoot Pass looking for gold.
The display made up of four panels full of information and photos was put together by the Hidden Histories Society Yukon – a group dedicated to telling the stories of people from backgrounds underrepresented in the Yukon’s history.
Peggy D’Orsay, lead researcher, said the project has been in the works for 20 years. She was employed at the Yukon Archives in the 1990s when she first learned about Sakata.
“It’s amazing to me that Massa came here when he was 17 or so and he stayed,” D’Orsay said. “He seemed to have a fairly successful life.”
D’Orsay found it difficult to find photos for the project, but in the end she uncovered some pictures that Bob had never seen of his father.
“That kind of blew my mind away a little,” Bob said. “I showed them to my siblings and we’re quite excited.”
Bob has been working with Hidden Histories for the past year to help tell his dad’s story. He caught a plane to Whitehorse from his home in Vancouver to be at the launch of the display on May 19.
Family members of those featured in the project got together at Helleby Hall to mingle, share memories and celebrate. The event also marked Asian Heritage Month, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month.
Commissioner of the Yukon Angelique Bernard and Ambassador Brent Hardt from the U.S. Consulate General in Vancouver were among the night’s guests. The Pipeline Vocal Project, an acapella group from Alaska, serenaded the crowd with their renditions of classic pop tunes and traditional Asian songs.
Now Bob is back at home carrying on his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, running a business leading walking tours of Chinatown.
“I’m incredibly proud,” said Bob. “The Yukon chose to honour my dad. It’s perfect.”
Some of the panels are set to go to the Whitehorse Public Library for display. Others will need a home, but D’Orsay hopes they will go to Yukon University.