Name: Dr. Mary Sun
Position: Professor of History (1969-1986), Chair, Committee on Asian Studies (1974-75, 1978-80).
Dates associated with Saint Mary's: 1969-1986
Scope and Content: Major topics include: Dr. Sun's childhood and early education, curriculum of the History Department at Saint Mary's, development of the Asian Studies program, and her work with CIDA and the Canadian government in China and elsewhere.
Interview conducted by Hansel Cook, May 17, 2006
Transcription by Heather Zinn
Hansel: May 17th, 2006. This is Hansel Cook, Saint Mary's University Archivist, conducting an interview with Dr. Mary Sun. Dr. Sun, could you tell us a little bit about your background, where you were born, where you grew up, your earliest years?
Mary: I was born in Shanghai, and my father in fact worked for the Nationalist Government, and so he had a pretty good inkling that the Communists were rising, an imminent take-over of China. And so the Communist Revolution in China happened in October of 1949, and I think in December of that year we decided to leave. He took the whole family and we were about seven or eight people altogether, and we couldn't leave China legally because the Communists immediately sealed all the borders, so we were rolled out as refugees, and the number of people in our family was fit into four boats, so that in case a boat was sunk or caught not the whole family would be found. So, two or three people in each boat, hiding under the surface, underneath the boats, and we paid this old man enormous sums of money to row us over to Hong Kong. And so the family left with only the clothes on their back. And I remember my mother and my grandmother telling us they sewed some jewellery and some money into the hems of their dresses. They were not allowed to take anything just themselves and grabbing us children; we were all children, young. I'm one of three children.
And we took off for Hong Kong. And so really, I have no real memories of life in Shanghai, I grew up in Hong Kong. And in Hong Kong . . . a British Colony, so obviously schooling was done in English, but my father was very strict in maintaining the Chinese language at home. So I grew up really with two languages. And not only that, my father spoke Cantonese because he was from Canton, my mother spoke Shanghai because she was from Shanghai, so at home we had two different kinds of Chinese, and English at school. It was a whole gaggle of languages at home and it was really, really good, and I would tell people when you have children start them with foreign languages because it comes naturally, and it makes later learning a foreign language that much easier. And when I went to school they put us… Of course, in a colonial situation, the best schools were the missionary run schools, so in Hong Kong the best girls' schools were the Catholic schools run by the nuns. So I was sent to what was then called the French Convent School run by French nuns. And so on top of all the gaggle of languages, now you add a bit of French as well. And as a result everything has served me well the rest of my life, because all these languages all became important in all the different things that I did. So, Hong Kong, went through high school in Hong Kong, primary school, high school, went through University of Hong Kong, did my Bachelors degree, continued and got a Masters degree, and then as a result of very good work in Hong Kong, my professors recommended me to try for a British Commonwealth Scholarship. And with that I went to London, University of London and did my PhD in modern Chinese relations, Sino-British relations [Note: Full title of PhD is “British policy and the Chinese revolutionary movement, 1895-1912.”] So after I have my degree, I got my degree in 1965? [Note: University of London library catalogue states “1968.”] And there was an opening; one of the professors in London came from Dartmouth College in the US, which was an all-boys college at the time. So he asked me, “Why don't I go back with him?” He was finishing a year's sabbatical in London, why don't I go back with him to his department and learn to teach? Well, you know I'm fresh out of studies myself, never taught, never stood in front of a class, so he was really good to me, and I went with him to Dartmouth College and was a lowly paid teaching assistant, listening to his lectures, marking papers for him, but that was a really good introduction to what would become my profession. But it wasn't a job it was just, you know, something.
Then I got a job at University of Toronto, but it was again, not a permanent job it was a one year teaching assistant-type thing. And so at that time I decided if I really wanted to go into teaching, and I was serious, I loved it, I better look for a job with serious long-term prospects. And so at that point, somebody pointed me out to Halifax, to the fact that Saint Mary's University was recruiting in the History department, and why don't you go and see? So I came up here, phoned, got an appointment with the chairman of the Department, John MacCormack, and had an interview and we struck it off, and he was so kind to me and said, “Why don't you come? We need something outside of the normal European history, Canadian history, which was, I guess, at that point all that they had. So I said I would teach Chinese and Japanese history, and there I was recruited. And so I started 1968, and for me it was really very satisfying just to teach.
I love the interaction with the students, I love talking to people about something I know and in passing it to somebody else; selling China, selling Japan, selling all this exotic history was very fun but after a couple of years I sensed that the time was right, because by then I recognized that at Saint Mary's there were other people teaching a bit of Asia in Politics, teaching a bit of Asia in Sociology, a bit of Asia in Religious Studies. I thought it would be a good idea if we just pooled together and offer students a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of this region, which is already in the late ‘60s and ‘70s because of the Vietnam War, because of the American involvement, was becoming very important. We needed to know that part of the world. And it was Dr. Carrigan who was president, he was very supportive, Dr. MacCormack, the chairman of the Department, fully supportive. And so was born, first the idea and then the realization of the Asian Studies programme at Saint Mary's University, fully multi-disciplinary degree, majoring in Asian Studies. And I think we were one of the, absolutely the first in the Maritimes, and maybe one of two or three in the whole of Canada, such as UBC, McGill or U of Toronto, outside of that, nobody else had the multi-disciplinary approach. And from then on the programme grew and we got involved with all kinds of activities, exchanges, outreach activities, and I got involved with conferences, presenting papers. So, Saint Mary's became known in the Canadian academic community as a place where they're doing interesting Asian Studies teaching and research. And as a result of that I got to know some people in Ottawa, some people who were interested in what we were doing and out of the blue one day, at that point External Affairs had a programme for sending to the Canadian Embassy in China a sinologist from the universities of Canada to work two years in the Canadian Embassy in China as a resident scholar, to give support to all those diplomats who worked there may not know very much about the country they're sent to. And so, it was my turn. They phoned one day and said would you like to join the list of people that I knew very well and do two years of China. Maybe I hesitated 24 hours, but I said yes, yes, yes! So away I went.
And so 1979 I went to China, and for two years took care of all cultural and scientific exchanges between Canada and China, and it was extremely rewarding. For me, why I didn't hesitate too long, for me was going back to my country which I didn't know, and I jumped at the opportunity, what better way to know it than being stationed there for two years; the opportunity to travel, to meet people. I had a fantasy of, I'm going home to my country and of course it was a very different country than what I had in my mind. My parents talked to us about the China that was old China, Nationalist China; I arrived in the Communist system. So it was a massive learning experience, living in the Communist system, and even though I had the language and had the culture it was still different, it was still maybe even doubly difficult because the Chinese, at the beginning when they didn't know me very well, obviously thought me to be a Canadian spy. Why would Canada send a native Chinese back to China, who knew the language, who could go out in the streets and talk to people and get information that you don't get through official diplomatic channels? So it took me some hard work in the beginning to get myself recognized for the work that I was going to do for Canada: I am Canadian, I'm not spying for anybody and I have a specific job to do. And of course it took some doing, but I think in the end, the fact that I was Chinese helped the Embassy get through some rather difficult negotiations, got us through a number of hurdles, simply because there was a person eventually the Chinese could trust, because they discovered that in fact I was not spying at all, she understood our position better than any of the other Canadians they had to deal with. So the effect was very useful experience, for me certainly but I think also for our government. And because of that, one of the last things I did with the Embassy was to negotiate the first development systems contract between China and Canada. And this is where CIDA came in. CIDA became one of the major partners of China for development. And then when I finished my two years term it was natural for CIDA to ask me, why don't you stay on? Since you've got the treaty with China then we've got to implement it and do projects. And so I stayed on to see over projects. And through that, we got Saint Mary's the big CIDA grant to run the first Canada-China Aid programme, and that was the Canada-China Language Centre. The principle was very simple: Canada offered them a lot of scholarships, the Chinese, but they couldn't come over if they didn't have enough English or French. So we set up a language centre to offer English or French to all those who failed our tests, and we recruited Canadian teachers from all over Canada to teach there, and some Chinese had to stay briefly just to upgrade their language skills, others had a long time, 6 months, a year, before they could come to Canada. But you can imagine how well they would be motivated at the end of struggling through our grammar and our syntax and so on, and coming over to Canada. So it was again, highly satisfying work, extremely fulfilling, and the small group of Canadians who worked there, we all had so much fun with the Chinese students. We all lived in the same place, eat and played in the same place, it was really very nice.
Hansel: So, the language centre would be here at Saint Mary's?
Mary: No, in Beijing. Saint Mary's was given the project sum to manage it. So we were what they called the “lead institution.” And so, as I represented Saint Mary's for CIDA, in the name of Saint Mary's we signed the contracts when we recruited the teachers. The whole project was CIDA Canada China Language Centre managed by Saint Mary's University, so Saint Mary's name was way up there, and representing Canada.
Hansel: That's great.
Mary: And then after that I just continued to work for CIDA. I was sent on post to Thailand, then when my husband was posted to Vietnam, I went with him, and since CIDA had no programme in Vietnam at that time we did some small projects out of the Australian Embassy. And then eventually I was posted to Thailand, and then after all that, my last job was back to Foreign Affairs at the Canadian Embassy, Paris. And it was all extremely interesting, all these different countries. You don't really know a country as a tourist, you get a very superficial view, but when you are based there, live there among the people, work with them, you really get to know them. People would say, oh, my God, how difficult it must have been to change countries every three years, two years to change your country, change your job, but for me it was highly, highly stimulating because each time it's a new country, new culture, new people, new ways of doing things, and in the end, of course the first few months were a bit difficult, at the end of it you come back and say wow, now I have just another chapter stored away in my little computer brain. And then, in Paris I was perfectly happy, doing the usual things, Paris was less exciting because I was the economist at the Embassy, and so I was mostly not dealing with people but with paperwork, economic reports and that sort of thing. And again, as with External Affairs, one day a phone call comes, but this time from my nephew who lives in Hong Kong, who is a businessman and who was in the process of buying a number of French companies to expand and diversify his business. And he bought a high-fashion, very well-known shoe brand, which was slowly dying out, and his idea was to buy it at a very reasonable price and then re-launch the whole thing. So, of course it was a question of hiring people to do it, but he said, “I prefer to have somebody I can trust to oversee the whole operation.” And he said, “Why don't you do this for me?” Out of the blue, while I was still in the Embassy in Paris! So I said, “But I've never run a company before, I'm a diplomat.” And he says, “No, no, you run it like an embassy, just make sure it has a good hierarchy, people know who's who and where's where and it will work.” Again I said, “Well, give me some time to think about it.” Two days later I called him and said, “Okay let's go.” Because for me, a whole new world awaits, adventure awaits, why resist? So I wrote my resignation letter, as I did for Saint Mary's, I did this time for the Canadian government, resigned and threw myself into the business world in Paris. Everything done in French: legal documents, accounting documents, which was difficult, but it was fascinating.
Hansel: What year would that have been?
Mary: Well, I finished at the Embassy in '96 and I started this shoe business in '97. And so plunged into the surreal world of high-fashion retail; dealing with people who are highly creative, extremely, extremely intelligent, full of fantasy and visions but sometimes their feet don't touch the ground. And so I had to deal with designers, marketing people, public relations, shoe makers, manufacturers, negotiate price of raw materials, leather; all our products were made in Italy, so off to Italy several times a month to see factory people, choose colours, choose materials – totally different world, but I loved it, I loved it. Total change, and yet in the end it's not so different because you're dealing with people, it's a different set of people. And it's people. Everything you do is people. And there I was. And I had to leave that unfortunately two years ago when my husband became very sick. So now I'm really retired, but still keeping an eye on the shoe business, and I'm still on the Board of Directors, and I still go in and check the books and work with the accountants from time to time to make sure things are okay. And since my husband has not been well, things that he used to look after I now have to look after. So we own some land and farms, own some farms, tree farms that, you know, to cut and sell the wood, so now I'm running some of these family businesses; again, new to me because I never had to look after those things.
Hansel: Another new career.
Mary: Another new career, just starting, now continued to all this agriculture stuff and taxes. So, you see, I'm on to my fourth career now.
Hansel: That's amazing.
Mary: Isn't it something? Crazy. And each time I never sought it out. I never -- other than my first job, which I applied for -- none of these things I ever applied for, it just happened.
Hansel: You never decided you were going to enter the shoe business it was just something that happened.
Mary: I didn't know that I was going to be working for the Canadian government, they just phoned and asked me, “Would you want to?” and I said yes. I didn't apply for it, it just happened. So, you know the message I'm telling students when I speak to them on Friday, the fact is, when you see and opportunity, go for it! Don't hesitate, especially when you're young. I believe so much, my own life has been so rich, so fulfilled because I had, as silly as it may seem, I had this sense of adventure. If something comes along, go for it, try it! The worst can happen you'll regret and go for something else. And I think that's the message I want to tell these young graduates on Friday [Dr. Sun was awarded an Honorary degree, May 19, 2006]. For them, there's that many more opportunities: the world is so much more interesting, there's so many more job opportunities, there's so many, the new technology has opened up so many fields, they have a wide choice. The thing to remember is have confidence in yourself, know yourself, if you know that you are going to work hard at it, you will make it, there's no reason not to.
Hansel: That's excellent. Did you manage to keep in touch with any of the students that you might have taught at Saint Mary's through the years?
Mary: A few, not a whole lot of them, but yes, we've had students that have gone through the Asian Studies programme and have gone on to continue in this field. The big example now is a student who's the daughter of a professor here, and she is now in an important position for “The Economist” magazine in China. I have students who have gone on to business in Asia. I have students of course who have gone on to teaching. And then here on campus, Keith Hotchkiss was a student.
Hansel: Was he?
Mary: Bruce Smith was a student. Heather Harris was a student. And who else? Somebody came up to me today and said . . . who was it? (Unsure) secretary that we had for the China project, you know today I've been talking to all kinds of people that they've got to twenty years.
Hansel: And they're still here.
Mary: Yeah, they're still here and they're all into their careers, very satisfied.
Hansel: What about some of the projects you might have been involved in during the Asian Studies programme here, some of the research you might have done, or exchange programmes?. Where you involved in anything like that?
Mary: Yes, we organized a study tour of students to China. We organized a tour, which in those days was not easy to do, we had about twenty people and we visited all the major cities in China, which was nice. In those days, without financial support it was difficult to have exchanges of students, so that kicked in when CIDA gave us the project. But, on my own I corresponded with all my colleagues in the Asian Studies field all across Canada, and you know there is the Learned Society conferences and academic meetings and so on, I made sure I went, I made sure the message was always Saint Mary's has a programme and we're open for business. So I invited university professors from McGill to UBC to come, we sent some of our students for short terms abroad, not abroad but to other campuses in Canada; abroad was difficult. And I did a six series of TV programmes for CTV on China. And I did some cooking programmes for CBC. All that you know, the with the stamp of Saint Mary's. I don't know, I like this idea that if you're doing something and doing it well, it's worth your while to broadcast, to tell people you're doing it because the world is such that if you don't say it, nobody will care. People won't look for it; you've got to be your own marketing manager. And so all through those years I marketed Saint Mary's Asian Studies programme and put us on the map because through all these conferences, Learned Society meetings, and so on, people began to know that there is this thing going on at Saint Mary's. And we started to draw students, not large numbers of students, who would come to us from Ontario, from across the border from the U.S., from the Maritimes; of course, we're the only place that's doing this. And that was really, really satisfying, it was good.
Hansel: You've answered a lot of my questions. The time when you were at Saint Mary's was a time of a lot of change obviously: secularization, the Union became big in the 1970s, and I know you were involved in the Senate for a few years. Can you think of any big changes that might strike you that happened during that time period, or any of your memories of those changes?
Mary: Well, the big change was the arrival of girls! This was an all-male Jesuit college were team football was important. The arrival of girls, therefore the arrival of a lot more female faculty, the secularization of the University, of course, but we kept on good relations with a few Jesuit priests who stayed on. And academically the big change was really the opening in the History Department: we added African History, Latin-American History, Atlantic Canada History; before, they taught Canada, that's it. But you know we're right in Atlantic Canada, there's a rich history here which touches Europe and touches the United States; we're in the middle, right? So, all those things were started during the years I was here. We also, other than the Asian Studies programme, when we had the Chinese and all those other things, in the History programme itself, Russian History, which was very important. The University in between ‘70 and, for the decade '70 and '80, was really a major expansion period. Very exciting to be here, very exciting, at least for myself personally, to see new things happening, new people arriving and in the Faculty Lounge you get to talk about the Russian Revolution and the Crisis in Argentina, dictatorship in Argentina, things which you didn't talk about before because there was nobody to talk to about these things. And so it's the human dimension of all that expansion was just . . . particularly marked my time here. It was with some regret that I left because it was really a good time at this University. But then, other things beckoned and I had to leave.
Hansel: That's the way it is. That's pretty much all the questions I had. I don't know if there's anything you wanted to finish off with, or anything that we've missed. You've covered your history from the beginning to the end pretty well, (laughs) not the end, I'm sorry. The end is a long way away.
Mary: The end is what I saw today. I am really impressed. Physically the Campus looks good, things are clean and trimmed and orderly. In the old days (unclear) kind of a bit messy. Physically the new buildings, you know the new, what used to be the Chapel is very beautiful. What do you call it now, the theatre?
Hansel: Theatre auditorium.
Mary: Theatre auditorium. That is impressive. It's in line with many major big institutions anywhere else. And, but what is impressive today when I walk around, of course, is the range of international activities, the range of international students and faculty and programmes that's offered. I had a little dream in 1981, '82 to do a little Asian Studies programme and I can't even say that my dream was fulfilled, it is way beyond my wildest dreams, it grew and it's expanded! And so happy today to meet some of my old friends, but so good to see new young ones coming on to take over, because it will be their time, you know. My colleagues of my generation, slowly, slowly they're all retiring, and it was really good today to meet some of the younger ones who are just coming on.
Hansel: That's great. Thank you very much Dr. Sun.
Mary: Not at all.
Hansel: I appreciated it.