In Memoriam: Chi Shum Watt (1938–2023)

Chi Shum Watt (1938–2023)

The Department of Asian Studies mourns the recent passing of Chi Shum Watt 屈志森, a long-time friend of the Department and a supporter of educational opportunities who made a transformational impact on the study of Asia at the University of British Columbia and beyond.

Chi Shum’s devotion and his generosity to higher learning causes has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, including many in the Department who were privileged to know him personally during his decades of involvement with UBC.

“It was more than three and a half decades ago that Chi Shum Watt began his generous support for students and faculty at UBC, beginning with the Dr. Chi-Kit Wat Scholarship in memory of his sister, a graduate of and later a research scientist at UBC,” writes Asian Studies Department Head Professor Sharalyn Orbaugh.

Chi Shum went on to establish with his brother, Alex Watt, the Yip So Man Wat Memorial Lecture in Chinese Studies, in honour of their mother. Inaugurated in 2005, the series has brought to campus such distinguished scholars and cultural figures as Dr. Rey Chow, Dr. Dorothy Ko, Dr. Leung Ping-kwan, Dr. Wai-yee Li, Dr. Lung Ying-tai, Dr. David Der-wei Wang, and Yu Hua.

Dr. Orbaugh recalls: “Chi Shum mentioned that his mother’s love of Chinese culture led her to audit UBC courses on Chinese literature even into her seventies. The Wat Lecture continues to build on the legacy of her devotion to education.”

Chi Shum Watt (second left) at the 2021/22 Yip So Man Wat Memorial Lecture by Dr. Ban Wang, with Head of Asian Studies Dr. Sharalyn Orbaugh and Dr. Renren Yang

Chi Shum honoured his mother’s memory again with the establishment of the Yip So Man Wat Cantonese Studies Endowment, which provided crucial support for the creation and maintenance of the Cantonese Language Program. Dean of Arts Gage Averill announced that major gift at the 2013 Wat Lecture featuring speaker Dr. Pai Hsien-yung.

The establishment of UBC’s Cantonese Language Program attracted global media attention in multiple languages. Since 2015, nearly 3,000 UBC students have enrolled in Cantonese language courses.

“Students of Cantonese at UBC and the Cantonese communities around the world have much to thank for the donations and support from Chi Shum and his family. We have witnessed growing interest in global Cantonese language learning and the promotion of its culture and heritage since the inception of our language program. And Chi Shum would once in a while cheer on and offer encouragement to our work either by email or in person. My life has been deeply touched by his kindness and generosity,” says Cantonese Language Program Acting Director Raymond Pai.

“Chi Shum’s philanthropy was above and beyond monetary support,” says Dr. Zoe Lam, Lecturer in Cantonese Language and Culture. “He always showed genuine interest in all co-curricular activities that we organized. I vividly remember how he was vibing with the young people around him with a big smile during the inaugural Cantonese Singing Contest in 2018. He also supported the Cantonese Stand-Up Comedy Night in 2019 by attending in person. Despite being a VIP who made the events possible, he always preferred to maintain a low profile while being in the audience. His selflessness had amply illustrated the true meaning of ‘philanthropy’, a word derived from the Greek words ‘philos’ (loving) and ‘anthropos’ (humankind).”

Chi Shum Watt (second right) and brother Alex Watt (third left) attending the 2013 Yip So Man Wat Memorial Lecture by world-renowned scholar and writer Pai Hsien-yung, with Head of Asian Studies Dr. Ross King, Dean of Arts Dr. Gage Averill, and Dr. Leo K. Shin

Chi Shum was also a tireless supporter of the UBC Hong Kong Studies Initiative (HKSI), the impact of which has been felt throughout the field of Hong Kong studies globally.

“In what would turn out to be my last email exchange with Chi Shum back in March, we reflected on the impacts of the work of the UBC Cantonese Language Program and of the Hong Kong Studies Initiative, both of which, since their inception, he had clearly cared deeply about,” remembers Prof. Leo K. Shin, Founding Convenor of HKSI. “Ever the gracious and modest gentleman, Chi Shum nevertheless allowed himself, just for a brief moment, to speak of having left ‘a small, but not less important, legacy to future generations.’ And then he asked, by way of bringing our conversation to a conclusion: ‘Is that not what life is all about?’”

Thanks to the increased interest in Hong Kong–related subjects, the University established the first-ever professorship in Hong Kong Studies in 2021. Assistant Professor Dr. Helena Wu, the inaugural holder of the Canada Research Chair in Hong Kong Studies and the Convenor of HKSI, says, “It has been my great honor to have met Chi Shum. I treasure our conversations over the state and the future of Hong Kong studies. I am indebted to him for his unconditional support for advancing the study of Hong Kong in Canada and for his continuous trust in the development of a series of field-shaping programs and projects at UBC. I will always remember Chi Shum for his wisdom, generosity, and humanity, for that countless students, academics, and community members in Canada, Hong Kong, and beyond have benefited from the benevolence of Chi Shum and his family. His profound legacy will go on to inspire the pursuit of knowledge, inclusiveness, and kindness.”

Chi Shum Watt (second row, right) at performance by Hong Kong comedian Vivek Mahbubani

Chi Shum was also instrumental in the creation of scholarships for students, including the Dr. Chi-Kit Wat Scholarship and the Yip So Man Wat Graduate Scholarship in Arts.

“My graduate studies in music theory at UBC began in 2021, when I moved to Vancouver from my hometown of Hong Kong. My research is motivated by my enthusiasm in and familiarity with Cantonese music. Thanks to the Dr. Chi-Kit Wat Scholarship, I am even more committed to becoming a music theorist who introduces his native musical culture to scholars from all over the world. I appreciated the encouragement from Mr. Watt for young scholars like me” says a 2022 scholarship recipient studying at the UBC School of Music.

A 2022 scholarship recipient from the UBC Department of History writes: “As a Master student in History, Mr. Watt’s financial contribution has made a remarkable and lasting impact upon my life and studies. My current research traces the legal genealogy of the free entry mining system in the Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899). Receiving the Dr. Chi-Kat Wat Scholarship allowed me to contribute to an ongoing discussion about resource development, environmental damage, and Aboriginal Title in the Canadian North by conducting archival research and engaging in community collaboration with the Tr’ondëk Hwēch’in First Nation.”

People who knew Chi Shum personally remember his kindness.

Emeritus librarian Eleanor Yuen, the former head of the UBC Asian Library, had been a student of Mr. Watt’s in Hong Kong. She writes: “My family reconnected with Mr. Watt, a teacher in my formative years, after we moved to Vancouver. During our conversations, he was always genuinely interested in the settlement of my classmates in Canada. We had great discussions about building libraries and schools for marginalized children in China, and he filled me in with the history of the Asian Library when I started my career at UBC. Over time, his roots in Hong Kong and my activism after 2014 gave rise to more exchanges, and his generous contributions to our community events. Watt sir: a loving teacher, a friend and an incredibly gentle and wise soul who will be forever missed.”

Former Head of Department Professor Ross King remembers Chi Shum as a man of few words, but whose gentle kindness and actions spoke loud and clear, and who always surprised with his generosity and vision around Cantonese language and Hong Kong Studies.

Dr. Alison Bailey remembers Mr. Watt’s kind words about the 2021 Wat Lecture with Professor Wai-yee Li. In an email he described that year’s online lecture as being “like drinking a glass of exceptionally good wine with an aftertaste and all that. I am going to watch it again and again as it gives me ideas to explore and think about. Please thank Professor Li for giving the lecture for me. Thank you again to all the people who made it happen. With warmest regards, Chi Shum Watt.” Dr. Bailey in turn would like to thank both Chi Shum and Alex Watt for their generosity in making the Wat Lectures happen – an annual highlight for those with an interest in Chinese culture.

Professor Christopher Rea, who first met Chi Shum in 2008 and worked with him on many Wat Lectures, recalls “I was first impressed by how modest and soft-spoken he is, and I soon came to appreciate the depth of his dedication. He was involved in learning his entire life, and he made so much possible for others. I will miss him very much.”

The 2023-2024 Wat Lecture, as well as this coming year’s series of events organized by the UBC Cantonese Language Program and the UBC Hong Kong Studies Initiative, will be dedicated to the memory of Chi Shum Watt.