Seeing the impact of her generosity to students made former UAlberta library assistant May Quon smile. Even though Quon died in 2017, students continue to benefit from her lasting gift.
Liz Ingram still recalls the inviting smell of May Quon’s house. It was earthy and sweet, like the mixture of ginger and goji berries Quon often brewed into teas. For more than 20 years, Ingram, a University of Alberta professor of fine arts, lived with her husband and children next door to Quon, who treated them like family. When the kids were sick, Quon brought them steaming cups of sepia-coloured tea that smelled as strong as it tasted.
Drink, she would say in her clipped but rhythmic English. It’s good for you.
And it was.
If you were fortunate to count Quon as a friend, her unexpected acts of kindness became, well, expected. Unassuming, gregarious and funny, she took an interest in your life. She’d ask about your job, your health, your family. If you mentioned that your mother was sick, Quon would inquire after her a week later. An avid gardener, she planted all kinds of vegetables — and if she learned you liked tomatoes, she’d plant some for you.
“The central theme of May’s life is that she was selfless,” says Rosa Wang, a close friend and former colleague from UAlberta’s Cameron Library, where Quon worked as a library assistant for more than 25 years.
Connecting the Dots
- The Cause: Donor and longtime UAlberta librarian May Quon (1927-2017) wanted to help international students succeed
- The Gift: $1 million to endow scholarships for students from China and Hong Kong
- The Impact: International students are encouraged and supported in their difficult, often-isolating journey of studying overseas
Quon died in June 2017 at the age of 90. Photographs of her home, taken late in her life, reveal the kind of organized clutter you might expect from someone who spent their life in libraries. Framed photos of friends and neighbours, and drawings by their children, vie for space with carefully collected memories of births, graduations, weddings and meals with loved ones.
Quon never married and had no children of her own, but she treated friends as family and found joy in being generous with them.
Quon interacted with students on a daily basis at Cameron Library, where she worked from 1966 to 1992.
That generosity shone when she established a $1-million endowment to create the May Quon Undergraduate Scholarship, supporting UAlberta international students from China or Hong Kong. She was passionate about helping students, and she identified with the challenges faced by those from her homeland.
Over the years, Wang and her husband, Larry, became Quon’s trusted friends and grew to understand the root of her generous spirit.
Quon told them stories about growing up as the youngest of four sisters in Guangdong, China. During the Second World War, her mother shared what little food they had with others who had less. Quon’s father came to Canada in the early 1900s and worked as a house servant and railway worker, saving every penny to bring his family from China.
The family settled in Calgary where they ran a small corner grocery store. As an adult, Quon took a four-hour bus trip from Edmonton every other weekend to help her parents with the store. After her retirement, she moved her mother and father, one after the other, to her home in Edmonton and cared for them until they died.
“She felt like she had a call to help people in need,” says Rosa Wang.
That call extended to the students she interacted with daily in the library and on campus. Quon had struggled to make ends meet when she first came to Canada, so it’s no surprise that she identified with international students who were far from home, worried about finances and dealing with a language barrier. She wanted to help them succeed.
One of the students to receive Quon’s undergraduate scholarship, Siyang Chen, ’16 BCom, came to UAlberta in 2011 from Harbin, China. His first year in Edmonton was full of challenges — staying on top of difficult classes, meeting new people and communicating in English wasn’t easy.
“Receiving the scholarship was a huge sense of encouragement,” he says. “It made me feel like there was a destiny to what I was doing.”
Now pursuing a master’s in finance at the London School of Economics, Chen says the scholarship helped him believe in himself. “It opened my mind to dreams and possibilities I hadn’t considered.”
The scholarship has supported 11 students so far. Most of the recipients, including Chen, got the chance to meet “Ms. Quon” at an annual luncheon, affectionately known as the Quon Family Scholarship Gathering. As with all her “families,” Quon loved spending time with the students and hearing about their achievements and plans for the future.
“I will always remember her kindness and carry forward her spirit,” says Chen.
Quon continues to give, supporting the scholarship through her estate. Even though future student recipients won’t have the chance to join her for lunch, they will know her generosity. And because of that, they’ll know May Quon.