History of Local Chinese Business

As a young country the Dominion of Canada was a vast land mass with a small population. The country was populated by Aboriginal peoples and European immigrants. The policies of the United States and Great Britain influenced the Dominion of Canada’s immigration laws. The influence was so persuasive that Canada introduced the egregious ‘head tax’ in 1885. Thousands of single Chinese men emigrated from southern China to Canada to work on the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and thousands more came after its completion in 1886. Faced with unemployment, job scarcity, job restrictions and unwanted prejudice, many traveled eastward to Ontario where some made their way to Windsor.

Windsor’s early immigration pattern reflected two trends: first, the arrival of single men; and secondly, the sponsorship of family relatives. Chinese Canadians found work in the service sector running households, hand laundries and restaurants. Kee Chong Lee was among the first recorded arrivals to open a hand laundry business in 1897. His son, Sit Yuen Lee arrived in 1918 to help run the business. He continued to do so until his own retirement which coincided with the business’ closure in 1985. The Lee Chong Laundry served the community for ninety years achieving the distinction of being Windsor’s longest lasting established hand laundry business. Aside from the hand laundries, the Early Families were mainly involved in the restaurant business. Among the many restaurants were notably: King’s Café, the Imperial Tavern, the Rickshaw Tavern, Ming’s, Flying Tiger, the Maple Leaf Restaurant, Victoria Lunch Restaurant, Sunnyside Café, and The Cadillac Café. For those fortunate to start businesses they supported their families and provided work for newcomers. In this modest way, the history of Windsor’s local Chinese business began.

It was not unusual for single Chinese men to return to China to marry and start families; some visited several times before returning with their families. Other families had no choice but to remain estranged for decades. In 1918 The Windsor Chinese Benevolent Association (WCBA) was started to aid the transition of new Chinese immigrants to the area. The WCBA’s hall provided a meeting place, cultural centre and a vitally important credit union. Money wasn’t easily available and it wasn’t uncommon for those in need to come to the WCBA and make a bid for a loan; while others would be were repaying their loans. This practice allowed Chinese businesses to flourish and prosper. In turn, cultural organizations and religious institutions took root revealing a self-sustaining community which annually celebrated its traditions and festivals.

A string of businesses located along Riverside Drive East, between Goyeau and Windsor Avenue, established a gathering place for local Chinese people in the early 1900s. Among the Chinese businesses were restaurants, a language school and an opera house. The combination of food, atmosphere and culture brought more than the traditions of the heart home to Chinese Canadians, it created an emerging Chinatown. This wasn’t a new phenomenon in Canada, as Chinatowns in Toronto and Vancouver were in existence for quite sometime. Although initially these Chinatowns were initially segregated communities, the observance of Chinese customs and speaking their own language provided a sense of community, security and employment for new Chinese ‘Canadians’. a common language and the observance of their own customs provided a sense of community, security and employment for new Chinese ‘Canadians’.

Windsor’s Chinatown was lost when the block was expropriated and torn down in the early 1960s. The proposed development was to make way for Le Goyeau Apartments and a grand entrance to City Hall Square. The envisioned promenade was partially fulfilled with the building of Le Goyeau Apartments. In 1975, the construction of the Steinberg department store stretched across Windsor Avenue forever altering the landscape. This effectively closed what was the right-of-way at Windsor Avenue and Pitt Street and saw the creation of a parkette in its place. Steinberg’s shortly outlived its usefulness and remained empty for what seemed decades until redevelopment occurred. The once conceived promenade is now a green esplanade called, The Civic Green, where a series of parks and plazas link the riverfront to City Hall Square. The inclusion of a modern joint justice facility has completed the redevelopment of what was Windsor’s Chinatown. Its loss hadn’t escaped the attention of the Chinese community, its leaders or city officials as Chinatowns in major cities are treasured today as major tourist attractions.

By the 1980s, the Chinese business community was long established and achieved notable prominence within the City of Windsor. Its membership represented second and third generation Chinese Canadians as well as new arrivals. No matter their circumstance or whether they came from Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, Windsor was a popular destination attracting many highly trained and qualified people. This new influx of immigration provided the Chinese community and its leaders a timely opportunity to discuss the idea of a new Chinatown. Support resonated through the community and the interest was spearheaded by the Windsor Chinese Benevolent Association (WCBA) and the Essex County Chinese Canadian Association (ECCCA).

The proposal envisioned the building of a large Chinese cultural centre surrounded by neighboring Chinese businesses. The most desirable site was near the University of Windsor, bordered by the Ambassador Bridge to the west, University Avenue to the north and Wyandotte Street to the south. The location had the added benefit of being minutes away from the United States where an established clientele already existed. Although, a scale model of the cultural centre was built, there seemed to be mixed feelings as to whether a Chinatown would develop among the community. Dr. Chosen Lau, a past ECCCA president at that time, stated ‘there needed to be an investment partnership between the city, senior levels of government and private interests to successfully create a Chinatown’. Dr. Ing, the current ECCCA president, remarked ‘you can’t make a Chinatown, it has to happen spontaneously’. He had hoped that leasing more office space on Ouellette Avenue would be a ‘stepping stone for a more fruitful future’.

The community’s generous support to purchase a property for the Chinese Alliance Church on Wyandotte Street East and a confluence of other events sealed its fate. Undaunted, the proposed area near Wah Court Restaurant saw the opening of a new restaurant, a grocery store, and a hair stylist in the 1980s. Today, a variety of Chinese businesses, including Cheung Trading Company, Majestic Bakery, Wingli Farm, Dragon’s Inn, and Yan’s Kitchen continue to thrive and serve their immediate neighbors, the university’s student body and their American friends.

However, this is but one aspect of Windsor’s Chinese business history. The trend in Ontario during the first half of the twentieth century saw almost 40 per cent of all Chinese employed in the laundry business. Windsor was no different, as there were over 30 Chinese laundries during the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the more popular laundries were the On Lee Laundry, on Erie Street and the Sam Sing Laundry on Pitt Street. In the face of automation their longevity was attributed to providing quality and timely service, lasting friendships and faithful customers.

Historically, the Chinese business community had established successful enterprises throughout the city. In their various entrepreneurial endeavors, Chinese Canadians have employed highly qualified skilled trades, engineers, chemists and professionals. Ping Lee was one such entrepreneur who in 1935 opened a dry good store called the Oriental Goods Company. He later founded the Oriental Commerce Limited which evolved into Dragon Brands. This company specialized in the production of frozen Chinese food. Its innovative food processing method drew the attention of the Chung King Corporation, which secured the business’ eventual purchase in the 1960s.

Since 1948, Windsor has been served by many distinguished doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. This trend coincided with Canadian Human Rights advancements allowing Chinese Canadians to join professional societies for the first time. Among the many notable professionals are: Dr. Edward H.W. Ng who became the first Chinese family physician in Windsor and later the first Chinese Chief of Family Medicine at Windsor Western Hospital; Diana Kao, Ph.D. and Associate Dean of Academic Operations for the University of Windsor; Dr. George and Dr. Lillian Mok had their respective practices. Dr. George Mok began his long career as a Radiation Oncologist at the Metropolitan General Hospital’s cancer centre, he was later appointed as CEO of Windsor’s Regional Cancer Centre. Dr. Lillian Mok was Pediatrician and founded the Teen Health Centre, served as its Medical Director during the first four years, then turned to researching children’s mental health and founded the Children’s Health Care Network; Dr. Gary Ing has been the Chief of Staff at Windsor Regional Hospital since 1995; Engineer Stephen Hong Tsui who became a senior partner at La Fontaine, Cowie, Buratto & Associate, the principal manager for the Windsor office of Stantec Consulting and an Adjunct Professor of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Windsor; Dr. Chun-Yin Lee is one of the pioneers of traditional Chinese medicine in Windsor; Mrs. Ann Mak originally taught at a teachers ’s college in Hong Kong and now teaches English as a Second Language for the Adult Learning Centre; Xue-mei Jiang is a lawyer who originally graduated with a law degree from the University of Beijing and returned to school at the University of Windsor to achieve her law accreditation in 2004; Pharmacist Ho Yee graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax. Mrs. Yee is also a pharmacist. After graduation he became a Canadian citizen and opened the first of two Yee Pharmacies in Windsor; Pharmacist Albert and Eva Lo. Albert Lo has resolved numerous problems encountered by new immigrants and counseled many Chinese teenagers on education and career issue. These are but a few of the many notable professional Chinese Canadians who have served or continue to serve Windsor with distinction.

Occupational shortages during the 1960s produced the ‘point system’. Windsor’s burgeoning tool and die industry was identified as an area in need of skilled trades. Many highly qualified immigrants from Hong Kong were hired while others changed professions to secure these lucrative positions. The development of the mold industry was central to Windsor’s automotive success and Chinese Canadians were among those who have made a significant contribution. George Hong was one of the first immigrants to work in the mold industry. He came from China and after years of hard work mastering the trade he successfully opened Dominant Mold Duplicating in 1984. Tony Wong immigrated to Windsor in 1976, his story like others, exemplified that hard work and commitment can lead to success. He started Canasa Printing in 1991 while fulfilling a production role elsewhere. The demands of his print business were so great that he left his factory position within four years and devoted himself entirely to his growing business. The entrepreneurship of Chinese Canadians as seen in Today's Families is as varied as the challenges they accept and embrace. Respect for tradition remains paramount to the Chinese culture. Newer restaurants like the Red Sail and the House of Lee continue the authentic preparation of traditional Chinese cuisine. More diverse enterprises have always been present within the Chinese business community; Edgewater Marine and Hi Ho Upholstering are two such endeavors embraced.

In closing, there are too many stories to be told thoughtfully in this small space. It is not unusual for a particular Chinese business history to be inextricably tied with that of their respective family’s. The ancestry of Chinese Canadians living in Windsor stretches back to the late 1890s. Like their grandparents before them, they aspired to build a community which would either fulfill their dreams or those of their children. As a culture they witnessed the birth of a nation and weathered the politics of exclusion, redress and renewal. ; during which time the members of Windsor’s Chinese community demonstrated leadership and professionalism in their fields of expertise. Their service and contribution to Canada and Windsor can be discovered and explored here, within the virtual museum Rising Dragon: Chinese Canadians in Windsor.