Lee Mong Kow Way
By Danda Humphreys
This month, Victoria’s Chinatown will be alive with Chinese New Year celebrations. It’s the oldest Chinatown in Canada. So can someone please explain why, in a city famous for its people-oriented street names (Douglas, Dallas, Tolmie and over 2000 more), is there only one street named after a member of the Chinese community?
“Oh, come on, now!” you say. “What about Fan Tan Alley?” Sorry, but there never was a “Mr. Fan Tan.” Fan Tan is a game of chance, a gamble on happiness enjoyed by Chinatown’s earlier citizens.
Well, I suppose one street commemorating a Chinatown resident is better than none. It’s named after a prominent member of that community, and it’s close to one of his major accomplishments—the Chinese Public School. But if Lee Mong Kow were around today, he’d have a hard time believing his eyes. The Chinatown he first saw, over 100 years ago, was a very different place.
Lee was not yet 30 when he came to Canada in 1882. His widowed mother joined him in Victoria in 1890, and a few years later Lee and his wife, Seto Chang Ann, presented her with the first of 17 grandchildren.
Lee put his social skills and his knowledge of English—learned from his mother when she worked for an English family in Hong Kong—to good use. He bridged the gap between the Chinese people and the white population in the adjacent area (south of Pandora—the area now known as Old Town).
Interestingly, the residents of Chinatown were very family oriented, and comprised a much more stable community than their more transient, “white sector” neighbours. Lee Mong Kow played a vital role in connecting the two.
By the mid-1880s he had been appointed “interpreter” at the Customs House—the first port of entry for Chinese into Canada. Later, he was transferred to the immigration department, where he helped many Chinese newcomers cut through the bureaucratic red tape that threatened to strangle them with its rules and regulations.
Community concerns were his top priority. For many years, he was involved with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Lee’s Association. Convinced that education was the key to all things, he helped start the first Chinese School. In 1909, when non-English-speaking, Chinese-born students were barred from the city’s public schools, Lee was involved with the building of the new Chinese Public School, and served as its principal for 12 years.
What a man! There was no stopping him, it seemed! But in 1920 the much-honoured Lee finally retired, moved to Hong Kong, and died there in 1924.
By that time, the city had crept closer to— and surrounded—Chinatown. At Fisgard and Douglas, the Masonic Temple stood opposite the new Hudson’s Bay Company store. City Hall, on the corner of Douglas and Pandora, remained resplendent in its red-painted glory.
Behind City Hall, Cormorant Street, which once featured Chinese tenement buildings, the Central Fire Station, and a large public market, was destined to become Centennial Square. And it was here, in 2005, that 93-year-old Vancouver resident Laura Lai Lee Bow Wah—Lee Mong Kow’s thirteenth child— attended the special dedication of the street linking Centennial Square with Fisgard Street that now bears her famous father’s name.
In mid-February, Chinatown will be alive with colour and noise, as its people—many of them with a multi-generation history here— celebrate Chinese New Year. From the Fisgard end of Lee Mong Kow Way, you can see the Gate of Harmonious Interest.
Across the street, the Chinese Public School stands ready to celebrate its centenary.
There’s been talk of using empty school buildings as a base for affordable housing in Victoria. It’s a terrific idea, but the Chinese Public School won’t qualify. In the late afternoon, children still walk through its iron gates, just as they did almost 100 years ago. Fresh from their Western curriculum lessons, they climb the steps and enter the great front doors, eager to continue their education—as Lee Mong Kow would have wished—by keeping their Eastern culture and language alive.
The full story behind the building of the Chinese Public School is in Danda’s latest book, Building Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the February 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.