Manitoba History: Early Chinese Settlers in Western Manitoba 
by Alison R. Marshall
On 4 August 2009 in the Legislative Assembly Chamber, Mr. Philip Lee, formerly First Vice- President of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre (WCCCC) and leader of the Chinese Benevolent and Lee Associations, was installed as the twenty-fourth Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba. Having come to Canada as a student, His Honour got involved with the Chinese community through the urging of Mr. Charlie Foo (1894–1980), a long-time executive member of the Manitoba KMT (Zhongguo Guomindang), Chinese Benevolent Association and Manitoba Chinese Association. In this article I present a window into the history and customs of Western Manitoba’s earliest settlers from China whose own lives and those of their children and grandchildren were made better through the intercultural bridges built by His Honour, Mr. Foo, and current President of the WCCCC, Dr. Joseph Du.
The pictures and archival materials described by this essay help us understand why Chinese were first drawn to Winnipeg in the late 1870s, and later to Brandon and cities, towns, and villages beyond it. By 1884, Mr. Wah Hep, was operating a laundry on Brandon’s 8th Street. Like most others in the province, he was from Sunning District (Taishan/Toishan as it was later called), where a combination of successive droughts, earthquakes, epidemics, and uprisings beginning in 1850 made migrant work in this country and others very attractive. We may presume that before 1884 Mr. Hep worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway and then travelled east in search of work in towns, villages and cities. And although this province was an outpost at which many settlers stopped on their way to somewhere else, a few men stayed. They stayed because wages were higher, jobs were more plentiful, and people were less hostile than they were in British Columbia and larger cities.  This last point is important. Manitoban populations were comparatively small, and welcoming. While some of them might have preferred those who spoke good English or were from Western European countries, they still appreciated the laundries and restaurants. In the 1901 census, Manitoba had a Chinese population of just 206—all male—30 of whom lived in the Brandon District compared to the 14,885 male and female Chinese people who lived in British Columbia.  By the 1911 census the provincial number had more than quadrupled to 885 while the Brandon District’s still all-male population was 97. 
For much of Canada’s early history, only the very rich male family members (or those with wealthy relatives or work contracts) could afford the ocean liner fare and the $50 head tax required to be paid by all Chinese immigrants upon entry to Canada under section four of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. Most wives and children, therefore, remained in southern China while brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles worked here and sent remittances home. In 1900, the tax was doubled to $100, and by 1903, it stood at $500.  Immigration was effectively stopped from 1923 to 1947 when the final version of the Chinese Immigration Act excluded all immigrants except merchants, students, and diplomats and their staff.  After 1923, all people in Canada of Chinese descent whether they were born here or not were required to register with the federal government within twelve months. Failure to comply would result in a fine of up to $500 and/or imprisonment of up to a year. The boy in the Chinese Registration Certificate shown above was born in Brandon. He graduated from Brandon University, became Professor of Physics, and later Vice President (Academic) of Brandon University. 
Being Chinese in Manitoba (and elsewhere in Canada) meant that your life was shaped by such early immigration laws, and that women and children were largely absent until years after 1947. Some of those men who immigrated never married because of this decades long absence. Other married settlers could not return home because the ocean liner fare was beyond their means and they feared being denied entry on their way back. So they spent their lives here as bachelors, never reconnecting with wives, mothers or children before they died. Other fortunate ones did return for an arranged marriage and on successive visits to start a family. But these sojourns came at enormous cost and in addition to supporting themselves and their families in China, they spent years repaying the vast sums they had borrowed to travel by boat and train, and pay the immigration fees too. A few men remarried and started new families in this country. The repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1947 came too late for all of these men and their families.
In spite of the hardships generated by Canada’s early immigration laws, many men led fulfilling and prosperous lives in large part due to the efforts of elders and voluntary associations. Chinese and non-Chinese Associations hosted and organized events such as parties for the Chinese New Year or Christmas. These events provided opportunities for the bachelors to develop relationships and connections to those who could help with immigration issues, be business partners, or friends. The earliest of these groups was the Chinese Freemasons (Hongmen/Zhigongtang) whose 1863 headquarters was established in Barkerville, British Columbia. This and the later the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) whose Victoria headquarters opened in 1884 were too far away for the community here to be heavily involved. In 1910, Winnipeg leaders opened their own Freemasons office. There would have been a full roster of traditional events the Freemasons hosted throughout the year. In addition to these, the Freemasons organized a visit to Winnipeg by the father of Modern China, Sun Yatsen (1866–1925) in April 1911.  After Dr. Sun’s visit, men cut their queues. This act showed their dedication to Sun, and Chinese Nationalism, and also their rejection of the Manchurian government in China. They also bought ten dollar bills in support of the revolution that finally took place in the winter of 1911. By 1913, the KMT had over ten offices that were made known to the public and many more that were hidden from it.  One of these publicly known offices was in the Brandon. It was affiliated with the secret headquarters in Winnipeg.
Chinese elders followed the example of Dr. Sun, and used banquets, picnics, ice cream socials, and teas to bring the Chinese and non-Chinese communities together. Notable among the annual events was the summer picnic hosted in Winnipeg parks that started in 1918. Each year it was advertised in the Winnipeg Free Press and up to 2,000 people attended.  Local Chinese restaurants and non- Chinese food distributors donated items for the mostly Western menu of sandwiches and drinks.
In addition to belonging to the KMT and other Chinese voluntary associations, most of the early settlers were involved with Christian organizations in one way or the other. This involvement no doubt came about through the regular visits to laundries and restaurants by missionary workers. While some men were converted to Christianity through these efforts, others remained only nominal Christians giving this as their religion on official documents such as tax assessment rolls and the census survey that required an answer. When they needed a religious functionary to perform the ceremony for their wedding or a friend’s funeral, they chose a minister. The men appreciated the opportunities to attend missionary and church bible lessons where they could learn English, Canadian values, and make friends. Like the KMT, churches, missionaries and bible groups organized and hosted events throughout the year where the bachelors could eat special foods, play games and socialize.
Most of the people I discuss in this article were involved in either the KMT or Christian organizations or both. Similarly, the majority of settlers were in the washing business before they moved on to work in restaurants. and as travelling salesmen. I begin the discussion of these key professions with a look at one of Brandon’s earliest KMT leaders and laundrymen, Mr. George Chong.
George Chong (1870-1940) was a Methodist and early KMT member. Born in the District of Sunning (Taishan) in China,  and migrating as a labourer from Hong Kong on 25 July 1892, immigration officials recorded his height at five-foot four and three-quarter inches. Seventeen years after he arrived in Canada, the Henderson Directory for 1909 listed him as the operator of Li Men On Laundry at 144-8th Street in Brandon. Unlike most others, George Chong would live out his life in this city, and be buried in its cemetery. But in other ways he typified the experience here, living apart from his wife who remained in China and never joined him. A nominal Christian, he spent much of his free time socializing with his “brother”  Tom, and the seventy or more Chinese men living in Brandon at the time. As devoted KMT members, the “brothers” were part of a large network of overseas Chinese throughout North America whose lives of suffering and loneliness away from their homeland were made better by Sun Yatsen’s vision of democracy and nationalism. 
Mr. Bing Woo (1894-1982) like Mr. Chong was a nominal Christian from southern China. Bing emigrated to Canada with his father and younger brother at the age of eleven. The arc of his life reflects the pattern of poorer prairie immigrants who neither returned home to see their family nor had an arranged marriage. Once Bing arrived in Brandon, he attended elementary school for a period of time leaving it before graduation for work first in laundries and then as a waiter in cafes.  Mr. Woo and other bachelors in the region would have lived in the back of laundries, and later in KMT and other dormitories and boarding houses for much of their lives. Without wives and children, they became like family to each other, doing the same jobs and on their days off socializing, and playing games for small amounts of money. In larger cities such as Winnipeg the bachelors would have gone to the Chinese Dramatic Society after work ended late at night to sing, and play traditional Chinese instruments until the sun came up.
While Mr. Chong and Mr. Woo laboured in laundries and restaurants, others with better education and English skills worked as travelling salesmen. Employed by Sun Life and Wawanesa Insurance Companies for twenty years, the affable well-spoken Mr. Frank Chan (1901–1952) was one such man. Sometimes driving and at others taking the train, Frank was familiar with Chinese restaurant owners, residents and the terrain of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He cared deeply for the men and communities outside of Winnipeg, as reflected by his decades long leadership in the Manitoba KMT, CBA, and Chinese Christian organizations. Sadly, his life ended in tragic circumstances when he died from a sudden attack of meningitis. The Winnipeg Free Press obituary highlighted his prominent position within the Chinese Canadian community, noting: “His funeral was delayed so that officials of Chinese League branches throughout the dominion might be notified.”  Owing to the Chinese Immigration Act passed in Canada in 1923, Mr. Chan was able to visit his wife and children in China but they were not allowed to immigrate to Canada until after he died and the Act was repealed.
But the vocation most associated with Chinese immigrants and identity is the restaurant. Restaurants functioned as rural prairie nodes, offering places for people to work, gather and practice their own customs in private dining rooms and after hours. One of the first Western Manitoban restaurants was owned and operated by Mr. Lee Wee Foon in Baldur, located 73 kilometres south of Brandon and just over 73 kilometres north of the American border. Baldur was an important entry point for Chinese immigrants from 1899 to 1909. During this decade, scores of men came to apprentice in the laundry business before settling elsewhere. By 1916, Mr. Lee Wee Foon had bought Charlie King’s restaurant and confectionery, renaming it the Baldur Cafe.  Three years later, Mr. Lee sponsored the immigration of his wife, Mrs. Yee and son. Mrs. Yee was the second Chinese woman in Western Manitoba (Mrs. Wong Au See discussed below was the first) and together the couple had eight more children in Baldur. Although the modern Mr. Lee spoke English, had cut his queue, and wore western clothes, his wife conversed almost exclusively in Toisanese, had bound feet, and wore Chinese dresses. Mrs. Yee learned very little English and outwardly was very traditional; but her limited English skills and appearance were not barriers to integration into the small community. Years later, when people remembered the grocery, they spoke at length about her kind disposition.
From Baldur, we return to a discussion of Brandon and the Carlton Cafe run by Mr. Sam Wong (Huang Xianxi) (1881–1959) and his family for almost fifty years, from 1923 to 1972 at 121-10th Street. Mr. Wong first attempted to leave China in 1906, applying to join his uncle as a migrant worker in California. His second attempt to leave was successful, and in 1912 he immigrated to Canada initially working in a Montreal laundry. It was here that he became active in the KMT and made connections that led him to Brandon where he entered the restaurant business. 1918 saw Mr. Sam Wong return to China for an arranged marriage and a few months after the new couple’s return, the 27 year-old Mrs. Wong (née Au)  became pregnant. Unlike other Canadian Chinatowns of the time, Brandon had no Chinese women or traditional midwives in the vicinity to socialize with or care for Mrs. Wong. By all accounts, there were complications during Mrs. Wong’s labour, and she and her infant son died. The cross erected beside Mrs. Wong Au See’s gravestone presumably marked the place where her infant son was buried. A year later, a friend of Mr. Wong’s said that he had a daughter in China who was the right age for marriage and gave the two permission to marry. Lim Koon Ying (Ying Lim Quang) (1903–1993), who was from Taishan, China, paid the $500 head tax that was then charged to all who emigrated from China to Canada. Boarding the Empress of Russia on 8 August, she sailed from Hong Kong to Victoria, arriving less than a month later on 5 September 1921. Mr. Wong was there when her ship landed and shortly after the two were wed in a traditional Chinese ceremony. Ms. Lim was the third Chinese woman in Western Manitoba. The couple went on to have five children. Mr. Wong was a devoted husband and family man. In business, he was a kind, hard working and generous man. During the Depression and World War Two, Sam offered free meals to those in need and to soldiers. When World War Two broke out, several Chinese initially volunteered for the Canadian Armed Forces, and in 1944 Chinese and others in Canada were conscripted. During the war years, the Carlton Cafe became a hub for members of the Canadian Armed Forces stationed in Shilo. 
Most of the Chinese community in this province knew Yuen Bak Yee (Yu) who was more commonly known to Westerners as Buddy Leeds, and to those from China without the “ds”—as Buddy Lee. Buddy Leeds was an innovative name. The first part “Buddy” conveyed that he had assimilated (and was a friend) to non-Chinese people. When he encountered a Chinese person, and introduced himself as “Leeds,” these people heard the name “Lee” and connected him to the powerful Lee Association. Throughout his life, Buddy contrived an identity between the extremes of East and West.
Yuen Bok Yee was born in 1909 in Taishan, China, and emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada on 7 July 1921 at the age of twelve along with two other boys from the same place and with the same surname. All three took a boat to Victoria, BC and while the other two went to Indian Head, Saskatchewan and Treherne, Manitoba, respectively, Buddy headed to Portage la Prairie, and went on to live in Dauphin and later Brandon.
Often the mention of Buddy Leeds evoked laughter from informants not of derision for his many rumoured dalliances but rather for his courage and bluster. Admired for his English and ease with the “white” community, his success in business and connections enabled him to bring Chinese and non-Chinese together to form business and other relationships. For instance every year, Mr. Leeds was given twenty-five ducks by a “white” friend for a Chinese community KMT regional supper that was held in Brandon and Winnipeg in alternating years. Ducks were a special part of these meals because they were symbolic ritual offerings. 
Most Western Manitoban towns and villages beyond Brandon had a Chinese café until the 1950s. Carberry’s Rex and its owner Mr. Lee Low made important contributions to life there in the small community. A life-long Buddhist, Mr. Lee Low (1896–1958) immigrated to Canada in 1911 from Taishan, China, and nine years later came to Carberry. After working alongside his cousin Wing Low for two years, he became the new proprietor in February 1922 and was eventually joined in business by his brother Tong (aka George).  The advertisements for the Rex Cafe read: “Rex Cafe. High-Class. We solicit all the farmer’s trade. Hot meals served at all hours. Ice Cream and Soft Drinks, Confectionery and Fresh Fruits. Full line at all times. Tobacco and Cigars.” 
People recalled Lee Low with fondness. He was a bright, warm, kind and thoughtful man with a broad smile, who not surprisingly had many friends and a successful restaurant that was the centre of the community for almost thirty years. In 1949, toward the end of his time in Carberry, his two sons, Walter and York, joined him. After the boys had spent just one year in Carberry, Lee Low, his brother Tong and the boys moved to Vernon, BC. Ten years later, Mr. Low was finally able to sponsor his wife to come to Canada. The decades of hard work in the Carberry restaurant took a toll on his health and one year later he died.
Also immigrating from Taishan, China was Mr. Choy Soo (1909–1983) who came in 1923 at the age of fourteen and worked in the CPR restaurant and hotel in Newdale, Manitoba. Seven years later Mr. Choy returned home and married Miss Chan Yook Hai (b 1910). But immigration laws prevented Mrs. Choy’s entry into Canada. She remained in southern China and her husband visited every one and one-half years and together they had four children—two sons and two daughters. When Mr. Choy’s father (Mr. Choy Him) retired to his village in 1939, Mr. Choy Soo took over as the owner of the Paris Cafe. Like many men, Mr. Choy lived a double life. In Newdale, he worked long hours, lived alone and socialized with other bachelors and relatives in Brandon, Winnipeg, Gladstone and other prairie towns and villages. But in China, he was regarded as part of the gentry class of men who were thriving in Canada or Gold Mountain, as it was called. Four years after the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, the family joined many others and escaped to Hong Kong, living there until 1958 when Mr. Choy was able to sponsor his wife and youngest daughter Sue-On to come to Canada. Kenny, her younger son, came a year later in 1959 and both children completed their education in Newdale. Today, Sue-On and Kenny are leaders within the Chinese community of Western Manitoba. 
In this essay, I have presented a window through which the reader may observe the history and customs of the tiny Western Manitoban Chinese community. In many ways, these settlers had a typically Canadian experience, paying the $500 Head Tax after 1903 to be migrant labourers first in laundry shops and second in cafes. Like other communities in this nation, they got to know one another during the many banquets, picnics and other events hosted by Chinese political and non-Chinese Christian organizations throughout the year. Unlike others who lived and worked in urban Chinatowns, Western Manitoban Chinese Canadians resided and laboured in rural towns, villages and small cities without ethnic enclaves or Chinese women for thirtythree years. The experience was also different because although there was bigotry, prairie communities needing new immigrants and businesses were more welcoming than others in Canada. There was also less racism here because elders such as Mr. Charlie Foo and Mr. Sam Wong consistently worked to build and maintain intercultural bridges among Chinese and non-Chinese communities. His Honour, Dr. Du, Mr. Philip Chang and others continue that work today in Winnipeg while Ms. Sue-On Hillman, Mr. Kenny Choy, Mr. Danny Wong, Mr. Wally Yuen, and last but not least Mr. Kwan Yuen continue to further these goals in Western Manitoba.
1. This essay is derived from a larger SSHRC-funded research program on prairie Chinese history and customs in which I have interviewed hundreds of Chinese Canadians, and, with the help of my marvellous research assistant Sarah Ramsden, have conducted extensive archival research. I am grateful to Mrs. Helen Wong, who provided invaluable assistance and insights into the long history here, and Dr. May Yoh, a retired Associate Professor at Brandon University, who showed me a collection of photographs and other materials she had amassed for a project during the late 1980s. In 2009 Dr. Yoh and I combined some of our best items in a co-curated an exhibition “Windows on Chinese Settlers in Western Manitoba.” Many of the photographs from that exhibition are reproduced here. Additional funding has been received from The President and Vice-President Research and Dean of Arts, Brandon University; The RDI New Rural Research Initiatives Grant, Brandon University, the Brandon University Research Council. I am also indebted to many archives who provided materials: Library and Archives Canada; Archives of Manitoba; Stubbs Archives, University of Manitoba; S. J. McKee Archives; the Brandon Sun; the Carberry Plains Archives; and the Daly House Museum.
2. F. Quei Quo, “Chinese Immigrants in the Prairies,” Preliminary Report Submitted to the Minister of the Secretary of State. Simon Fraser University, November 1977, chapters 1, 2 and 4.
3. For this number I have relied on the table in Harry Con, et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited in association with the Multiculturalism Directorate, Department of the Secretary of State and the Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, 1982, p. 301. See also “Table XII – Nationalities,” in Census of Canada, 1901, Vol. I. Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1902, p. 406. The information from this table may be misleading because in this year they combined Chinese and Japanese population figures.
4. See “Table VII – Origins of the People by Sub-districts,” in Census of Canada, 1911, Vol. II. Ottawa: C. H. Parmelee, 1913, p. 173.
5. See David Chuenyan Lai, Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1988, pp. 276- 277.
6. Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, S.C. 1923, c. 33, s. 5.
7. I am grateful to Dr. May Yoh who provided these details.
8. Sun Yatsen visited Canada in 1897 and 1910. He came to Winnipeg on his third visit in April 1911. All of the accounts of this visit come from interviews with old-timers. Thus far, I have been unable to corroborate these with pictures or accounts from Chinese or non-Chinese newspapers. Sun Yatsen is known to have arrived in Vancouver on 8 January 1911, and to have given speeches there and later in Toronto on 29 March 1911. In an email dated 22 June 2009, Mr. Charles Wong, great grandson of Dr. Sun Yatsen, indicated that it is quite possible that Sun came to Winnipeg and noted: “Sun widely travelled from coast to coast in both the United States and Canada raising funds amongst overseas Chinese communities in order to support his revolution. Practically every major overseas Chinese community in North America was visited by Sun. However, records of his visits have been passed down as family stories, rather than clearly recorded and documented events.” See C. Millien, E. Woo, P. Yeh, Winnipeg Chinese. Printed by the Department of the Secretary of State, Summer, 1971 pp. 20-21. See also Li Donghai [David T. H. Lee], Jianada Huaqiao shi, A History of Chinese in Canada. Vancouver: Jianada ziyou chubanshe, 1967, pp. 301-302.
9. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s branch existed in secret until 1915. For a list of other offices in Canada, see Harry Con, et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited in association with the Multiculturalism Directorate, Department of the Secretary of State and the Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, 1982, p. 313. See also Alison R. Marshall, “Everyday Religion and Identity in a Western Manitoban Chinese Community: Christianity, the KMT, Foodways and Related Events.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77.3 September 2009: pp. 573-608.
10. Winnipeg Free Press, 7 July 1936, p. 2.
11. After a lengthy search of archival records, it was determined that the name George Chong used when he came to Canada was Long Gee Lan. This was based on information provided in the General Register of Chinese Immigration, 1892, Serial Number 14328.
12. Although George Chong’s obituary mentioned a brother it is uncertain whether Tom was his sibling, cousin or just another Chinese man. The term “brother” was used quite casually to refer to men who were Chinese. There is no record of a Tom Chong in the Henderson Directories, voters lists or 1911 census.
13. For more information about the life of Mr. George Chong, see Alison R. Marshall, “Chinese Immigration to Western Manitoba since 1884: Wah Hep, George Chong, the KMT and the United Church.” Journal of Canadian Studies 42:3, Fall 2008: pp.28-54.
14. These details about Bing Woo’s life were given by Wes and Helen Wong, and Walker Wong to May Yoh in 1988.
15. “Rites Saturday for Frank Chan, Chinese Leader.” Winnipeg Free Press Friday, 12 December 1952, p. 18.
16. Content relating to Baldur, Manitoba has been compiled during fieldwork, oral history interviews, and from material in Centennial History of Argyle: Come into our Heritage. Baldur, Rural Municipality of Argyle, 1981, pp. 527-528. See also Baldur Gazette, 15 November 1917, p. 8.
17. The words written in English on her headstone refer to her incorrectly as W. A. See. In actual fact, her maiden surname was Au and according to an old Chinese custom she would be referred to as Mrs. Wong Au See. These details were provided by Dr. May Yoh.
18. I am grateful to Dr. May Yoh who provided background information about Mr. and Mrs. Sam Wong and the Carlton Cafe. Additional details about Mr. Sam Wong’s life come from obituaries, oral history interviews, newspaper articles, and fieldwork at the KMT office. Also see the Brandon Sun, 6 June 1959, p. 3.
19. Almost everyone I have interviewed has known Buddy Leeds and for this reason all of the accounts in this section originate in oral histories. Facts were corroborated by newspaper articles about Buddy Leeds in the Brandon Sun and in the Winnipeg Free Press.
20. Carberry News Express, 9 February 1922, p. 4.
22. Details about the Choy family come from fieldwork, interviews, local history books, obituaries in The Brandon Sun, and the Chinese Manitoba Historical Society Oral History Project.
Page revised: 15 May 2016