A Chinese Pioneer: Frank Lee Hung-Yuen (1863-1942)April 12th, 2011 by Ben Lee
From what I could gather, my grandfather came from “Nam Tuen” (南村) in Taishan (台山Toisan) county, China, to North America around 1883, when he was in his late teens. He could have worked during the gold rush and later laboured at the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of his co-workers returned to China as racist laws in Canada and the provinces denied the Chinese opportunities, to become naturalized Canadians, to own land or to enter into certain occupations in some provinces. They were not given police protection in times of violence against their person or the destruction of their property. Almost immediately after the CP Railway was completed and Chinese labour was no longer desperately needed in Canada, a head tax was levied on any Chinese entering Canada, the amount increasing from five dollars in 1886 to five hundred dollars in 1904. This greatly reduced and, in effect, prevented any new immigration from China. A law passed in 1923 specifically excluded the immigration of Chinese to Canada (see Chan 1983; Djao 2003). This law lasted till 1947.
My grandfather Frank chose to stay and possibly worked as a house-boy where we think he learned to speak English. He had a good command of English, often acting as an interpreter as well as an unofficial go-between between the European Canadians and the Chinese.
Given the hostile environment in Canada for the Chinese, and after ten years of hard work in Canada and the United States, my grandfather apparently saved enough money for him to return to his old village in 1893. There he found a wife and secured several acres of rice field in the village where he lived in relative comfort and leisure. He sired three children in the next ten years.
He returned to Canada in 1904. It took great courage and vision to leave his family behind and cross the Pacific Ocean. He settled in Winnipeg and after four years called his number one son Wes to come over to help him. This was followed in 1911 by the arrival of his wife and the eight-year old number two son Byng, my father.
My grandmother and her two sons who arrived in Canada in the early 20th century did not pay the head tax as my grandfather by then was classified as a merchant who would be among the three categories of Chinese – diplomats, merchants and students – who were exempt from the Head Tax (Chan 1983).
During the 27 years when my grandfather and his family lived in Winnipeg, two more children were born. They were the first Chinese Canadians born in Winnipeg. Grandpa must have established himself very well. He operated an import company in Chinatown, along with a Chinese restaurant in the upper floor. He also ran a curio shop and an adjoining café on the city’s main street of Portage la Prairie. There was also a citrus farm. Some of Grandpa’s ventures went sour and flopped. My father, then in his mid-teens, helped in these enterprises.
Grandpa was a big and imposing figure, wearing spectacles and well dressed with a moustache. He walked with a cane, a symbol of class and dignity in those days. He probably spent all his time socializing while leaving his businesses to his cousin or partner. Money drained from the tills.
In 1930, after my father Byng graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Grandpa took most of his family to Hong Kong, leaving only the two youngest children in Winnipeg. During the subsequent 12-year stay in Hong Kong, he paid his last homage visit to Nam Tuen. He also made one last trip to Winnipeg, trying to round up his business affairs; he probably did not get anything out of them.
Then came the Japanese war as World War II is known in China. Everything was in shambles. It was also a bad time for Grandpa. He died in Hong Kong in a hospital, practically from starvation. His body was never found, probably buried with the other war casualties. It was 1942. He was 90 years old. His wife, my grandmother, died weeks later.
Grandpa Frank lived in Canada for a total of 37 years.
My wife and I paid our first visit to my ancestral village Nam Tuen in 1991. It was about a three-hour drive from Guangzhou city. As we approached our designation, we saw a newly built village gate bearing the village name. In the village was an ancestral temple built in 1989, with funds gathered from all the Lee clans worldwide that originally came from this village. Inside the main hall were plaques inscribed with the names of all the donors. Among the names are those of Grandpa’s descendants: three of my first cousins, my father and myself.
Chan, Anthony B. 1983. Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books.
Djao, Wei. 2003. Being Chinese: Voices from the Diaspora. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.