By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
May is Asian History Month in Canada. The Government of Canada officially declared the month of May Asian History Month in May 2002.
Early Asian history in Oshawa has become a research focus for myself, as I work with the archival collection to help tell a more inclusive, diverse and accurate history of Oshawa. By shifting the focus away from the traditional local history narrative that focuses on the accomplishments of the wealthy white settlers, we are able to learn about all members of the early Oshawa community and this helps us to better understand how our early roots have contributed to the community that we are today.
Immigration, along with the skills and work ethic each wave of immigrants brought with them, helped Oshawa to become an industrial hub in Canada. The 1911 census for Oshawa shows an influx of people arriving from Poland, Ukraine, Russia and other Eastern European countries. Perhaps sensing the potential for war or wanting different opportunities for their families, Oshawa was a popular spot to begin life in a new country.
Some time between the 1911 and the 1921 census, a small Chinese population of 18 people, arrived in Oshawa. Of those 18, 5 belonged to the family of Mrs. Wong Shee Soo. Mrs. Soo came to our attention as while touring through the large Mausoleum at Union Cemetery. Amongst the familiar names of Conant, McLaughlin and Storie, her name stood out as being very different and we wanted to know more about her.
Given the date of her death was 1947, what could her story tell us about the experiences of those of Asian descent living in Oshawa during World War II? How did the experiences of Asian settlers differ from those of Eastern European settlers who arrived in the decade before the Soo family?
Looking back it becomes clear that Canada’s treatment of Asian Canadians has been problematic. From the head tax that was placed on only Chinese immigrants, to the Chinese Immigration Act, which actually prohibited entry to Canada, and to laws dictating where Asians could live, work and associate with, the history of Asian Canadians has been dark.
How did the Soo family end up in Oshawa? In 1921, Oshawa had a population of approximately 13 000 people. Of that 13 000 people, 18 are listed in the census as being Chinese. There are no people of Asian descent, including Chinese, listed in any of the previous census records.
The earliest records that show the family in Oshawa are the 1921 Canadian Federal Census for Oshawa and the 1921 City Directory for Oshawa. At this time, the family of 5 lived on Simcoe Street and Min Soo ran a restaurant called the Boston Café. The Soo family owned the Boston Café until sometime between 1934 and 1938 when they then operated the Eden Inn restaurant. The Soos lived in a very ethnically diverse area, with people listed as being Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, and Russian.
Research into this family is ongoing. We have actually been in contact with the granddaughter of Wong Shee and she is happy to help us with our research. As with my research into early Black history in Oshawa, this research is difficult as early records concerning the Asian population’s contributions to the community were not archived. This is an important story and an important aspect of our community’s history and so I will continue digging and continue to collect any information I can find.