The Lem Family

By Alexandra Petrie, Research & Publication Co-ordinator

Hello readers! My name is Alexandra Petrie and I have been hired at the OM to research and coordinate their next publication on the history of Oshawa. The purpose of this publication is to tell a more inclusive history of Oshawa and to showcase its diverse past and present that has previously not been written.

These past three weeks my focus has been on researching early Chinese immigration to the area, with a focus on the Lem family. I first came across the name Lem when I saw an artwork titled A Clear Flame by Brenda Joy Lem at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, whose father, William Lem, grew up in Oshawa. He with his five siblings worked in the family laundry on Celina and Athol streets. The artwork references this by showing a picture of Lem’s grandmother standing in front of the laundry, with a story layered on top telling how the Lem’s would distill their own whiskey. After seeing this image, I wanted to know more about this family, what brought them to Oshawa, and what it was like living through the depression, the Second World War and post-war years.

Yun Lem, Brenda’s grandfather first appears in the 1930 Directory as the proprietor of Ontario Laundry. After speaking with Brenda, she was told her grandparents moved to Oshawa sometime in 1921 to open the first hand-laundry in the city. We do know there were a number of laundries in the area prior to 1921; an advertisement in the Ontario Reformer, states that there was a new Chinese Laundry opening in Oshawa on May 7, 1901.

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While it does not state if it was a hand-laundry, Chinese laundries often were, due to a lack of capital or access to the steam laundry machinery available to Chinese immigrants at the time.

Yun Lem’s name first appears in the 1930 directory as the proprietor of Ontario Laundry on Celina Street, near Athol. The Lem family was one of two Chinese-Canadian families in the area. Census records show the majority of Chinese who lived in Oshawa were single men. Those who were married had spouses and children still in China, due to exclusion laws that required Chinese immigrants to pay a Head Tax to come to Canada. Initially set at $50, the Head Tax was raised to $100 in 1900, then $500 in 1903. This was twice the average labourer’s yearly wage; in many cases companies or an individual’s family would cover the cost, which would then be paid back once the individual was settled in Canada.

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Yun Lem’s wife standing in front of Ontario Laundry. Courtesy The RMG.

This research is on-going. I plan on speaking to Brenda and her father William in the coming weeks, to talk about his experiences growing up in Oshawa and working in a laundry. I am also trying to connect with other Chinese-Canadians who immigrated or grew up in Oshawa.


Jansma, Linda, Curator, Philip, M. Nourbese Adamu. Brenda Joy Lem: Homage to the Heart. Oshawa: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2009.


6 thoughts on “The Lem Family”

  1. I used to stay with my grandparents (Evans) who owned and operated Gold Medal Cleaners mid-block from Simcoe, on south side of Bond East. They lived on the floor above. About the mid 40’s I would look out the back windows facing south. This was an alleyway behind the businesses on Bond. Directly across the alley was a Chinese Laundry and I remember the fellow working in the back room sweating like crazy. I think he was ironing but couldn’t say positively. It was an old house converted to a business.

    1. I vaguely remember Gold Medal Cleaners on Bond. Was it located on the south side of Bond Street between Ontario and Simcoe? My grandparents owned Lee’s Laundry at 18 Ontario Street.

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