Asian Heritage Month – Oshawa’s Chow Family

By Alex P., Research & Publications Assistant

The month of May marks the start of Asian History Month, a time to celebrate and recognise the significant contributions that Canadians of Asian heritage have made and continue to make to the growth and prosperity of Canada. As early 1898, there have been Chinese-Canadians choosing to live in Oshawa to operate successful laundries and restaurants. Despite discrimination and anti-Chinese legislation, these early Chinese families called Oshawa home.

One family in particular was the Chow family, who operated popular restaurants Chow’s Restaurant and House of Chow. This past fall I was given a family history by Gordon Chow, the grandson of George S. Chow who first came to Oshawa in 1926, taking over the management of the Central Café. It was located on King Street just west of Simcoe, below the hotel of the same name. Its chief competition was the Globe Café, a few blocks east.

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Postcard of King Street, looking west. The sign for the Central Café can be seen on the left side of the image (click to enlarge)

George had first arrived in Canada sometime in the early 20th century, working in restaurants in Alberta before travelling east to open a restaurant with a partner in Napanee. George’s grandson, Gordon Chow, recalls of stories where they would play Mahjong in the upstairs room, often joined by the Chief of Police.

After some lean years, in 1926, George decided to move a little west to Oshawa to take over the management of the Central Café on King Street. Its proximity to Toronto made it ideal to gain access for restaurant supplies and fresh foods.

George returned to Oshawa and continued to work at the Central Café, sending money back to China to support his wife and son. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, they could not join George in Canada, and he himself was only allowed to leave Canada for up to two years before being barred himself.

When Japan invaded China in 1937, starting the second Sino-Japanese War, this separation would have been more strained, particularly as the conflict became a part of the much bigger Second World War. Many Chinese perished due to the conflict in Eastern China, but many more died from starvation. George and many other Chinese living in Oshawa banded together as all other Canadians did, to raise money to support the war effort. In the photo below, featured in a GM’s War Craftsman magazine, George is standing in the centre back row.

Chinese Community Warcraftsman taken from Homefront stories
GM of Canada: War Craftsman, June 1945, vol. 4 page 2.

Fortunately, George did reunite with his wife and son, Roger, in 1949, after Chinese exclusion was lifted to allow families to come to Canada.

After the war, George decided to open a new restaurant of his own, partnering with Harry Chow. It was called Chow’s Restaurant and located at 19 King Street West. This location was once Kwan’s Restaurants, operated by Alice Kwan who decided to retire and move to Toronto. The restaurant did well and George became the sole proprietor after Harry decided to sell his shares to him. The business was eventually passed on to Roger in the late 50s and renamed it House of Chow.

Roger and his wife went on to have five children. However, due to the long hours at the restaurant, some of the children often lived with their grandparents, until the family was able to buy a house. Gordon recalled the restaurant had become a popular hang-out spot for local teenagers.

Roger was also a large supporter of the local police, making appearances at any police functions and the charitable police hockey tournament for more than 30 years. He would often provide meals for police association events. When Roger passed away the police provided an honour guard and pall-bearers during the funeral, as the only civilian non-police honorary member of the Durham Regional Police Association. Roger was also an honorary member of the Canadian Corps, and member of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Gordon and his siblings went into the restaurant business themselves, despite their parents wishes for them to otherwise. They opened the Jade Garden in Oshawa and it did so well they partnered with another family to open Jade Garden 115 in Orono. After many successful years, the Orono restaurant was forced to close due to the highway construction in the 80s. When the lease expired on the Oshawa location in 1991, the Chow’s decided it was time to close the restaurant and move onto other things. Gordon became an IT Manager the following year, where he worked until retirement.

Many thanks to Alex, who spent 6 months researching Oshawa’s early Asian history, research which will be part of a book about Oshawa’s unwritten history.  We hope to publish this book as a way to commemorate Oshawa’s 100th anniversary of being a city.

Information about Roger Chow’s family was provided by his son, Gordon.

The Soo Family

By Alex P., Research & Publications Assistant

As covered by Jennifer Weymark in her earlier blog post, Wong Shee Soo and her husband Soo Min were some of the earliest Chinese immigrants to live in Oshawa. Soo Min came to Canada in 1902, arriving in the port of Victoria from Hong Kong. He paid the $100 Head Tax required by all persons of Chinese origin wishing to enter the country. It had just been raised from $50 the year before. This was a considerable cost, given that the average Chinese labourer earned $225 yearly in 1885.

Sometime between 1902 and 1915, Soo Min found his way to Oshawa and established a café at 4 King Street that later became known as the Boston Café. He did well enough to bring his wife over in 1917, paying a $500 Head Tax, and they went on to have nine children, four of which were born in Oshawa. The family moved to Toronto between 1921 and 1926, and directory records show that the Boston Café became a Ladies Wear store in 1926. The family later returned in 1938 to establish the Eden Inn, at 8-10 Ontario Street, between King and Bond Streets.

The question I have, is why did Soo Min come to Oshawa in the first place?

Indeed, there were small communities of Chinese emerging everywhere in Ontario at this time, like in Hamilton or London. Records show there was a number of Soos in Hamilton and London, and it is possible one of them was a relative who hosted Min when he first arrived.

Oshawa too had a small established community of Chinese laundrymen living in the area, as early as 1898. In fact, two brothers named Soo Tong and Soo Hum, had opened a Chinese laundry in Bowmanville as early as 1897. Soo Tong seemed to be a prevalent member of the community, as his goings on were often listed in the local newspaper, The Canadian Statesmen.

When his young seventeen year old son died, Soo Yen, the Canadian Statesmen included an anecdote of unfortunate death along with his obituary.

While it is unclear if Soo Min and Soo Tong were related, it is likely, given that they both chose to reside in the area and share the same Clan name. By 1921 there were a number of Soos living in Oshawa, working at Soo Min’s restaurant, the Boston Café, and in Bowmanville at a restaurant at 201 King Street. By this time both Soo Tong and Hum Soo are no longer listed, and it is reasonable to believe that they had retired and returned to China.

It’s around 1921 that the Soos appear to have moved back to Toronto. No proprietor is listed at the Boston Café in the 1924 Vernon’s Directory of Oshawa, and in the 1926 Directory the Boston Café is no longer listed as being at 4 King Street East, and instead it is a Ladies Wear store. It is unclear why the family moved to Toronto, but in 1931 Soo Min’s eldest son went back to China. Leing Soo’s C.I.9 record shows that he was born in Oshawa, but that his family now lived in Toronto, since 1921. Leing was 14 years old, and according the passenger records, he was going to Shanghai to live with an Uncle. Soo Min’s information is listed.

Leing Soo

Leing Soo returned to Canada in 1934, and the family later returned to Oshawa in 1938 to open the Eden Inn on Ontario Street, between Bond and King Streets. Leing, going by his North American name, Robert, worked with his father at the Eden Inn as a waiter. He married a woman named Kay, according to the 1952 directory.

The Lee Family

By Alexandra P., Research & Publication Assistant

Earlier this month, I got the opportunity to visit the Northumberland County Archives to do some research, located in Cobourg’s Public Library. They hold a number of local records like photographs, maps, family records, as well as land registry documents. My hope was that by looking through the registry records I could trace the Lee family through the records.

Lee Wee C.I.9 certificate
Library and Archives, C.I.9 Certificates Issued in Victoria for people born outside of Canada (Mircofilm T-6043)

Lee Wee first arrived in Canada in 1903 and later moved to Cobourg in 1908 to open a hand-laundry. He and his brother are listed in the 1911 and 1921 Census as laundrymen, although no address is given. By going through the land registry records, I was able to find Wee Lee listed in the 1921 assessment rolls which show that he lived and worked in a rented building located at 17 Division Street. It also shows that he rented from a Mrs. Ellen Rooney.

That same year Wee Lee’s wife and two sons joined him in Cobourg. This would have been costly. In 1921, every person of Chinese descent wishing to immigrate to the country were required to pay a $500 Head Tax. This included women and children. Wee Lee’s wife Luey Shee and their children Chow and Leong each paid this tax; Chow was 8 years old and Leong was 13.

The Chinese were the only group in Canada required to pay a head tax. From 1885 until 1949, Chinese were required to register in the General Register of Chinese Immigration upon entering the country. If a person of Chinese descent wished to leave the country they had to get a C.I.9 Certificate and could only leave up to a maximum of 2 years or they were required to pay the Head Tax again. In 1923 the government excluded all Chinese immigration, separating many families.

The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Thomas Bouckley Collection

The Lee family decided to return to the village in 1928. Chow Lee married and had his first son that same year and decided to return Canada, going back to Cobourg. He made a few of trips back to China but in 1940 was forced to stay due to the Second World War. Chow returned to Canada in 1947, but his family stayed behind. Instead of settling in Cobourg, Chow went to Oshawa and opened Lee’s Laundry with his two brothers.

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The demolition of 18 Ontario Street, 1989; Oshawa Museum Archival Collection

Lee’s Laundry was located at 18 Ontario Street, between King and Bond Streets. It was a traditional hand-laundry and remained open until 1989. The building was torn down shortly after.


Lee, Jonathan. “A Story of Hardship and Success”

Hoe, Ben Seng. Enduring Hardship: The Chinese Laundry in Canada. University of Ottawa Press: Ottawa, 2003.

Library and Archives, C.I.9 Certificates Issued in Victoria for people born outside of Canada (Mircofilm T-6043)

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.

Asian History Month

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.

Detail from photo of King Street, Oshawa (Ax995.194.1)  The Boston Cafe sign can be seen in the centre, just to the left of the man holding the ‘Go’ traffic sign.  Its address was 4 King Street East

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.

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