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.

New Picture
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.

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