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 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 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.
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)