A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
Episodes Search Site Map The Series Partners White Pine White Pine Home

For Teachers

Related Links


THE ROAD CHOSEN: The Story of Lem Wong
Lem Wong's Cafe

Putting Down Roots with Entrepreneurial Vigour

Lem Wong came to Canada at the turn of the last century. He started his new life here scrubbing shirt collars. Fifty years later he was working behind the cash register of his own restaurant he'd opened in London, Ontario. Some would say that's not much of a journey, but Lem's success was measured by his character and his love for his family. He laid the foundation for a new generation.

Chinese immigrants at the time of Lem's arrival in Canada brought distinctive cultural values. Society in China functioned according to Confucian principles, emphasizing family ties and hard work above all else. The Chinese also came from a culture where the business economy had flourished for centuries and where many people achieved success through education and individual enterprise. So Chinese Canadian immigrants brought to their new homeland a sense for the free-market practices of business. As it happened, these beliefs and economic principles were also fundamental to North American society. The Chinese came to the New World prepared to work hard so their families would prosper(1).

After working five years as a laundryman - fourteen hours a day for only four dollars a week- Lem Wong had saved up enough money for one round trip ticket to China. He went home to find a wife and then returned to Canada. Lem had wanted to bring his wife back with him, but couldn't afford the $500 head tax.

The only way he could bring Toye Wong, his new bride, to Canada was to establish himself as a merchant. To be a merchant Lem had to be selling goods over the counter. Unfortunately, the laundry trade that Lem knew so well didn't qualify. Undaunted, Lem opened a poultry store. When that failed he finally satisfied the letter of the law with a fruit and vegetable store.

Many immigrants of the time were doing the same sort of thing in setting up shop. As large numbers of immigrant communities grew in Canada there came a demand for food and services traditional to their homelands. This provided the ideal opportunity for the immigrant entrepreneur of a laundry, a food specialty shop or a restaurant. These ventures did not require much start-up capital, new language skills or special training. And a community's consumer nostalgia was a fair guarantee for steady business(2).

Even today, while it is a generalization to say that Asian immigrants are inclined to be entrepreneurs, the 1991 Census found that immigrants from China are more likely than other immigrant and Canadian born counterparts to be self-employed(3).

Back in 1914, Lem and his entrepreneurial efforts left the laundry trade for an attempt at an entirely new business. He opened a restaurant in London, Ontario and called it Wong's Cafe. "There were linen tablecloths on the tables, silver cutlery, teapots, cream and sugar, things like that, and finger bowls," Lem's daughter, Gretta, remembers. "The waiters all went to New York to train, to hold the trays over their heads so that they could carry everything and put them on the tables. That was the heyday of the restaurant.".

It wasn't just the service and niceties of place settings, however, that brought in the customers. Wong's Cafe became famous throughout southwestern Ontario for its live orchestra and supper dances. And on Friday night the entertainment would be broadcast on the local radio station CJGC. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," the master of ceremonies would say. "Direct form Wong's Cafe in London we bring you the music of Ken Sullivan's orchestra."

"He just was able to think of these things to enhance his own business and to make it flourish, and where he got all this from I don't know," daughter Gretta marvels, "because he only had a grade four education." Lem's daughter Mary was the cashier at the restaurant. She jokes that no one got in or out without paying. "Lem would come and greet you as you came up, of course," Mary says. "He always remembered their names, their faces and greeted them with open arms right at the door and escorted them to the tables."

Despite Lem's warm hospitality and business acumen, the Great Depression of the 1930's hit hard. He was forced to move his family into cramped quarters on the top floor of his cafe."We didn't really appreciate what my dad was going through at the time," says his son, Norman. Lem Wong struggled along and saw his wife and eight children through the hard times.

Lem also had to survive the wide spread suspicions and prejudice of many Canadians who resented the determination and discipline of Chinese immigrants in working so hard for so little. With the resentment came bruising discrimination. It was illegal, for example, for Lem to employ white women in his restaurant because of a provincial law designed to protect the white population from corruption by Chinese Canadians.

Lem kept an open mind, and an open heart. He was known for the Christmas dinners he'd host at Wong's for single homeless men who couldn't get welfare. And Lem insisted that the homeless be served the same menu as his paying customers, a full-course turkey dinner with pudding and all the trimmings. He was a man of uncompromising principles.

Unlike the principles of his Confucian heritage, Lem believed that women and men should have the same opportunities. Traditionally Chinese women deferred to men. "Girls weren't encouraged to go on to post-secondary school," recalls Gretta. "Dad certainly encouraged us[the four daughters]to go as far as we wanted to go." Lem's son Norman recalls that wasn't quite the case for him. "All except me," he says. "I had to get out and work."

Lem and Toye Wong both lived into their 98th year, lives long with labour and determination. All of their eight children worked hard to carry on Lem's legacy of bettering oneself. Of the four daughters, Mary and Clara became doctors, Gretta became a lawyer and Esther a biochemist. It was Victor, the eldest son, who would carry on the family tradition by taking over Wong's Cafe.

Endnotes 1,2 - Struggle and Hope, The Story of Chinese Canadians
by Paul Yee (Umbrella Press, Toronto, 1996).

3 - A Profile of Immigrants from China in Canada
(Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ottawa, 1997).

Top of Page