Manitoba History: A Conversation with Winnipeg’s Chinese Canadian Duet

by Alison R. Marshall
Brandon University

Number 62, Winter 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Dr. Joseph Du is the President of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre and the Honourable Philip S. Lee, Patron of the Manitoba Historical Society, is his former First Vice-President. For decades, the two men have been the leading force of the Chinese-Canadian community in Winnipeg. Both have been named to the Order of Manitoba for meritorious public service. Dr. Marshall spoke with them following Mr. Lee’s installation as the 24th Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba in August. Editors.

On 22 September 2009, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Honourable Mr. Philip Lee and Dr. Joseph Du at Winnipeg’s Manitoba Club. As 2009 is the centary of Winnipeg’s Chinatown, it seemed appropriate to ask them about the circumstances under which they immigrated to Canada, met, and began to work together. I was also interested to know how His Honour became acquainted with Mr. Charlie Au Foo (1894-1980), a leader of the Winnipeg Chinese community for over five decades.

Philip S. Lee

Joseph N. H. Du

What is your date of birth and where were you born?

Lee: I was born on 5 May 1944 at the end of World War Two in Hong Kong.

What were the circumstances under which your family came to live in Hong Kong?

Lee: Well, my father Mr. Sam Lee was orphaned at the age of ten. Our family was from Sunwoi Township, thirty miles away from Taishan. My father went to become a houseboy for a scholar, who was a private tutor. He worked for him for four years and while there he also received a traditional Chinese education. After that, he went to Hong Kong where he went to work for Wing On Company. It was a department store but the owner also owned banks. My father became totally integrated into the business, becoming a salesperson at the front counter and eventually the top salesperson. Within two to three years, at the age of twenty, he was so well-liked that he was promoted to be supervisor of the Draperies and Fabric Departments. Sam was very articulate in Chinese and many of the ladies who were his customers came to the store to buy fine jewellery. Over time he came to buy jewellery from these clients. He was the middle man in this new venture.

My father was not a spender and, making the wages of five employees and being a single person, he saved a lot putting away seventy cents of every dollar he made. Therefore, he accumulated a large amount of savings. Having been away from China since he was ten years old, he was eventually summoned back to China by his grandmother to get married. He took a leave of absence and returned from Hong Kong.

Before I was born my father began to amass condominiums and apartments and gradually entered the import-export business. Throughout his life, however, he remained loyal to his first boss Mr. Kwok of Wing On. Even until the day he died he was loyal to him as a mentor and became a millionaire himself.

I am the ninth member in the family. I had a special relationship with my father that developed out of our shared love of stories and history. Being at work from nine o’clock in the morning to six o’clock each day, he would return home too late to hear the radio show broadcast each evening from five o’clock to six o’clock. One particular radio show would hire a story-teller named Mr. Wing Fong who would select and then retell an account from Chinese history, such as the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), for one hour, with an intermission. This show had many listeners. I remember my father saying to me “Why don’t you listen to the broadcast and tell me about it afterward.” I became a second-hand storyteller. I would say to him, “Today they talked about the Three Kingdoms (220–265 CE).” And then I would recite the details to him almost verbatim. Through the telling and retelling of historical tales, our relationship became the closest in the family.

When I was in secondary school, my father at the age of fifty-five became ill with tuberculosis and almost died. At the time I was already a Catholic having been to a Jesuit school. I asked him to consider becoming one too when I learned of his illness. I recall him snapping his fingers and saying with enthusiasm, “Yes! Ask your priest at school and see how I can become a Catholic.” They arranged to send a teacher to my house to give my father and mother Catechism classes during the school’s off hours. My Buddhist mom and dad threw away the urns and incense and became Catholics, and were baptized within two months. And suddenly in my house there were four Catholics instead of just me and my brother. By some miracle, he got better and healthy again, dying from something else five years later. This gave me another five years to spend time with him.

What were the circumstances under which you came to Canada and Winnipeg?

Lee: In 1962 when I finished matriculation in Hong Kong, my sister was working in the Department of Education and doing post-graduate courses in Winnipeg where she was married in 1960. Two years after that she felt lonely and said to me “Why don’t you come over to join me in Canada. Your matriculation would be recognized here.” So I sent her the transcripts and she connected me with the University of Manitoba admissions department and then before I knew it I was admitted to first-year studies. I came to Winnipeg in August 1962, just a month before school started. In those days only sixty students were at the University from China, two of whom were women. If I needed a date, I would have had to wait for thirty days. Being Catholic, St. Paul’s College wanted me to join them, and complete my degree from there. I would have to do three courses at St. Paul’s and then two courses at the University proper. If I was affiliated with the University of Manitoba the reverse would be true. In the end I decided not to become a St. Paul’s student because doing so would have required that I take two Religious Studies courses with no credit. I took three courses at the University —physics, chemistry, German—and then took English and math at St. Paul’s. That year I spent more time at St. Paul’s, however, and became close to Father Discoe, S.J., my Chaplin, and served at his mass. I also found that some professors at St. Paul’s were very diligent (that’s not to say that others at University of Manitoba were not). Dr. Giesinger taught chemistry and was a fine scholar who also tutored me in physics and math, and I respected him for that. So during my second year I changed my focus. I took chemistry at St. Paul’s instead. Under him I did very well. He guided my progress as a student, monitoring me and stopping to answer questions during a lecture if these were asked. In most classes, you were on your own if you missed class. With Dr. Giesinger, if you missed class either another student could give you detailed notes, or he would give you his own notes. In that way, I finished my first degree.

By the time I finished my degree, I had started dating Anita who was living in Hong Kong. We decided I should come back to Hong Kong where we would get married (which was in March 1968) and use my first degree to be eligible to write the exam to become a lawyer. So my business plan was to become a lawyer. My mother was living with me then. I was selling investment bonds. There were riots, things escalated, and there was a persistent rumour that the British would return Hong Kong to China. It was hard to live under that kind of shadow and political instability. Life was nice and vibrant in Hong Kong but we chose to leave and come to Canada and Manitoba where my sister lived.

As a result, my plan to become a lawyer had to change, and once in Manitoba I looked for a job here in the field of chemistry. In those days, there was the Metropolis of Greater Winnipeg that controlled the superstructure and they put an advertisement in the newspaper for a chemist. I sent a letter applying for that job and a week later I was delighted to receive a phone call inviting me to interview for the position. I met with the head chemist who told me that my English was very good and asked why. I told him that I had been trained in Hong Kong by nuns and Jesuits. The interview went well and he said I would hear from him within a week; but I waited and waited and nothing happened. Impetuous, I called the research engineer and he told me that his boss had just been tardy and that I would eventually receive a letter offering me the job, which I did shortly after the conversation. I came to work in the area of water research and limnology studies for the city.

What were the circumstances under which you came to Canada and Winnipeg?

Du: I was born in Laokay, Vietnam in 1933, and was the youngest of eleven children. In 1954, when the Geneva Conference resulted in Vietnam being divided into North and South, the government tried to evacuate the students. As a result, I became among the first of many who chose to leave the country to study in Taiwan. My initial few months in Taiwan were very scary. I cried and was so lonely and what was worse was that I could only speak Vietnamese and Cantonese. While many others dropped out of the medical program in which I had enrolled, I persisted, relying on my dictionary and studying for long hours in the library. By 1961 I had graduated from Taiwan’s national medical school, and now had to choose a country in which to get accreditation. I chose Canada, first coming to Regina and later to Winnipeg where I met my wife Jeanine and became a paediatrician practicing until my retirement in 2002.

How did you meet Mr. Charlie Foo and Dr. Du?

Lee: My sister introduced me to Charlie Foo when I arrived in the community the second time around 1969. Mr. Foo was the most senior Chinese Canadian in Winnipeg, wellconnected to government departments and officials. But he spoke broken English and was concerned that he would have no successor who could continue his work. He said to me “You are the person I need because you can speak both English and Chinese.” Then as time passed he proceeded to introduce me as the community’s future spokesperson.” Shortly after that I met Joe Du. Together we worked as a team in the Manitoba Chinese Fellowship. It was a group established by different families and the meetings took place in homes and restaurants.

The first event in which we were involved was the 1970 Manitoba Centennial celebrations that the students celebrated with performances in Chinatown. So by 1970, we had joined forces to organize this event. There were gatherings, and flea markets around Hudson’s Bay on Portage Avenue. We called upon eight different groups to put on displays. It was a successful event that people liked and in which many took part. The city’s ethnic leaders had decided to choose a week in August and call it Folklorama as part of the Centennial Celebration for Manitoba. We would do it on the street, along King Street and Pacific Avenue for one block. On the south side of Alexander Avenue we rolled out a carpet for the performers.

Du: “It would have been a real mess if it had rained. But it didn’t.”

Lee: Joe Du was the doctor for my daughter. And being a well-known doctor in both Chinese and non-Chinese communities, the Manitoba Chinese Fellowship grew through his network of friends and patients. And so we expanded the role of the Fellowship. We became good friends with the Secretary of State. We learned how to deal with ethnic and government programs to promote culture. Since then I have become his first Lieutenant. We reached out to the non-Chinese community and in doing so became the envy of other communities in the country.

Charlie Foo (centre) and Philip Lee (right) present a plaque of appreciation from the Chinese-Canadian community to Winnipeg Police Chief Norm Stewart, circa 1972.
Source: Philip S. Lee

What did it mean to be Chinese Canadian when you arrived?

Lee: The brother of Mrs. Winnie Chan who was born in Winnipeg was trained in Winnipeg as a physician but he had to go to Ireland to practice medicine. That wouldn’t happen today.

Du: In those days, it was still hard for us to get our families over to Canada. In 1947 there was the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act. But it was still a long time before immigration policy opened up.

What does it mean to be Chinese Canadian now?

Lee: In 2009, Chinese Canadians are considered to be a dominant visible minority group.

Du: Our children don’t feel discrimination.

Lee: There are no barriers in terms of job opportunities.

Could you tell me a story about Dr. Du that captures your relationship?

Lee: Dr. Du specialized in paediatrics and was one of the few doctors who did that in the city. Everyone with a young child needed such a specialist for general check-ups, immunization or pneumonia. Dr. Du joined the Manitoba Chinese Fellowship and his practice grew quickly. He became the most popular doctor at the Winnipeg Clinic. Through new clients and new friends, the Chinese community benefitted.

So together we made things happen in Chinatown. People considered us a “working twin.” Whatever he said, I supported it. Whatever I said, he supported it. People found it difficult to find a crack in our relationship. And that became very beneficial to both our partnership and to the vision we had for Chinatown.

Could you tell me a story about Mr. Charlie Foo that captures your relationship?

Lee: Charlie Foo was the leader of the Chinese Community long before my time. He was close to Mayor Stephen Juba, a Ukrainian Canadian who served as this city’s mayor from 1957 to 1977 and who had crowned Mr. Foo as the Mayor of Chinatown. If someone employed in restaurants or in other Chinatown businesses had a problem, Charlie would become their big brother and help out using his English skills and connections to government. In those days having those skills was a huge plus. He was a daring person. Hung Lee of the Shanghai restaurant was also a big supporter. With his wealth, he would help Mr. Foo with whatever project or event he tried to organize and support him. Hung Lee treated Charlie as his mentor. There was a man named Mr. Shi, as well, who was a scholar and had good knowledge of Chinese literature and history; but he spoke very little English. While Mr. Shi could do things to help in the background and network in the Chinese community, he could not communicate with the non-Chinese community. That’s where I fit in. Charlie Foo said to me: “Now I have someone who can do both.” And then I discovered Joseph Du. He was a good liaison with the community outside Chinatown and was powerful within it. There were those who wanted to fracture our union. They tried and could not.

Charlie Foo (left) and Steve Juba inspect a commemorative plate for the twinning of Winnipeg and Taichung, Taiwan in 1971.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Chinese Historical Society Fonds, P7071, #116.

As some of my research on Chinese prairie history examines food ideas and customs, I thought I would conclude the interview by asking you about some of your favourite foods?

Lee: I love ordinary sandwiches. We go back to China for authentic dishes. Shark fin, Abalone. These are high quality items you don’t have every day. It takes a well-trained chef to prepare these foods. Joe and I enjoy eating these foods together when we go. We look for friends to take us to the good places. Joe likes the same food.

Philip Lee reviews military personnel attending his installation as Lieutenant-Governor at the Legislature on 4 August 2009.
Source: Dr. Hermann Lee

Winnipeg’s Chinatown: A Century in the Making

2009 marks the centennial year of Winnipeg’s Chinatown. In a recent issue of the Manitoba Chinese Tribune, Tina Chen explained the significance of key moments within the history of Winnipeg’s Chinatown and its remarkable importance today:

One of the most recognizable features of today’s Winnipeg Chinatown is the gate over King Street. Similar to other Chinatowns, building of the gate in 1986 signalled a renewed investment in and recognition of the vitality and importance of Chinatown to the City of Winnipeg and of Chinese residents to the multicultural mosaic of the city. The revitalization of Winnipeg Chinatown since the 1980s can be seen in the construction of the Dynasty building, housing complex, and Mandarin building, alongside the establishment of organizations including the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre and the Chinatown Development Corporation. Building upon the diversity, talents, and needs of established and more recent Chinese immigrants to Winnipeg, as well as Canadians of ethnic Chinese heritage, today’s Winnipeg Chinatown continues to be a recognizable area of Chinese stores, restaurants, residences, meeting places.

Winnipeg Chinatown is rooted in a century of history that has seen many different groups of Chinese come to Winnipeg under a range of circumstances and from many different areas of Asia with substantial Chinese populations. Some entered Canada during the era of the discriminatory Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act legislation, as refugees from Indochina, as professionals recruited to Winnipeg in the 1960s and in recent years, and others in search of new life opportunities in Canada. The 100- year history of Winnipeg Chinatown is the history of these individuals, their businesses and social organizations, and the ways in which community ties have been forged and maintained within the Chinese community, as well as between the Chinese and non-Chinese communities of Winnipeg. [1]

In 2001, Edgar Wickberg (1927–2008) proposed a framework for understanding Chinatowns that began to emerge throughout North America during the late 19th and early 20th Century. He noted in particular that Chinatowns, though places where Chinese born settlers could live and work, were “extensions of China,” where customs were preserved through the organization and hosting of traditional events. To outsiders, Chinatowns were seen to be both “exotic” and “sinful.” [2]

The earliest Chinese Canadians were mostly men who came in the late 1850s to mine for gold in the Fraser River Valley, and after that to swing picks to build Canadian Pacific Railway lines and or to cook for its gangs. Once the lines were completed in 1885, Chinese moved east and began to settle on the Canadian prairies and were naturally attracted to Winnipeg. Others, including Winnipeg’s earliest Chinese residents Charley Yam, Fung Quong, and an unnamed woman came from the United States in 1877. The story of their arrival was front-page news in the 19 November 1877 issue of the Manitoba Daily Free Press:

… This trio of Celestials have been in America for some time—one of them six years and they can speak the English language in a fractured manner, although they discount any Winnipegger in talking Chinese. They come here to enter into the washee clothes business for which there appears to be an excellent opening for “the honourable members for China.” Hoop-la! [3]

In 1879, there were not only Chinese laundries but also Groceries and Tobacco shops on Main Street. [4] By the 1901 Census, Manitoba had a Chinese population of just 206—all male—in contrast to the 14,885 male and female Chinese people who lived in British Columbia. [5] At this time, Winnipeg had Chinese owned and operated laundries, groceries, restaurants, rooming houses and apartments that radiated out from a core area at King Street and Alexander Street, and extended to northern and southern borders defined by Logan and Rupert Avenue, and western and eastern ones defined by Princess and Main Street. [6] The number of Chinese businesses continued to grow in this area, eventually coalescing in 1909 as Chinatown. [7] In Winnipeg’s Chinatown, you could find traditional foods, as well as medicines, porcelain vases, silk and other Chinese items. The heart of the new Chinatown at 259 King Street was the location of the Chinese Freemasons who opened a Winnipeg branch in late 1910, and hosted Sun Yatsen’s visit to the city in 1911. Large hand-written signs in Chinese were posted on Chinatown storefront windows along King Street to announce news and events to the Chinese community. [8]

A Lion Dance. Members of Winnipeg’s Chinese-Canadian community perform in Chinatown, 1949.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Chinese Historical Society Collection, P7072, 8/3.


1. Tina Chen, Manitoba China Tribune, June 2009.

2. Edgar Wickberg, “Vancouver Chinatown: The First Hundred Years.”A presentation at the workshop “The Vancouver Chinatown: Past, Present, and Future” held at the Institute of Asian Research, UBC, 21 April 2001.

3. Manitoba Daily Free Press, Monday 19 November 1877, p. 1.

4. Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey. Ten Years in Winnipeg: A Narration of Principal Events in the History of the City of Winnipeg from the Year AD 1870 to the Year 1879 Inclusive. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Times Printing & Publishing House, 1879.

5. For this number I have relied on the table in Harry Con, et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited in association with the Multiculturalism Directorate, Department of the Secretary of State and the Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, 1982, p. 301. See also “Table XII – Nationalities,” in Census of Canada, 1901, Vol. I. Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1902, p. 406. Note that the data here combines Chinese and Japanese population figures.

6. Lovell’s Classified Business Directory. Manitoba Northwest Gazeteer, 1901, p. 846.

7 . Paul Yee, Chinatown: An Illustrated History of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. James Lorimer & Company, 2005, p. 67. Kwong and Baureiss note that it was the increasing number of Chinese grocery stores that finally created the core area known as “Chinatown” in 1909 at King and Alexander. Julia Kwong and Gunter Baureiss, The History of the Chinese Community of Winnipeg. Winnipeg: The Chinese Community Committee, September 1979.

8. Joseph E. Wilder, Read All About It: Reminiscences of an Immigrant Newsboy. Fred C. Dawkins and Micheline C. Brodeur, eds. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers Limited, 1978, p. 56.

Page revised: 21 May 2016