One Chinese immigrant’s role in building Canada, and Yale, recognized

Recognition of On Lee’s hardships and contributions built on 2014 apology in B.C. legislature

The apology offered to Chinese-Canadians in the B.C. legislature in 2014 for racist and exclusionary policies is taking effect in physical form four years later, with the commemoration of an early Chinese resident of Yale.

“It’s very important as part of the apology initiative that was unanimously passed by the legislature back in 2014,” said George Chow, Minister of State for Trade and MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview. He spoke at a ceremony in Yale Saturday, honouring a 19th-century resident known as On Lee.

“On Lee, he basically supported the town with all his activities…hardware store, washhouse, grocery store and even hiring teachers to teach the kids English and…probably in those days having herbal doctors here to help the Chinese, the miners who were here.”

Several generations of On Lee’s family, including his granddaughter Hazel Chong, were in Yale to mark the occasion. For Chong, Saturday’s ceremony and the permanent plaque which will stand at the site of On Lee’s house in Yale for generations to come are a recognition of the young, single men who came to Canada to build the railroad and the country.

RELATED: VIDEO: Yale commemorates Chinese contributions

“Many of them lost their lives. The old saying that there was a Chinese worker lost for every mile of the railroad, that has stuck in my head for a long, long time. And today, to have this finally as a source of remembrance, a source to show the next generation that ‘hey, we were here a long, long time ago and we built the very framework of our transportation system right across Canada, the B.C. portion’ is a wonderful acknowledgment,” she said.

Chong’s mother was born in Yale, she was 20 years On Lee’s junior. The family had 13 children, only two of whom are alive today. She said her family, while not extravagantly wealthy, was able to live comfortably because of the sacrifices of the first generation.

The early Chinese experience in Canada was one of hardship, and On Lee’s was no different.

“My father came with his twin brother and it took them a year to cross the Pacific Ocean in steerage class and during the voyage, his twin brother died. And I’m sure that they were not given adequate food, I mean steerage class, I only knew it from watching Titanic what steerage class was all about. But it took them a year to come here and he landed here at the very start,” Chong said.

Lily Chow, historian and multiculturalism director at the New Pathways to Gold Society, spoke of the hardship endured by these early Chinese settlers and On Lee’s role

“Generally, most of the Chinese who came here they worked hard, they were single men and because the federal government had implemented the immigration act and then later on the head tax and then followed by the exclusion act, they all came here without a family. So they needed community support, community help,” Lily said. “The late (On Lee)…was one of them who made efforts to take care of his fellow men by offering accommodation in his store.”

The speakers at Saturday’s event all spoke of the importance of preserving and sharing On Lee’s history, in particular with young Canadians and Canadian immigrants.

RELATED: New generation of Chinese-Canadians discover the Fraser River through home movie

“We need to document it so future generations will know our roots. Where we come from and how we established ourselves here and how we took root in this country,” Lily said.

-With files from Greg Laychak


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