Wong On Lee Project Statement

Wong On Lee (Dan) was born on April 12, 1904. In 1922, he paid a $500 head tax and boarded the Empress of Asia bound for Canada. He managed to enter Canada just before the Chinese Immigration Act (1923). Dan was 18 years old, but for unknown reasons his documents indicated that he was 15. Arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 5th, Dan joined an uncle in Brooks, Alberta, who was working in a CPR camp. Eventually, Dan went to work in restaurants in Tompkins, Saskatchewan and The Pas, Manitoba before settling in Queenstown, Alberta, in 1927 where he opened a cafe. He later turned his cafe into a general store and named it Dan Wong’s General Merchant.

In 1933, Dan returned to Hong Kong to marry Mah See. He was 29 years old, and she was 17. Dan could not bring Mah See to Canada because of the Chinese Immigration Act (1923), so she remained with his family in China. The couple did not reunite until 1949, two years after the Chinese Immigration Act 1923 was repealed. By then, their son, Gene, was 15 years old. Together, the couple ran the store which was also a home in which they raised five children.

According to Dan’s youngest son, Fred, it could not have been easy for Gene to be uprooted as a teenage from his home in China and be relocated to a country with cultures that were unfamiliar to him. Being new to the English language, Gene attended one-room schools and was assigned to classes that were younger in age. Eventually, Gene adjusted to life in Alberta, grew up, and got married. But as his brother attested, Gene’s relationship with his father remained distant throughout. The experience as a young immigrant is something Gene has always been reluctant to share. One can only imagine the strain he must have endured.

Government legislations were often unpredictable and punitive to early Chinese migrants. As someone who knew that well, Dan would repeatedly warn his children about being careful, to avoid trouble, and to not do things that would draw attention. By consistently hearing that message, Fred feels he has subconsciously adopted the same cautious tendency as he grew up. Dan came to Canada at a time when the government would enact anti-Asian laws in response to public outcries. It is no wonder that immigrants like Dan adopted such caution as a normal way of life.

Dan Wong’s General Merchant was always kept well-stocked, and no one in the family was exempt from the chores. Except for Christmas and New Year’s Day, the store was opened from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Dan became a well-respected member in his community. And, as a common practice among Asian merchants, he often extended store credit to those in need. For over 20 years, Dan built a business alone in Canada with the foresight of providing for his family. After Mah See passed away in 1993, Dan continued running the store on his own. He did not stop working until 1997 when he suffered a stroke. Dan Wong passed away in 2000 at the age of 96.