As part of our project to expand Woodland’s historic data base we’ve been researching the lives of Londoner’s buried in our cemetery. Among them is a man named Lem Wong. Lem’s life is exactly the kind of immigrant story people love to hear. It’s so perfect it’s already been told several times before! Lem’s life has been the subject of several articles and a documentary. The 52 part mini-series A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada features an episode on the Londoner called The Road Chosen: the Story of Lem Wong.
An Immigrant Experience
As a teenager Lem first traveled to Vancouver with his uncle on board a sailing ship. Like many Chinese immigrants he found work in laundries. He traveled across the country by hopping trains finding work on the prairies, in Montréal, Springhill, and Nova Scotia. During his time in Nova Scotia Lem participated in biking tournaments for fun and for prize money. Between his biking winning and his work he made enough money to return to China.
Lem was on his way home to an arranged marriage when he met a women named Toye Chin. The two fell in love and Lem backed out of his arranged marriage despite great social pressure from his family. Lem would return to Canada alone and spend the next few years trying to start a successful business so Toye could enter the country.
This was during the Chinese immigration act which required all Chinese immigrants to pay a head tax before, thus limiting Chinese immigration all together in 1923. To encourage only working men to emigrate the head tax for women was double that of men. The wives of merchants were the only exception to this rule. Opening a successful fruit and vegetable stand allowed Lem to sponsor his wife’s immigration to Canada. Lem and Toye became the first Chinese couple to start a family in the London.
Wong’s Café: The Place To Be
Once reunited with his wife in London Lem opened a restaurant called Wong’s Café on Richmond Street beside the old Free Press building. The restaurant flourished into a mainstay of the downtown known for its excellent food, service and music. Wong’s Café was open for 25 years between the First and Second World Wars. The restaurant was the first to introduce supper music and Saturday night dancing. During this time it became known as the kind of place you’d take people you wanted to impress. London’s own Guy Lombardo got his start performing there.
As a community focused man, Lem’s name can be found on voter’s registries throughout his time in London. Wong also used the restaurant as a community meeting place. The café was a venue for many special events including celebrations for the Chinese Freemasons. In 1945 the London Chinese community held a victory parade in solidarity with China to celebrate the Japanese surrender. Lem was quick to offer his restaurant as the venue for the ceremonial dinner. He would also host New Year’s dinners. During the great depression Lem partnered with the Salvation Army to organize a free Christmas dinner and clothing donation drive for the homeless and disenfranchised citizens of London.
Lem’s eight children remember him as a kind-hearted forward thinking man. He had Toye’s feet unbound and encouraged both his sons and daughters to pursue higher education. When discussing his immigration experience as a Chinese Canadian he used to tell his children; “You should take only the best of both worlds.”
Lem Wong was never a rich man, but he was a facet of the downtown for years. In his time he shaped the experiences and culture of London as much as any of the city’s more famous residents.