Edwin Lee: Connecting threads in Chinatown

Edwin Lee has always been interested in his ancestry and his family has a rich history in Vancouver. In 1885, his great grandfather opened their store, Gim Lee Yuen; it was the first import-export business in Chinatown. Edwin showed me a picture of the original store and it looked like a scene from an old western movie. There were horse drawn carriages and wooden storefronts, but there was also a man in the photo with a carrying pole reminiscent of Asian roots. Afterwards, Edwin’s grandparents opened a new shop on 75 East Pender and he and his family lived in the floors above.



Edwin was born in Vancouver in 1936 and grew up in Chinatown with a close group of family and friends.  For years, he had been talking with them about compiling a book of their memories. Eventually, he decided to do it himself and after three years of research and interviews he is proud to have completed his first book, Sum Yung Guys: Untold stories of growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

A friend recently sent Edwin a link to the CBC’s 1956 film, ‘Summer Afternoon.’ His friend knew that his family had history in Chinatown and thought he might be interested in watching the video, posted by Laiwan for the Fountain project. Edwin was amazed by what he saw.

He recognized her before she turned to face the camera. He knew the shape and clothing of his grandmother who was placing an order at the family store. He was surprised to see the shop where he grew up with its familiar drawers filled with Chinese herbs and medicine. His favorite employee, Gin Foon, was carefully measuring ingredients behind the counter, while his grandmother eyed the boys in the window. She sat patiently waiting for her order, a fan in her hand. When it was ready, she paid and walked out the door into Chinatown.

After watching the film, Edwin contacted the CBC media archive in hopes of finding more information about his family. I was forwarded Edwin’s email to the CBC and contacted him regarding the film. He met me for coffee and shared some of his stories about Chinatown.

There is a Chinese parable that Edwin includes in the beginning of his book. It is believed that “when a child is born an invisible red thread connects the child’s soul to all the people, present and future, that will play a part in their life. As each birthday passes, those threads shorten and tighten, bringing closer those people who are fated to be together.”

This is true of Edwin’s life. Over the years, he has stayed close to and reconnected with many people from his past and he is overflowing with stories to share. Edwin is lucky to have an incredible memory, in that he can tell stories with intricate detail and recognize the faces of people he hasn’t seen in years.

In one instance, Edwin attended the funeral of a family friend’s mother. At the funeral he recognized a woman, Leah, who had looked after him over 60 years ago. Leah was shocked that he had recognized her after all this time and told him that she had a picture of him. Several weeks later, he discovered that she passed away in an accident and one of her final wishes was for Edwin to receive the photo, which a friend dutifully delivered to him.

Edwin recognized and marvelled in these chance encounters, which included his friend sending him the CBC film where he happened upon his grandmother and connected with the Fountain project and myself.

‘Summer Afternoon’ was filmed after Edwin moved out of Chinatown, but the neighbourhood he grew up in was the same as that in the film. He lived in the heart of Chinatown and knew every shop and shopkeeper. He remembered running along the same docks as the boys in the film and looking into the houseboats tied to the pier. He described the Columbia Corridor that ran through Chinatown and stretched to False Creek. He recalled riding his bike on a dirt path alongside the water and running into squatters who built shacks where the Georgia Viaduct now stands.

edwin lee_edited-1Edwin shared stories of growing up in Chinatown and the people he has kept in contact with over the years, many of which are in his book. Although he doesn’t have a background in writing, it has become a passion for him.  Sum Yung Guys is a personal account of his family’s history and memories from him and his friends’ youth. The title refers to the ‘young men’ who immigrated to Canada and made a life in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Edwin Lee self published the book for his friends and family to preserve and share his family history. It is available to purchase online and at Hager Books Ltd., 2176 W 41st Ave, Vancouver. Proceeds from the sale of his memoir are going towards a scholarship for underprivileged students. For more information visit http://edwinlee.shawwebspace.ca/

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