Nostalgic Chinatown

Entrepreneur Carol Lee reminisces about her childhood and aims to reinvent Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Holistically helping people has been Carol Lee’s story throughout her professional life. Judged as one of “B.C.’s Most Influential Women” by a local journal, Lee is well known for her therapeutic skincare company Linacare, which she co-founded in 2003.

She supplies major hospitals, skincare centres, and cancer clinics in Canada, as well as beauty boutiques around the world. While multinational beauty conglomerates have tried to buy her company, Lee remains firm in her mission—to provide affordable products for people suffering from cancer and eczema.

“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” ~ Chinese proverb.

Lee’s heart for helping is now being channelled towards the place she grew up—Chinatown. In recent years, the historic Chinatown has been on the decline as shops have closed and much of the local Chinese community has migrated elsewhere. Lee said it was shocking to see the downtrend when she moved back to Vancouver in 2004.

“If we waited and did nothing for 10 years, [Chinatown] would eventually be gone,” she says.

A Humble Beginning

Entrepreneurship and building up Canada are in Lee’s blood. Her father, Robert Lee, was the founder of a successful real estate development firm and former University of British Columbia chancellor. On her mother’s side, in 1921, her grandfather established a dry goods and furnishings store, where Lee currently headquarters Linacare in Chinatown.

Lee’s lineage of entrepreneurial success didn’t come easily for her family, but giving back was at the heart of their story.

Many Chinese immigrants had originally immigrated in the late 19th century for the gold rush and to build the railroad. At the time, they were all mandated to live in Chinatown.

In the 1920s, her paternal grandfather immigrated from a village in southern China. The villagers chose him as the most able-bodied, so they bought him a one-way ticket to take a 28-day voyage on a ship to Canada. Once he established himself and began earning money abroad, her grandfather would send money back to the village, a tithe he continued his entire life.

Around the same time, Lee’s maternal grandfather immigrated to Canada from China at age 13. He was hoping to get a job in a mining camp, but he couldn’t because Canadians didn’t hire Chinese at that time.

“Forget about voting; you were not allowed to get a job. You know the tailor down the street? He was an engineer, but he wasn’t allowed to be an engineer, so that’s why he became a tailor,” Lee says.

Minorities wouldn’t be given equal rights until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Chinese, however, not only survived, they thrived, despite the tough circumstances.

Lee’s renovation of several Chinese restaurants is an important way she’s revitalizing Chinatown’s economy.

Pay it Forward

Lee’s maternal grandfather began working at a general store in Alert Bay, a small, 800-person First Nations village. He saved enough money and eventually bought the store. He raised six kids and sent them all to university, quite a feat for a Chinese immigrant in the 1950s. His kids all became success stories: a doctor, a pharmacist, a nurse, a teacher, an engineer, and a businessman, all raised in Chinatown.
Lee emphasizes that her family’s story is like many other Chinese immigrants of that era. “This is the story of all the people that came,” she says. “Chinatown is the physical legacy of that struggle and triumph.”

In 2009, Lee founded the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. Currently, there are a number of projects underway: building a $108 million 10-storey affordable housing complex; renovating the historic May Wah Hotel, built in 1913; and establishing the Chinatown Storytelling Centre to share and preserve the stories and heritage of Chinese immigrants in Canada.

“We want to create a vibrant community where people want to live, work, and play, and it’s for everybody,” she says.

Hungry for Change

Food, especially for Chinese people, brings everyone together. The restaurant business, however, is risky and competitive. Despite the challenges, Lee’s commitment to revitalize Chinatown inspired her to reach beyond the initiatives of the Foundation and into her own pocketbook for her riskiest business venture yet—to become a restaurateur.

When Lee bought her first restaurant, a traditional Chinese barbeque aptly named Chinatown BBQ, her parents laughed. Her friends said she was crazy, as the restaurant industry was littered with failures. But Lee knew that food was the right way to draw people into Chinatown again to boost the economy.

“Chinatown was always some sort of fun celebration that we would get together with family, birthday or anniversary party, family reunion. It all happened in Chinatown. Some very fond memories,” she says.

“We called it thematic transformation of the streetscape.”

Chinatown BBQ has become a local hit, drawing in 200 people every day, from locals to tourists, from young to old.

The guests love not only the food but also the décor and walls filled with photos of historic Chinatown. Patrons can feel the nostalgia of the Golden era of Chinatown during the 1970s and 80s.

Lee believes the perseverance of early Chinese immigrants is an inspirational chapter of Canada’s history.

“Somebody said to me, ‘It’s got the widest range of economic income of any restaurant in Vancouver.’ I like that,” Lee says.

“We have people from the neighborhood, but then we have people coming from many different locations that want to come have traditional Chinese barbecue.”

“I think it’s the intangible heritage, such as the people and the kind of business. This is why I wanted to have a Chinese barbecue restaurant, because I think it is a mainstay for the Chinese people that used to eat there.”

Lee’s next restaurant is the historic Ho Ho Restaurant, originally founded in the 1950s. She’s renovating it, hoping to open by next summer.

“I wanted to try and add a few more restaurants because so many of them had closed down,” she says. Though Lee’s parents understood the significant risks of the restaurant industry, they also fueled her courage and hunger to revive a place she knew as home.

“I learned two things from my father—gratitude and perseverance,” Lee says. “If something is important to do, you should try and do it.”

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