Remembrance Day: The amazing life of Ronald Lee

November 9, 2015

By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun |

When war was declared in 1939, Ronald Lee tried to join the Canadian Army. But he was rejected.

“I went up to Beatty Street, went into the recruiting station,” recounts Lee, 96.

“But they wouldn’t allow me. They told me (it was) because I’m Chinese. I walked in to volunteer, and they opened the back door and said, ‘Keep going.’”

Lee wound up going all the way to Prince Rupert, where he operated an oyster bar with five other Chinese-Canadians. But a couple of years later, he was asked to join the army — by the British.

“It was the Japanese invasion (of Hong Kong that spurred it),” he said.

“England decided that Canadian-born Chinese would be handy, because we could go down and infiltrate the Japanese (held territories) down in Burma and everything.

“So they recruited us. I got called up in November of ’43.”

Seventy years later, Lee is one of a handful of the estimated 600 Chinese-Canadian vets from the Second World War who are still alive.

Lee’s story illustrates the incredible changes Chinese-Canadians have seen during his lifetime.

Hing Fong Ronald Lee was born in Vancouver on March 4, 1919, one of 10 kids. His father, Lee Foo Lam, arrived from Canton, China around 1900, sponsored by a cousin. He paid a head tax of $100 to enter the country. His mother, Yee Shee, arrived about a decade later and also paid a head tax.

Ronald Lee grew up in a now-demolished house at 421 East Pender. Neither of his parents spoke English — Chinatown was their whole world.

“In those days you just don’t venture out too far from Chinatown,” he recalls.

“Most (Chinese) people were born or lived in Chinatown, they all lived around that area. Pender Street, Keefer Street, Gore Avenue. That little area.”

When Lee says he didn’t venture too far from Chinatown, he means it. Asked if he went to the Orpheum Theatre when it opened in 1927, he said no.

“We weren’t allowed to go up to the Orpheum,” he said. “That was Granville Street.”

The racism of the day wasn’t everywhere, though. He went to Strathcona School, which was a veritable United Nations of different ethnic groups.

“There was Irishmen, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainians, Italians,” he said.

“Everybody mixed together when we were going to school. There was no discriminating among the boys or girls, we all melted together. It’s only when we went up out of Chinatown, that’s where discrimination came in.”

That said, sometimes discrimination would come right into Chinatown, looking to rumble.

“The white boys would come down to Chinatown and us Chinese would come down,” he said.

“We’d line ourselves up, and then we’d fight. Of course it didn’t last long because the police came down.”

Asked if he was a good fighter, he laughs. “The Chinese cooks, they came out with (meat) cleavers, and the white boys dispersed.”

Lee was a paper boy for The Vancouver Sun for a few months in 1929. But he left it behind in the early 1930s, when his mother took the family back to the family’s old village in Gon Ne Hoy, China for two years.

Read more