Lee Building – East Pender Street

100 blk E Pender

Here’s a 1925 postcard by Frank Gowan of the north side of the 100 block of Pender Street. Many of the buildings are still the same today, although one has been effectively rebuilt (although you would hardly notice at first glance).

The Lee Building is in the centre of the image; the central arcaded ‘Chinese style’ building. It was built in 1907 or 1908 by the Lee Lung Sai Business Company, although there’s no record of who designed it. This was a ‘family association’, but seems to have been purely a money-making venture rather than a family support building. It was one of the earliest Chinatown family buildings, and all the money raised to build the structure was provided by people with the name Lee. While many of the Chinese family buildings had accommodation and a hall for meetings, the Lee building only held a small office for the organisation’s own use, with the rest of the space leased out.

Around 1920 the building was sold to Lee Bick, (Ron Bick Lee) and his family still owned the property in 1971 when all the buildings in the picture were recognised with heritage status as part of the area’s historic area designation. The building was occupied over the years by a number of importers, retail merchants, restaurants, and clan associations. Lee arrived in Victoria at the age of 18 in 1910, working at a local restaurant in Victoria’s Chinatown.  He moved to Vancouver in 1916, working in various restaurants, hotels and import stores. Lee opened the Foo Hung Company in the Lee Building in 1921 and the import-export business went so well that he expanded into the greenhouse business, operating the Grandview Greenhouse on 50 acres in East Vancouver during the Depression. Lee was actively involved in the community through different associations, including the Chinese Public School, the Lee Association, Chinatown Lion’s Club and the Toi San Benevolent Society.

A year after the heritage designation the Lee Building was almost completely destroyed in a fire, and Robert Lee decided to rebuild. The city’s Historic Area Advisory Board initially advocated reconstruction but then, because of building code constraints, accepted the restoration of the facade as a free-standing frame and the construction of a new building behind it, which was completed in 1973 to designs by Henriquez and Todd. Today the facade has a modern building behind it (set back so that it resembles the balconies of the original structure), an open courtyard fronting the third bay of the building on the west side, with parking space off the rear lane.

The arcaded building to the west of the Lee Building is the 1921 Wong’s Benevolent Association building. There was a 2-storey building here in 1910 (and some reports suggest 1904), but in 1921 two more floors were added, designed by J A Radford, (G A Southall and W H Chow are both also associated with the rebuilt design). From the mid 1920s the Mon Keang School was in the building, providing language lessons to the Canadian-born children of the Chinese community.

The narrower building to the east of the Lee Building was designed in 1923 by A E Henderson for Lung Kong Kung Shaw, replacing one designed by W H Chow in 1914. Closer still is the 5-storey 1913 building designed by H B Watson for William Dick. Originally four floors high with the Kwong Fong grocery on the ground floor, the Mah Society acquired the building in 1920 and added a fifth floor in 1921 designed by E J Boughen.

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