23 East Pender Street

Ming Wo

This location started life in Chinatown as 23 Dupont Street, but by the time these buildings were built the street had been renamed (in 1907) as East Pender. There was a buildings here in 1889, but the existing 4-storey Ming Wo building was built at (or just before) 1913. It was built for Wong Soon King who headed a company that bore his name, but who also controlled opium processor and dealer Hip Tuck Lung. That company operated from the other side of the street at 4 East Pender, but in 1908 they moved to 23 East Pender. Hip Tuck Lung were one of the bigger opium companies; in 1908 the local newspapers reported that William Lyon MacKenzie King was shocked to discover they made a profit of $180,000 in the previous year. (Paul Yee in Saltwater City says their gross income was reported to be $170,000). MacKenzie King was in town to settle claims for damages after 1907 anti-occidental riots, but returned to Ottawa determined to close down what he was surprised to find was a completely legal business.

Hip Tuck Lung, in 1908, were said to have been in business for 22 years (which would put the business founding close to the creation of the city in 1886). They show up as importers of opium in the 1889 street directory. The earlier building shows up in the 1891 street directory, occupied by Miss Della Montague, one of a number of ladies whose business was concentrated for a while on Dupont Street.

In 1900 Wong Sing King was one of the founding members (and recording secretary) of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, a charitable body whose intent, in part, was to be achieved “by promoting and encouraging the general education of the Chinese peoples in the principles of British constitutional government”. He stayed in the city for many years. In 1911 Mrs Wong Song King was detained for two weeks at William Head after a crew member on her cruise from the Orient on the Empress of India contracted smallpox.

The ‘official’ version of this building says it was designed in 1913 by W H Chow for Wong Soon King. There is a permit for $3,000 of alterations to the building that year, but Mr. Chow isn’t mentioned; Wong Soon King is owner, architect and builder. There’s another permit a year later; here W H Chow was the architect for a $4,000 office and store at 23 East Pender for C S Shue, who was also the builder. Then in 1915 there was another alteration, designed by Lee Hing for Wong Sim King for $2,000 of changes to a restaurant. That would be the Kong Hong Low restaurant at 23 1/2 East Pender.

This is a confusing set of permits: we know Wong Soon King owned the property, and clearly made alterations both in 1913 and 1915. So why would a different owner apparently build the building at almost the same time as these alterations? The permit doesn’t seem big enough to pay for the building either: in 1910 the building to the right, (on a similar scale) 29 East Pender was designed by R J MacDonald for ‘Su, Lee Wo Co’ and cost $19,000. That might be See Lee Wo, who sold general merchandise, although the company operating here in 1910 were Lee On and Co, who sold dry goods, and were also at 45 East Pender.

One possible explanation is that the W H Chow permit was for 93 East Pender – W H Chow made some minor amendments to a property owned by C S Shue at that address early in 1914. He also carried out work at 27 East Pender. In 1914 the owners Yuen, Yuen & Co hired W H Chow to carry out $1,000 of repairs. They were tea and rice merchants.

If this building was altered in 1913, it probably dates to around that time or a little earlier. In the 1913 street directory number 23 was vacant (so perhaps new?) and W P Joe, a photographer, was based in 23 1/2. In 1912 there seem to be only two storeys, with Lee On & Co at 23 and Yen Sun & Co ‘upstairs’. There’s a picture in the archives of the 2-storey building in 1906. Whether W H Chow actually designed the 1913 replacement we’re unsure: we haven’t found any permit to confirm that. In 1915 the Hong Kong Club were at 23, and in 1917 Ming Wo moved in to sell cookware – a business still there today.

Next door 27 East Pender was one of the earliest ‘Chinese’ styled building in Chinatown. Before that most Chinatown buildings could have been anywhere in the city. The Chinese Benevolent Association Building built in 1909 was the first with the upper floors featuring recessed balconies and building-wide glazing facing the street. This was probably the second to feature this style, designed by a western architect to reflect local preferences. Hon Hsing, a Chinese martial arts school, was established here in 1938, perhaps the earliest in Canada. Today there’s a store that reflects the changing face of Chinatown; Bombast is a manufacturer of contemporary furniture.

Our photograph dates from 1981, from a collection we have recently been given access to. We look forward to featuring several more from the same source.

Image source: Peter B Clibbon

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