The first Chinese couples to raise families in Ottawa were so few—there were only six—and so well known that the names and birth order of their children became part of the community’s oral history. The tiny minority of the Chinese in Ottawa and as well, their isolation from any major Chinatown meant wives often suffered loneliness. At the same, such isolation aided their children’s rapid integration. Their ranks registered many firsts among the local Chinese population, among them, the first ethnic Chinese to be born in the city, to be bilingual in English and French, to get a university education and the first to work in various professions.
Ethnic Chinese dominated Ottawa’s early laundry business. They ran 56 of the city’s 58 laundries in 1901, 68 of 72 in 1914, and 43 of 56 in 1931. At one time, some whites complained that Chinese laundries would lead to a drop in property values. Yet, a white clientele who could afford such middle-class services kept these businesses a going concern.
Harry Sim: “Dear Mom…”
Most laundrymen set up shop with the intention of saving enough to move into the café business. Ho Lin Chong was an exception. In 1922, at age 12, he started working at his father’s laundry in the blue-collar neighbourhood of Hintonburg. He would operate it until 1976. In Ottawa, labourers began the shift to the café business in the 1930s.
Many wives of the pioneers regularly attended the Presbyterian Church, the United Church or the Chinese Mission. Often, maiden ladies at church offered English lessons. Miss Lillian Crane, a former missionary, was remembered with affection by families of that time.
A century after his father’s arrival in Ottawa, William (Bill) Joe reflected on the experience of the Chinese in establishing themselves in business. “The Chinese had no trouble finding landlords willing to rent business space to them. Word was, ‘Rent to them and you’re going to get paid.'”
All six of the patriarchs of these first families found entrepreneurial success. Some had the foresight and the means to invest in property and land. In some instances, a son took over the family business or opened his own restaurant. The next generation had opportunities beyond the restaurant business. With the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 came enfranchisement, which was a requirement for practising certain professions in Canada. As a consequence, ethnic Chinese in Canada were now able to pursue professional careers.
In 2012, all six of these families had descendants in Ottawa.
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong