Shung Joe

A dedication to family….

In 1913, the teenaged Shung Joe had a brother and a half-brother living overseas in Canada, one in Vancouver and the other in Ottawa. The half-brother in Ottawa had a thriving laundry business and convinced the young boy to come from China to Canada to work for him. 

Unlike his half-brother, who went on to open an equally successful café, but then in short order, gambled or squandered everything away, Shung saved diligently. Over a decade, he made a visit back to China to marry, and then, in 1923, once he’d saved enough, he sent for his wife, Kai Voon. Her boat docked in Vancouver in 1923 just as the Chinese Exclusion Act took effect, and it looked as though she would have to return to China. Happily, with the help of a church official in Victoria who acted as an intermediary, Shung Joe was able to plead her case, and she was allowed to pay the head tax and enter Canada.

Shung Joe’s head tax certificate, 1913. (Courtesy of William Joe)

Reverse of Shung Joe’s head tax certificate. (Courtesy of William Joe)

Shung opened his own laundry business at their home at 110 O’Connor Street. He soon expanded the business and opened a sub-plant nearby at 152 Slater Street. Later, he would also offer the new service of drycleaning. In the 1930s, his brother, Joe Fong (a Canadian immigration official had reversed his surname and given names) moved from Vancouver to Ottawa to work for him. Shung and his wife would raise six children in Ottawa: Allen, Irene, Edwin, William (Bill), Daisy, and Betty. Sadly, a seventh, Lawrence, was playing one day near the locks by the Chateau Laurier Hotel and fell in the river and drowned. None of the Joe children stayed in the family’s business.

Shung Joe and his wife and family.
L to R: William, Allan, Irene, Mrs. Shung Joe (Kai-Voon), Betty, Shung Joe, Daisy, Lawrence, Eddie, circa. 1931. (Courtesy of William Joe)

William (Bill) Joe: “It was a hard, hard life”

Mrs. Shung Joe at home. (Courtesy of William Joe)

The Joes’ house was known as a place where new arrivals could count on a meal and a place to rest their head. Shung was fond of taking his family on Sunday drives to the country. His typical route wound from Ottawa through Carleton Place, Perth, Smiths Falls, Brockville, Iroquois, and Morrisburg. In each place, the Joes stopped to visit the resident Chinese family. “Mother and Dad brought the local news from Ottawa, and told them what was happening in the old country,” recalled their son, Bill, in 2011.

Allan Joe with his car on an Ottawa street, circa. early 1950s. (Courtesy of William Joe)

In 1946, Bill, still in high school, began working part-time at two restaurants, the Cathay Chop Suey Palace at 228 Albert Street and the Canton Inn at 205 Albert. “I had a cousin working at the Canton who liked to gamble, so he asked me to come and cover for him while he went to gamble,” said Bill. Shung Joe, however, had other ambitions for his son. He found him a job at a branch of the Imperial Bank of Canada at a starting salary of 80 dollars a week. In 2011, Bill recalled why he turned down the offer: “Why would I take the bank job when I was making 80 dollars a week in tips [alone] at the restaurant?”

Inside the Cathay Café, a Christmas party, 1951. (Courtesy of Tom Doon, Robert Hum and Lily Hum)

In 1950, Bill took over ownership and management of the Cathay, from its original sixteen shareholders—all Chinese men. The restaurant had two kitchens, one for Canadian food, the other for “authentic” Chinese food. Bill made sure he hired a talented and experienced chef, one from Montreal, who could train others. In 1958, the city, over the objections of former mayor Charlotte Whitton, granted the Cathay the first liquor licence to a Chinese restaurant in town. Like the Canton Inn, the Cathay was a favoured haunt of politicians for decades.

Bill’s sister, Irene, was the first Chinese woman to own a real estate company. She and her siblings, civic-minded like their parents, served on many community boards. Among Bill’s contributions toward improving the welfare of the immigrant Chinese, he helped to found the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre, which began providing social services to immigrants in 1975.

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Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong