In 1902, 13-year-old Sue (which Canadian officials could also have anglicized as Su or Soo) Wong came to Ottawa to work in his uncle’s business, the Murray Street Hand Laundry at 46 Murray Street, in the historic market area of the city. The teenager was so short that he needed to stand on a box to use the scrub board. In 1911, Sue travelled back to China and married Woo (her maiden name). In 1917, he returned to Canada, leaving behind his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. By 1920, he had savings enough only to pay the boat passage and head tax for one. Woo left behind their three-year-old daughter, Kam Oi, entrusting her to Sue’s parents.
In Ottawa, in the room she lived in with her husband above the Murray Street laundry, Woo would hear the sounds of children from a nearby school, and weep with longing for the daughter left behind in China. In 1924, the couple with, by then, two daughters, Mary and Annie, moved from Murray Street to a house at 201 Albert Street. They opened the Yick Lung grocery store on the ground floor, where Sue sold rice and other staples and dispensed medicinal herbs, and lived in the rooms behind and in the third-floor attic; another family rented the second floor. Sue and his wife had five more children, all born at the house on Albert Street: Mabel, Nellie, Kenneth, Douglas, and Gladys.
The grocery, which had no set hours, became a place where the few wives in the community could meet to chat. Sue’s sociable wife, known for her sympathetic ear and wise counsel, lined the vestibule with chairs so that men, too, could sit, smoke a water pipe, and enjoy the family atmosphere. Behind the store was a government parking lot, and on weekends when it was empty of cars, the Wong boys and their cousins played softball there.
Sue’s 1932 Essex was the first car owned by a Chinese in Ottawa. He used it to deliver groceries to Chinese customers in Carleton Place, Smiths Falls, and Perth, and later, in his 1940 Ford, he drove the Chinese Aces, a hockey team of teenage boys, most of whom were classmates at Chinese school, to their games in nearby towns. He taught each of his children to drive by having them practise on the lanes of Ottawa’s Experimental Farm. All the Wong children helped deliver weekly groceries to the laundrymen, who had bachelor staff to feed, and who didn’t have time to shop themselves. The children made their deliveries on foot, pulling the groceries in a wagon or if in the winter, on a toboggan, or else they took the street car.
When Mabel Wong graduated from Carleton University, she applied to Bell Telephone as a service representative. The company hired her on, but told her that since she was Chinese, she could not sit out front to greet customers, that instead, she’d have to work in a back office answering the telephone. Mabel and her siblings went on to work for the government and in professions including dentistry and teaching.
In 1963, more than four decades after her mother left her behind in China, Kam Oi, the Wong’s first-born, and her parents had a reunion in Ottawa. It was brief; just months later, the patriarch, Sue, died.
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong