Charles Seto, one of seven brothers, arrived in Canada in 1914 and his wife arrived in 1923. They opened the Nanking Café in Ottawa at the corner of George and Sussex streets. In 1927, fire consumed buildings at that corner. Charles moved across the Ottawa River to Aylmer and in 1929, on a loan from restaurateur Joe Sim, opened the Aylmer Café at 77 Main Street. The Setos were Aylmer’s only Chinese family.
In 1934, Charles’ wife died. Robert was left to help raise his two young brothers, Alford and Hector. The three brothers honed their hockey skills on the backyard rink that their father built, and played together on the Chinese Aces hockey team.
In 2012, Hector recalled how hard his father worked at the café, with only one or two hired help: “He even sewed aprons out of flour and sugar bags.” With a father busy at work, Robert had to defend his brothers against the racist name calling and teasing of other local boys. Hector looked back with sympathy on his early tormentors, citing the tough times facing the family’s French-Canadian neighbours, whose children, with little education and limited opportunities, were disadvantaged and discontent. “They were downtrodden themselves,” said Hector.
In 1944, Charles Seto became engaged to Dolores Pilon, a waitress at his café. Her priest at her Catholic church spoke out against the couples’ mixed relationship. She and Charles wed at the Presbyterian Church. Charles died at aged 50, in 1949. Dolores would marry again, to a Chinese man in New Liskeard, Ontario.
Hector and Alford become engineers and Robert joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He took over the café upon their father’s death. He sold the business in 1954 and joined the Department of National Defence. “Bob [Robert] got tired of long hours of hard work [at the café],” explained Hector. The Seto brothers, all dedicated athletes, coached a variety of sports and left a legacy of organized community sports in Aylmer.
Another Branch of the Family Tree
In 2009, the adult children of Henry Hamilton learned a family secret. Henry confided in them that while he and his brother, Bill, had been raised by George and Marion (née Legros) Hamilton, he’d always understood that their biological father was their father’s good friend, Charles Seto. George had the Chinese name Leung Wing, but the church had changed Leung to Hamilton. During the Depression, George and Marion and their nine children, unable to make a go of their Regent Café in Renfrew, moved to Ottawa. As a teenager, Henry would sometimes take the streetcar from Ottawa to Aylmer to help out at Charles Seto’s café. He fondly recalled to his children that Charles Seto would “buy stuff” for him, including generously, a grey suit.
Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong