June 14th, 2024

END OF AN ERA IN CHINATOWN


By Lethbridge Herald on July 14, 2021.

Herald photo by Tim Kalinowski Albert Leong walks with supporters to say one final farewell to his family's Bow On Tong Co. apothecary business on Wednesday. Leong decided to finally sell the building, which also served as his family home, after waiting eight years for promised renovations to be completed which never were.

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
tkalinowski@lethbridgeherald.com
The last descendant of Lethbridge’s original downtown Chinese community still living in what was known as “Chinatown” will be selling his family’s apothecary business after 100 years.
Albert Leong, now 80, says he has had to face the fact his family’s Bow On Tong Co. building will never be renovated as hoped, and he will never be able to return to live in the premises as once promised.
Leong was originally asked to leave the older building for a three-month period so $150,000 in donations received could be put to use restoring the building to modern standards. That was eight years ago.
“I was told when I had this designated a (municipal) historical site that this would be fixed for me because I didn’t have the money,” he told reporters on Tuesday as he and his supporters came together one last time outside of the building to say farewell.
“And that seemed like such a good deal, I jumped to it.
“After about five years, I was told, ‘We ran out of money, and you have to sell it.’ So what can you do? Everything is torn down inside, and there is no way I can ever rebuild.
“When I moved out, I had on this project no input at all. It was all done talking with people.
“Even they came in one day and said we are going to restore this place; you have to move out tomorrow.
“The very next morning they came and shut off my electricity and gas and everything, and I just started moving out.”
Leong said he held onto hope for the longest time he would be able to return to his family home again, but he now recognizes it was just not meant to be.
“For five years I always had the feeling I would get back in,” he confirmed, “but then when they said they are out of money, I have to sell, I realized I would never get back in there.”
“When I am gone there won’t even be a Chinese person living on this block. Whatever they (the new owners) do, it will be nice to see. But there is no (background) to their story. That’s the sad part.”
Leong said he is likely the last one left of the original Chinatown descendants who remembers what the place was like in its heyday – when about 60-80 people at any given time lived and operated businesses on the 100 and 200 blocks of 1 and 2 Avenue South, which they were confined to by municipal segregation laws at the time.
“This was a pretty busy street,” Leong remembered. “Every store had a couple of benches, and on a hot summer night you would always have people standing around and sitting on all the benches.
“In the early days when Chinese people first came to town to Lethbridge, they were only allowed if they wanted to open a business to have it on First or Second Avenue because the City didn’t want the Chinese businesses competing with the white businesses.
“So a guy would buy a place or build a place and open up a store here.”
Besides the stable number of everyday residents, there were always many other Chinese migrants wandering through who came to Canada with big dreams of making money which never panned out for most, said Leong.
“I am sure 80 or 90 per cent never got back, never got to see their families again, and ended up living the rest of their lives in Chinatown,” he said. “That’s the one good thing about this Chinatown – it was a place for these Chinese people to be, and still not be alone.”
About two dozen supporters, most from the local Chinese community, came out on Wednesday to pay their respects and show their support to the man they all know as “Uncle Albert.”
Candace Dueck said she remembered her parents allowing her to visit Uncle Albert’s store when they came downtown to the Chinese grocery where they shopped.
For her, that was the best part of any trip downtown, she remembered, with the gentle door chimes marking her entry into a place of intricate trinkets and other curiosities, strong smells of traditional herbs, and the gentle presence of Leong himself who always gave her the “kid discount” whenever she came.
“It was just like magic going into his store,” she said, holding back tears.
Cherie Souther owned a business beside the Bow On Tong for 15 years, and said her three children would visit Leong every day. He was “grandpa” to them.
Souther said it is truly a shame it all had to end this way for Leong, and his family’s 100-year legacy in Lethbridge’s Chinatown.
“We have supported him through this which, I feel, has just been an unfortunate series of events,” she said.
“There was immensely good intentions with everything, but you can see through the whole story it is the story of a man who was displaced from his home. And he will never get back there.”
As for Leong, he is retired and living modestly but happily on his pension.
He lives in a small one bedroom apartment across from his family’s store to this day. When asked what he hoped to do now the store was sold, Leong said nothing in particular.
“On my headstone they are going to put: ‘Al never did anything. Never went anywhere. He was just here.’ And I loved it,” he added with a laugh.
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter

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