David Lee: ‘I Lived an Everyday Life, and it was Good’

David Lee (b. 1942) owned a body shop in East Van for 40 years. At age 10 he traveled from China to Canada, alone, to start a new life.

David Lee

In 1949-50 immigration to Vancouver opened up. My grandfather sponsored me, and I came on the boat from Hong Kong to San Francisco and then the train to here. All by myself. There were lots of Chinese people on the ship and train, and they looked after me. I remember the CPR train and the boat—it was like a cruise ship they have now, very big.


I was 10 years old when I came to Canada, in 1952, and went to Strathcona School. In my first year, I was in a New Canadian class, all Chinese, and next thing, I jumped to Grade Five. I had gone to day school in Hong Kong, but that was Chinese. Here school was in English.


I lived on Cordova Street, across from the Woodward’s Building. My grandfather’s brother operated a laundry mat there, at 109 West Cordova. But I lived in a hotel- there weren’t many kids there, just lots of singles. You know where Army and Navy is? Well, upstairs there. From there, I went to Strathcona School. I’m not much of a social person when it comes to meeting people and all that, but everyone was a stranger in those days, so I had to.

David’s first neighbourhood in Canada, on West Cordova St.
Image credit: Vancouver Planning Department, copyright City of Vancouver

My grandfather worked at the White Lunch on Hastings. He worked the day shift (which was 12 hours long), but I was all by myself at night as well. We hardly saw each other.


As a boy, in summertime, I’d go up on a farm in Richmond, picking berries and doing some farm work. Richmond was all farms then. One year, after school was out, I worked from June until September, and I made $150 for all that time. I rode my bike there and boarded at the farm, and then rode my bike back maybe once a week. The other pickers were mostly my age, and that’s why we went there, since we were playing around anyway. When it got too hot, we would throw everything and go swimming. Those were nice days.

Old strawberry farm in Richmond, BC
Image credit: Richmond City Archives

I graduated from Grade Eight at Strathcona School, and then I went to Vancouver Tech. I studied mechanics and became an automotive mechanic. I worked at the Chinatown gas station at Gore and Pender, an Esso station. In the old days, all the gas stations had service bays, and it was easy for kids to get work pumping gas. But nowadays they don’t have that, there’s no service bays, and there’s no place for kids to get work. Now there is the manpower, but nobody hires them. They can work in the automotive shop, the body shop and all that, but they have to have a lot of school.

Old Esso pump in East Vancouver
Image credit: Ryan, CC, Flickr

That gas station was right beside the townhouse development the city made in 1964. They tore down 100 homes to make low-income housing. It split the Chinese community in half, but we didn’t complain. Today everyone rejects everything. Then, it was a City development, so what could you do? All the single-family homes were bought for a good a good price, and the people moved out. Not to Richmond, that was just farms then. They didn’t move into the townhouses, because those were for low-income people. They just moved away.


In 1960, I went back to Hong Kong for a year or so. My mother and sister were living there and wanted to get me married. So they did their matchmaking and found me a wife, and we came back to live in a basement suite on Adanac Street. After a few years, we bought a house up on Renfrew Street.


I did my apprenticeship and then moved to the new Esso station at Hastings and Dunlevy. I worked there for about 10 years. Then I moved next door and got a shop for myself. That was the same year as Expo 1986. I had that shop for 30 to 40 years.


It was not that bad. I worked hard, and now I’m coming to the age of retirement. I lived an everyday life, and it was good. And that’s my story.

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