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Lee Mong Kow

A Link between the Chinese Community and Canadian Society

Lee Mong Kow’s family in Victoria, before 1905. From left to right, are Mrs. Lee Mong Kow (Seto Chang Ann), #5 son Lee Yook Lum (Arthur), Mrs. Lee Yook Quan (Lee Mong Kow’s mother), #3 son Lee Yook Quan (Alfred), Mr. Lee Mong Kow, #2 daughter Lee Yut Wah (Ida) (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, A-02348).

Lee Mong Kow’s family in Victoria, before 1905. From left to right, are Mrs. Lee Mong Kow (Seto Chang Ann), #5 son Lee Yook Lum (Arthur), Mrs. Lee Yook Quan (Lee Mong Kow’s mother), #3 son Lee Yook Quan (Alfred), Mr. Lee Mong Kow, #2 daughter Lee Yut Wah (Ida) (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, A-02348).

Lee Mong Kow, an interpreter and educator in Victoria, was born in 1861 in Panyu county, Guangdong Province. His mother, Lee Quan Sze, was widowed at age 22, but had enough resources to provide for her son’s education. Lee came to Canada around 1880 – his mother might have travelled with him or joined him here by the late 1880s. Since he spoke a standard form of Cantonese, Lee belonged to Sanyi, a linguistic minority in Canada’s Cantonese-speaking community, where it was more common to speak a sub-dialect of Cantonese from the Siyi region.

Portrait of Lee Mong Kow, date unknown (Victoria Chinese Public School Archives, photo courtesy of Robert Amos).

Portrait of Lee Mong Kow, date unknown (Victoria Chinese Public School Archives, photo courtesy of Robert Amos).

Lee Mong Kow family, date unknown. Mrs. Lee Kwan Sze, seated centre. Eldest son Lee Quan, second from left, back row (City of Victoria Archives, M06931).

Lee Mong Kow family, date unknown. Mrs. Lee Kwan Sze, seated centre. Eldest son Lee Quan, second from left, back row (City of Victoria Archives, M06931).

Lee soon became fluent in English, and he applied his skills with languages to help improve communication between Chinese-Canadians and Anglophones. In 1889, he was appointed as the chief interpreter for the Chinese immigration services of the Department of Customs, a position he would hold under different ministries until 1920. Lee married Seto Chang Ann in 1892, and they had seventeen children.

Lee Mong Kow, standing in the centre of the back row, with the first graduating class of the Chinese Public School, in 1915. (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, D-08821).

Lee Mong Kow, standing in the centre of the back row, with the first graduating class of the Chinese Public School, in 1915. (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, D-08821).

Lee was an important figure in the history of education in Victoria’s Chinatown. He helped found the Lequn Yishu in 1899, the first free Chinese-language elementary school in Canada. The school opened with 100 students and Lee was the first principal. The founders wanted to make sure that Chinese children had an education both in English and in Chinese so they could play an active role in future international relations. The Lequn Yishu formed the basis of the school built by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in 1909.

Lee died in Hong Kong in May 1924. He had moved there in 1920 to work as the Chinese agent for the Canadian Pacific Ocean Services Limited. Lee Mong Kow’s contributions to education and cross-cultural understanding are commemorated with a street named after him in Victoria, Lee Mong Kow Way.

Lee Mong Kow Way in Victoria, located across from the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street. (Photo by Charles Yang, 2012).

Lee Mong Kow Way in Victoria, located across from the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street. (Photo by Charles Yang, 2012).


Sources

Timothy Stanley, “Lee Mong Kow,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/EN/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=8240

Historical Chinese Language Materials in British Columbia: An Electronic Inventory, “Lee Mong Kow Way,” http://burton.library.ubc.ca/hclmbc/Documents/LeeMongKowWay.pdf