'All my aims and objectives ... were to make awareness of our culture': president of Chinese association
Gary Lew has had many opportunities to move south to be closer to his children but he and his wife Bella are reluctant to leave Timmins.
“We enjoy the life, we enjoy the people here, that’s why we have a hard time moving,” he says. “Timmins is still the best place to raise children. It’s all kinds of recreation, friendly people. I have no regrets because I’ve made lots of friends here.”
Lew, 83, has been living in the area since he first arrived in South Porcupine from Hong Kong as a 12-year-old boy in January 1950.
He has been involved with the local Chinese community for decades.
The Chinese community in the Timmins area likely formed in the 1930s, Lew says. Nowadays, there are a few hundred members from the surrounding communities including Cochrane, Iroquois Falls, New Liskeard and Kapuskasing.
“All my aims and objectives these years were to make awareness of our culture. So, you get to know the Chinese community and culture better,” he says.
In the early ‘90s, the Chinese community established scholarships for children of Chinese descent who were graduating high school with an 80 per cent average or more. They would get a $200 or $250 scholarship. The tradition is still going on.
Lew was born in Tong Nam Lee village in Toisan district, Guangdong province in China.
He came to Canada with two cousins. It took them 16 days to travel on a boat from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Then they took a train to Vancouver and later to South Porcupine, arriving on Jan. 16, 1950.
Two days later, they were put into a kindergarten to learn the English language. The following year, he went to Grade 5.
Lew remembers it was cold and he was feeling curious because he has never seen snow before.
During his high school years, he worked at London Cafe. He also worked in his uncle's restaurant in Englehart for four summers.
Lew's father was the first to immigrate to Canada in 1913.
In his late 30s, he moved to South Porcupine where he operated the Maple Leaf restaurant.
Lew’s mother couldn’t join the family due to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act that banned most immigration from China to Canada until it was repealed in 1947.
The night Lew’s mother first landed in Vancouver in 1957, a fire broke out at the restaurant and Lew’s father died. His parents never got to reunite.
Lew was in Grade 11 at the time and considered quitting school to work full-time to support his mother but his teachers at Timmins High and Vocational School encouraged him to finish his education.
He did a placement at the city hall during his graduating years. At the time, a secretary was off on maternity leave and Lew was hired to replace her. During his employment with the city, he was also taking courses from Queen’s University and attending seminars to later work as an assessor.
During his career, Lew worked as a senior assessor, as an evaluation manager and was later promoted to assessment commissioner for the districts of Cochrane and Timiskaming.
“Most of the people I’ve worked with helped me along the way,” he says.
His biggest achievement was when he was elected vice president, then president of the provincial association of assessing officers.
“I never dreamt it would happen, from where I started,” Lew says. “There were so many people that helped along the way.”
He was also one of the 100 people recognized by the City of Timmins for his involvement in the community.
In 1994, Lew retired. An investment group tried to recruit Lew but he went to China for five weeks. Upon his return, he decided to help his friend operate the Your Independent Grocery store. Lew ended up working there in customer relations for 10 years until he officially retired in 2004.
Throughout the years, Lew has volunteered with the Lord’s Kitchen, sat on various committees including the Timmins Multicultural Festival and Far Northeast Training Board. He served as a chairman for Timmins United Way. He is still the president of the local Chinese association.
In his spare time, Lew practises tai chi.
Lew has three children and four grandchildren.
His wife Bella lived in Hong Kong and first came to Timmins in 1962. The pair corresponded with each other for three years by mail before seeing each other. Bella’s father wanted Lew to go to Hong Kong to meet him. Lew couldn’t afford the trip, so Bella’s father allowed her to make her own decision and gave her his blessing.
“Her dad, seeing (I) had a white-collar job in the office, probably thought his daughter wouldn’t have to work. But little did he know I worked in a restaurant on the weekends, too,” Lew says adding with laughter that “love prevailed.”
After Bella moved to Timmins, they got married the following week. She kept the letters the couple wrote to each other.
Bella taught Chinese cooking in the community for many years. She was also involved with the Porcupine Art Club sewing, crocheting and painting.
With three partners, Lew opened the Bamboo House Restaurant in Timmins on the corner of Third Avenue and Birch Street in 1966. With time, Lew decided to spend more time with his kids, so he quit.
In 2007, with other community members, Lew took charge of the Timmins Chinese Benevolent Association.
“Our aim was to make the Timmins community aware of the Chinese community and the culture,” Lew says.
The association took part in the city’s 50th and 75th-anniversary parades. They also staged two China Nights in the ‘80s where they invited entertainers from the south and Hong Kong.
In the late ‘90s, they started holding Chinese Lunar New Year parties at London Cafe with hundreds of people attending.
In the '90s, about 16 or 17 local families went to China to adopt children. The parents wanted their kids to be exposed to Chinese culture, so Lew invited them to celebrate Chinese New Year with them.
“We were very glad we got the opportunity to do that,” he says. A few years later, the club decided to allow the adopted Chinese children to be eligible for scholarships as well. Throughout the years, he estimates over 100 Chinese students graduated from schools in Timmins.
Lew says he’s very thankful to see all the adopted kids do well in their lives now and the parents should be recognized for their efforts in bringing up the children.
“It’s so nice to see them do so well,” he says.