The Chinese were among the earliest new arrivals to Yale, beginning with the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858. Yale’s Chinatown was situated at the east end of town and was self sufficient with its own merchants, physicians and, commercial establishments and cultural and political societies.
The man who would come to be known as On Lee was born in Canton, China about 1830 and given the name Jang Wonjeong. Upon his immigration to British Columbia in the 1870’s he proceeded to Yale and in the spring of 1880 purchased land in Yale from the Oppenheimer brothers. By 1883 he had established several businesses including a grocery store, bakery, wash house and hardware store.
In 1884 he married Mary Laye, herself a recent Chinese immigrant, in a relatively lavish ceremony followed by a grand display of fireworks, music and a large dinner in Chinatown’s Masonic hall. “The wine was freely drank and congratulations expressed to the future happy days for the newly wedded pair”. Over a period of twenty years 1885 – 1905 the On Lee’s had six children, three boys, Thomas, Jamie and Ole and three girls, Connie, Kim and May.
On Lee died in 1907. After Mrs. On Lee’s death in the 1920’s, the second son, James built a store, service station and hotel complex on the highway and converted the family home and store into a private residence. He continued to operate these businesses in Yale until his death in 1961. The On Lee property remained in the family until the youngest daughter, Mrs. Kim Young sold it to the Province in 1983. It was hoped that the old home could be restored as a historic building but sadly in 1985, it was destroyed by fire.
In Victoria British Columbia, on May 15, 2014, the legislative assembly delivered a unanimously apology signifying the deepest regret for the hardship and suffering our past provincial governments imposed on Chinese Canadians and Chinese people in British Columbia. The apology recognized the perseverance, grace and dignity of Chinese Canadians and Chinese people in British Columbia demonstrated through our history while enduring discriminatory historical laws.
In 2017, as part of a Chinese legacy project, interpretive signage, a garden and a memorial bench were installed on the On Lee property.