Old Newspaper StoriesOld PhotographsPhoto Du JourWindsor

The Lee Family & Lee’s Imperial Tavern

Ask any old Windsorite about King Lee, and his sons, and you’ll get endless stories about Lee’s Imperial Tavern, that was on the s.e. corner of Riverside Dr. & Ferry St. The building finished its days a Cheetah’s before being demolished to make way for the worst mistake to occur in Windsor in long time. Today the Keg occupies the site where Lee’s once stood.

Today’s photos and information comes to us from regular reader Rich, who is the great-grandson of King Lee.

He writes:

Here are some pictures of Lee’s Imperial. It was won in a card game at the British American Hotel by my great grandpa Lee Thung (King Lee) in 1934. He was the running the hotel for the owner before winning it. prior to owning the hotel he ran King’s Cafe 1910s and the Savoy Cafe 1920s. He came to Windsor around 1914, but was in Canada long before. His wife was the first Chinese woman in Windsor and his three children were the first children in the Border region (including Detroit). We have a Detroit free press article from 1919 stating such. Anyways, the tavern was sold in 1984 to Katzman, I guess he still holds the ‘Lee Brothers’ Liquor license.

Photo above from the Detroit News
Sunday August 24, 1919

The Imperial House before renovations in the mid 1970’s.

During the 1975 Renovations.

Following the 1975 renovations.

Interior shot, 1963.

Interior shot following renovations, 1975.

The Lee Brothers, 1980. Hopefully Rich can identify who’s who for us.

From left to right: Eddy Lee (big hair), Peter Lee, Ben Lee (Hawaiian shirt), and Jim Lee.

From the Windsor Star
September 13, 1980

By Paul Delean, staff reporter

When he arrived in Windsor; King Lee had a family of three. Although he died 34 years ago, his family continued to grow and now numbers more than 2,000.*

That’s because King Lee’s definition of family embraced every member of Windsor’s Chinese community.

“Here, I’ve got something to show you,” says 61-year-old Peter Lee as he sorts through yellowed newspaper clippings piled deep on a table at Lee’s Imperial Tavern, the downtown restaurant he owns with his three brothers.

The piece in question dates back to Aug. 23, 1919. It’s a Border Cities Star profile of King Lee, his father. An active and respected citizen, he then owned the Savoy Cafe on Riverside Drive. The story identifies him as head of the first Chinese family in the city.

FOR MANY YEARS now, the Lee family has been prominent, popular and successful in Windsor; King Lee was instrumental in making it so.

“He came to Windsor in about 1911 or 1913” relates Peter. “He was born in Canton. China, but decided to come to Canada in the late 1800s when he was about 20.”

After a month on a freighter and speaking only a few words of English learned in Canton, young King headed first for Hamilton, then Montreal and Chatham before finally deciding on Windsor.

SUCH DEPARTURES from China were not uncommon at the turn of the century. Lee says.
“The people in that country always looked to the new world as a land of opportunity, a new beginning. And he was a man of foresight.”

King entered the restaurant business as soon as he arrived in Canada. He operated eateries in Hamilton and Montreal, the Royale in Chatham, then several local establishments.

The Savoy was the first, shortly after his arrival in Windsor, in a location now occupied by Paradise Exotic Chinese Foods.

“The initial meal served there was pheasant under glass. It was a tuxedos and linen table-cloths place” Peter says.

It was followed eight years later by King’s Cafe on Pitt Street, a site currently occupied by Steve Paris Shoe Repairs. When it closed after four years, King leased the Lincoln House on Ouellette Avenue. Meanwhile, he was also raising a large family.

King had returned lo Canton after 10 years in Canada to marry his childhood sweetheart, Lily Wong. She didn’t follow him though, when he came back to Chatham a few months later.

Lily didn’t set foot in Canada, until, nine years later, when King returned to Canton to get her and the daughter he’d never seen, Lundi born after his wedding visit.

Once settled in Windsor, the family began to grow. Alfred was the First addition, in 1915 and then Peter, Eddy, Benny. May and James, followed in the space of 14years.

KING ALSO CONSIDERED as family all countrymen who arrived in the city. He founded Windsor’s first Chinese Benevolent Society, which provided the immigrants with assistance in the language and customs of Canada while encouraging preservation of the original culture.

Things had gone well for the Lees right from the start in Windsor, but they suffered like everyone else during the Depression.

King didn’t renew his lease on the Lincoln House, after just two years as its operator, and spent several months at loose ends. Some real estate holdings were forsaken when he couldn’t pay the taxes. “He lost everything,” said Peter.

Then a friend, businessman Simon Meretsky suggested King take over a floundering restaurant in a downtown building he owned, he agreed. The new owner called his restaurant the Imperial House. It opened in 1932, on the corner of Riverside Drive and Ferry Street, and it remains there today, soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

“It wasn’t easy at first, he’ll tell you.” Peter said. “The ’30s were tough years. We’d be serving breakfasts for eight cents, full course meals for 10 cents our best steak was 35 cents.”

As they grew older, the Lee children joined in the daily chores. “We used to work the floor, tend the bar. do everything; we grew up with it and in to it.” Said Peter.

During the early years, there was only one employee from outside the family – Fred Lee (no relation), also an immigrant from China. Fred was hired in 1933, and worked at the Imperial House for almost 30 years. Now 86, and retired, he’s still a figure there: he and his wife live in an apartment above the restaurant.

THE 1940S WERE A time of transition for the Lee family: three, of the brothers went overseas during the Second World War.
“Eddy was in the air force. Benny was in the Perth Regiment and I was a flamethrower, recalls Peter.”Jimmy was too young. Al was left home on compassionate grounds: we already had three in the service, and somebody, had to stay with mom and dad to run the business.”.

Signed on to different outfits, the brothers didn’t see each, other for more than three years. “We met for the first time in London, England, when we all got leave. It was after the war.”

They returned to Windsor and the Imperial House in January of 1946, to find their father ailing. He died before the year was out, at age 69.

People said he lasted until we got home.” recalls Peter. “His funeral was One of the biggest this city has ever seen. He was a very popular man, a man who helped people.

With the death of their father, the brothers had to make a decision, “We had decided when we arrived home that we could go our separate ways, but after a family meeting, we concluded there was a possibility to work and keep the family together.” Peter said, “One lesson our father had always stressed was the importance of keeping the family together.”

THAT’S WHAT THEY DID Peter, Benny, Eddy and James took over the operation of the tavern; Alfred, the eldest, (decided he’d rather do something else and left the city.

The ownership bond forged those many years ago remains intact, though other things have changed with time. The principals formed a company, Lee Brothers Ltd,. 20 years ago. The hotel has been renovated several times. Lily died in 1974; Alfred also is dead, the victim of a 1955 auto accident in Boston.

Eddy, though still a shareholder, no longer is involved in the day-to-day operation of the tavern. In the 1950s, he branched off into marine sales; with a partner. Fred Heuchan who died three years ago, he founded Edgewater Marine Ltd., a successful boating business.

The family itself remains closely-knit. Benny. Peter and Eddy live adjacent to one another on half-acre lots on Dougall Avenue at Highway 401. James also lived in that area, but moved to Detroit a few years ago. Sister May, married to Judge Art Yim of the U.S. federal court, also resides in the Motor City.

It’s not known where Lundi is. Hers was the first Chinese wedding in Windsor, back in 1928, but she and her husband returned, to China a few years later.

“We lost all contact with her after-the Communists took over.” explains Peter, we never were able to trace her again.”

The family will soon be celebrating the 50th year of Imperial House, already one of the oldest operative hotels in Southwestern Ontario. But after that milestone, the future is uncertain.

THE-BROTHERS are “getting to the point in life .where we’re thinking of doing other things.” says Peter and none of the offspring seems particularly interested in taking over. We have let the children do, their own thing. Many are out on their own now, and none seem too interested in the hotel business, I don’t know what the outcome will be.

“We’ve never become millionaires, but it’s been good to us. Just as our, father said it would. We’ve made a living made a lot of friends. A lot of, hours and effort have gone into it, but we’ve had a lot of happiness here.

“And I think mom and dad would have have been proud of us sticking together as we did, all the while keeping up with the times.”

* Rich notes the 2000 descendants is a great exaggeration.

Just one of the many stories, about a long time family on the border region. Many thanks again to Rich for sharing his family history with us.

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