Loo Gee Wing

Yip Sang and Chang Toy, probably the two best-known Chinese merchants trading in Vancouver at the start of the 20th Century have been extensively written about, but far less has been published about Loo Gee Wing. His story is just as interesting, and there are still several buildings standing today that he had built. The references to Loo Gee Wing appear in a variety of contexts – as a merchant with losses as a result of the 1907 riots, as the owner of one of two theatres playing Cantonese Opera, and in a series of sensational court cases that eventually fizzled out. The various pieces have been assembled here in roughly chronological order.

Loo Gee SF 1878

It’s not entirely clear when Loo Gee Wing arrived in BC, most likely in 1887 when he acquired Kwong Lee and Co. In 1878 he was in San Francisco, while his father visited Victoria, so there were earlier connections, and Mr. Wing was an experienced and successful merchant long before he arrived here. He bought some land in Victoria in 1890 on Fisgard Street that he then sold to another Chinese merchant, Loo Tai Cho, in 1893. He was certainly living in Victoria in 1892.

Loo Gee Wing was reported in the 1901 census to have been born on 23 December 1861. He was living in Fisgard Street with his wife, Mong Wing born in 1864 and sons Chang Shong born in 1886, Chung Key, born 1890 and his brother, Chu Lung born in 1874. He was still living in Victoria in 1907, the Times Colonist reporting “April 25, 1907 Breaking through a wooden wall a brave young Chinaman, Leon Loo, elder son of Loo Gee Wing, a wealthy Chinaman property owner, residing on Fisguard street, at great risk to his life saved his mother, brother and cousin from a horrible death by fire which broke out about four o’clock this morning.”

There don’t seem to be any images of Loo Gee Wing, but In 1897 he gave evidence in a forgery case in Victoria. The Colonist reported “Loo Gee Wing, whose mild countenance beamed behind a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, was the next witness. He is a prosperous merchant and speaks English particularly well.”

We also know from the 1907 McKenzie King hearings into the riots earlier that year how he dressed. The Province newspaper described him as “dressed like a tailor’s model in the suit of a prosperous Englishman down to his patent leathers“. (He was paid $153 compensation for the damage to his 45 Dupont Street property). Whether it’s accurate or not, the Province, claimed Loo Gee Wing was one of the two wealthiest men in Chinatown.

Many recent published sources repeat the statement “Loo had made his fortune in the Cariboo Gold Rush”, but there is little evidence of this. There’s no question that somewhat later (the earliest record seems to be in 1912) Loo Gee Wing had interests in Barkerville in mining – up to this date all references to his business dealings relate to property, court cases (some involving gambling), or trading.

An early reference to a Loo Gee Wing – likely to be the same person – is a complex case of 20 pounds of opium (valued at over $20,000) found in a rowboat in San Francisco harbour in 1881. The case was referred to as “Three Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty Boxes of Opium v. United States”. It was reported to be ‘faked’ to look as if it was of Hong Kong origin but said to be actually manufactured in the US of Turkish opium. Loo Gee Wing of Hop Kee & Co gave evidence about supplying Turkish sourced gum opium, manufactured at Hop Kee’s factory in New Jersey (not in any way illegally as far as the case details appear to suggest). It was reported in the trial that Hop Kee had stopped dealing in opium in San Francisco in 1881. The judge seems to have had issues with some of Loo Gee Wing’s testimony, and concluded it really was imported opium.

(Hop Kee and Co were large enough to have stores in New Orleans and Sydney, as well as Baker City, Oregon and an opium factory in New Jersey. The company had links with BC going back to 1858, when they paid $3,500 to Allan, Lowe & Co to ship 300 Chinese workers on the Caribbean from San Francisco, soon after gold was discovered on the Fraser River – thought to be the first Chinese to arrive in British Columbia.)

The first reference to Loo Gee Wing in Victoria is in the British Colonist from August 21 1887

In 1862 the Kwong Lee Company was said to be the second largest landowner in the city of Victoria after the Hudson’s Bay Company. Kwong Lee also legitimately operated one of the 15 opium refining factories in Victoria in the years between 1860 and 1908.

(Kwong Lee had operated from the 1860s or earlier, (Mrs Chong Lee arrived in 1860 to join her husband) operated by Lee Chong and Tong Fat, (also associated with Tai Soong & Co) and was described as the biggest Chinese import/export company (including, of course, opium) in Victoria. They also had a notable store in Barkerville. Kwong Lee had interests in gold mining; an 1861 report says “Jeffray’s Fraser River Express is transporting gold from a Chinese mining company called Kwong Lee & Co. from Fort Yale to Victoria, B.C”.)

The notice reprinted here says Loo Gee Wing was buying Kwong Lee in receivership. The company’s owners were Loo Chock Fan and Lew Chew Fan – Loo Gee Wing’s father (Loo and Lew are obviously interchangeable in western records). They were the largest Chinese import/export business in British Columbia, and the brothers also operated Kwong U Shing in Guangzhou, Kwong Man Fung in Hong Kong and Hop Kee & Co in San Francisco. They had five other branches in BC, including Yale and Barkerville. It was Loo Chock Fan who arranged the arrival of the first 265 Chinese labourers, and many worked in his gold mine. It is said that due to heavy borrowing and family disputes the company’s assets were sold off in the mid 1880s – in this case to the son of one of the founder’s. No doubt the long drawn out ‘great opium case’ had an impact on company finances (and a lucrative source of revenue) as well.

Loo Gee Wing was no stranger to the courts. In 1903, Betty Keller’s ‘On the Shady Side’ details the biggest police raid to that point in Vancouver’s history on a gambling joint, operated by Peter Sass, (who was white), at 516 Carrall St (in Chinatown). He was said to be a recently opened rival to Loo Gee Wing’s equally elaborate (and illegal) operation at 70 Dupont Street. With Sass’s opening, Loo Gee Wing added female dealers, but there was still too little business for two large scale gambling operations. It is suggested that Mr Loo arranged the police raid on Mr Sass – Mr Sass certainly thought so, and a week later 15 men with axes effectively closed 70 Dupont. A month later Gin Lin Chung, aka Charlie Sing, a professional gambler said to be the original tipster for the raid on Mr Sass was found nastily dead in Steveston. A complex case ensued for perjury when one Li Ping was found guilty after admitting that Chan Toy had paid to say he had seen a Japanese man leaving Charlie Sing’s room after the murder.

A year later in 1904 the case almost repeated itself in a different context. This time Loo Gee Wing was charged with conspiracy in Victoria, accused of setting up two Chinese men on a murder charge. The murder had occurred in Victoria – theatre owner Man Quan was killed in a fight, and two men were accused, tried and sentenced to death. The case was successfully appealed on a technicality, allowing their defence to introduce new evidence that the two accused murderers had not even been present, but that witnesses had been bribed to say they were present by Loo Gee Wing. His motive was said to be revenge for evidence that the accused murderers had given against a gambling operation (in a case that had never come to trial). The conspiracy case apparently collapsed when the judge found that Loo Gee Wing should have been accused of bribery rather than conspiracy.

Loo Gee Wing is known to have built at least five buildings that are still standing today. The first was designed by Emil Guenther in 1904, and cost $21,000 to build. It has been significantly repaired over the years, but sits on the corner of Columbia and Dupont (these days called East Pender Street.

Loo Gee Wing announced plans for a theatre back in 1905, but nothing came of this. On August 3 the Colonist reported “Loo Gee Wing, a wealthy Victoria Chinese, has finally signed the contract for a hotel and theatre at Vancouver. E W Houghton of Seattle is the architect and A P Gillies & Co of Seattle, the builders. E. R. Ricketts of Vancouver, manager of the Vancouver Opera House has a ten year lease on the new building which will be part of the Northwest Theatrical Association circuit.” He clearly changed his mind about the 12 storey theatre and hotel, to be built on Hastings Street, and Mr Gillies sued for damages. Mr Gillies was clearly unhappy at the turn of the case having discovered that the lawyer he thought was representing him was now representing Loo Gee Wing. In July Mr Gillies attempted to have the lawyer dis-barred, and the case for damages was dismissed in August of 1906. If the theatre had been built the debate about ‘taller buildings’ in the Downtown Eastside might have had quite a different context.

The next building we know to have been built by Loo Gee Wing is built on adjacent lots, and located on Hastings Street in a part of town not really identified with Chinese ownership. The designers of what got called The Loo Building were prolific Vancouver architects Hooper and Watkins, working for Song Mong Lim Co. (his wife was sometimes called Mong Lin), and it cost $80,000 to build. The contractors, the National Construction Company, got into financial difficulties, and their subcontractors, Coughlin Brothers, went after the owners to get the $1,700 they were owed. Except the property had changed hands, and Loo Gee Wing was now the owner, and he argued the builders lien didn’t apply to him. The judge was not sympathetic to this view

“The facts are that the defendant Mong Lin, wife of Leo Gee Wing, was the registered owner of the property at the time the contract was entered into by her with the codefendant, and she so continues to the present time. I strongly suspect that the transfer of the property to her husband was a piece of Oriental jugglery perpetuated in order to embarrass lien holders.”

It was leased as office space, and was a prominent building, as this City of Vancouver Archives panorama from around 1909 by Richard Broadbridge shows.

These days the building still marks an important corner, although the restoration of Woodwards on the diagonal corner makes it look a little tired. Today it’s called Abbott Mansions, and as with many of the earliest office buildings it’s now used as a Single Room Occupancy hotel. In 1912 Loo Gee Wing spent $2,000 on repairs to the building.

The building next door – these days known as the Grand Union Hotel, and also completed in 1909, was also developed by Loo Gee Wing.

We can’t be sure when Loo Gee Wing built his Vancouver theatre, known as the Ko Sing Opera House at 124 East Pender Street, but it also seems to be around 1909. In 1914 we find him signing a contract with a Hong Kong performer, using a local booking agent, to appear at the theatre. He also spent $2,700 in repairs on the building that year. We know that Loo Gee Wing also had a theatre in Victoria. (It’s suggested he also owned a boat factory, store, laundry and hotel there).

The main rival for patrons in Chinatown was the Sing Ping Theatre, owned by Chang Toy. (There were theatres built in Hong Kong at the same period with the same names as Vancouver’s theatres). Stephen Brouwers suggests Loo Gee Wing was the more successful owner, as the arrangement of the building allowed him to benefit from retail sales that offset the costs of running the theatre. The Sing Ping ran at a loss and the first company to perform there was wound up in 1918, although it was soon replaced with a new company. Meanwhile the Ko Sing seems to have been successful enough that In 1921 Loo Gee Wing hired S B Birds to alter it to add dressing rooms, boxes and a new ticket office. The appearance of the building today is largely unchanged, although the wooden windows have been replaced with aluminum units.

Loo Gee Wing also developed 100 East Pender; a building that was built two years later than the others in 1911. These days known as the Sun Ah Hotel, the building was designed by Colonel R T Perry, probably with R A Nicholais; Perry and Nicholais also designed the now demolished Sam Kee Hotel on Main Street in the same year. White and Cockerill altered the building for another owner some years later. The building was once adorned with the fabulous neon of the Ho Ho Chop Suey Restaurant – these days a more modest sign identifies its successor, Foo’s Ho Ho. In 1926 the building became the home of a Chinese clan association, the Lung Kong Kung Shaw Association – this society was later known as Lung Kong Tien Yee

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