Dream has ended: Albert Leong parts with historic Chinatown building in downtown Lethbridge
The sale of the historic Bow On Tong building in downtown Lethbridge marked the end of an era, and the end of a dream for the building owner, 80-year-old Albert Leong.
“I’ve been out eight years, and I just turned 80,” said Leong. “I don’t know if I’ll be here another eight years, so I feel I have to give up this store.”
The Bow On Tong building helped support Chinese-Albertans in Lethbridge since the early 1900’s, operating as a grocery store and lodging house, and later as a traditional Chinese herbal shop.
Leong was born in the basement, grew up in the building and continued to live there, after he started running the family business.
He continued to entertain customers with stories of the Chinese community until 2013, when the building was condemned.
“It’s kind of sad that I have to leave,” said Leong. “The plan was to have this place fixed up and I would be here to tell stories.”
His stories and kindness impacted generations of southern Albertans, who came to know Leong as the face of Chinatown in Lethbridge.
He was generous to children who came into the store as well as kids whose parents operated nearby businesses.
Cherie Souther operated a store next to Bow On Tong for about 15 years, and her children would visit Leong seven days a week.
“He is their grandpa,” said Souther. She added Leong would often cook breakfast for her three children before they went to school.
“The humblest, kindest person in the whole wide world,” said Souther.
Candace Dueck remembers visiting Leong’s store when she was a child.
“He’d open the apothecary drawers and show me all the treasures inside,” said Dueck.
“It was like magic going into his store.”
Dueck, who is related to Leong through marriage, said she would hang out at the Bow On Tong while her parents were shopping at the nearby grocery store.
“Albert would always have the stories about what’s in the boxes.”
Her parents would allow her to buy one thing, but Leong would provide the “kid discount” and always throw in a couple of other trinkets that she had her eye on.
Leong said the last 10 years he operated the store there was almost no business, adding he often lost money on transactions.
“Someone would come in and buy a 10 dollar basket that I didn’t mark up much, and I’d give another two dollars off and there’s two kids, so I give each of the kids a little toy,” he chuckled. “If they didn’t come in I’d be ahead.”
Leong’s dream was to turn the old store into a living museum, to help keep the memories around the early Chinese community in Lethbridge alive.
The building was given historic designation by the province in 2019. Several groups tried to raise money and apply for grants to restore the building, but those efforts ended after over $106,000 was put into structural repairs.
Leong said after years of waiting, he was left with no choice but to sell, and walk away from his family legacy.
Souther said there were good intentions, but an unfortunate series of events led to the building being sold.
“It’s a story of a man displaced from his home,” said Souther. “He will never get back in. Things will never be the same.”
Holding placards with words of support, friends and family joined Leong on a two block walk, from his current one room apartment, to his former lifelong home and business.
Leong said he was overwhelmed by the love, and thanked all the people who tried to get him back into the store.
“I was the last guy in Chinatown,” said Leong. “Now it seems like I’m going to be leaving too.”
“It’s an emotional day,” added Ying Zheng, Vice-President of the Southern Alberta Chinese Association.
“Today is the last day of Albert in Chinatown,” she said.
“But hopefully it will be the first day of a new era in which we treat our elders with more humanity and respect.”
“Without him here, Chinatown is no more,” added Souther. “Albert was Chinatown.”
Leong said he will be okay, and has come to realize he can live anywhere. But he hopes people will remember how important it is to preserve our history.
“For decades we lived here, we worked here, we were and are part of the community," said Leong.
”It’s so sad that Chinatowns are disappearing in so many cities.”