British Columbia

Bill Wong, legendary Vancouver Chinatown tailor, dead at 95

Bill Wong, whose shop Modernize Tailors has been a fixture of Vancouver's Chinatown for more than a century, has died at the age of 95.

Wong's shop, Modernize Tailors, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013

Bill Wong, who died age 95 on April 8, 2017, spent almost 70 years working at Modernize Tailors in Vancouver's Chinatown. (JJ Lee)

Bill Wong, whose shop Modernize Tailors has been a fixture of Vancouver's Chinatown for more than a century, has died at the age of 95.

Wong passed away in his sleep in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 8, his son Steven Wong told CBC News.

Steven said his father was still actively working in the shop two days before his death.

"He loved his work so much. His work was his play," Steven said.

"[In] palliative care, they asked where he wanted to be, and he wanted to be in Chinatown — in the tailor shop."

A celebration of life is expected in the coming months..

A Chinatown legend

For over 60 years, Bill worked at Modernize Tailors on 5 West Pender St., where he made suits for both local patrons and celebrities including Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan frequently had suits made by Bill.

"You're a real Vancouverite if you have a Modernize suit," former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan (left) told CBC News in 2013. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

"I feel like I'm a part of history. This is such a great institution — parents, grandparents come to Modernize Tailors to get suits," Sullivan told CBC Radio during a visit to the store in 2013.

"It's a signal that I have for special people in the city: we just open our jacket up and you show the sign and it's like a secret handshake."

100 years of Modernize

Modernize Tailors is the last remaining tailor shop in Chinatown. Hearing news of his death, the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver paid tribute to Bill on its website, calling him a "pillar of the Chinatown community."

In honour of the store's 100 years of operation, the City of Vancouver declared November 2, 2013 was "Modernize Tailors Day."

Steven said the declaration was like a "birthday surprise" for his father.

"He knew something was happening," Steven said. "[But] he never imagined the acknowledgement, the tributes that came out that day."

Modernize Tailors at the Chinese Freemasons Building on the corner of W. Pender and Carrall streets. After the store moved locations in the 1960s, it recently returned to the original location at 5 West Pender. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

Early struggles, eventual success

Bill and his brother Jack inherited the store in the 1950s from their father Wong Kung Lai.

The eldest of ten siblings, he earned an engineering degree from UBC in the mid-1940s, but because of persistent racism against Chinese people at the time, he couldn't use it because no firm would consider hiring him.

"My dad is ... almost the last standing pioneer of that generation," Steven said.

"It was that immigration story that includes prejudice in that early time. It includes struggles. But the flip side of the coin is it included hope and it included success — you know, whether it's his personal success or within the family."

In 1911, Wong's father was chosen by his small village in China to go and settle in Canada, having to pay a $500 head tax at the time. 

After he arrived, Kung Lai trained with an English tailor and in 1913, opened his store at what was then the Chinese Freemasons Building.

More than a century later, Modernize Tailors and the Wong family were honoured by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. for their contribution to the community in Vancouver.

Building a community

Despite working with many big-name clients, Steven said his father always had time for customers from the nearby Downtown Eastside.

"They didn't always have a lot of money, but the were part of our neighbourhood, so they might get a neighbourhood price," Steven said.

The children, 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren of the late Wong Kung Lai, shown in this 2016 photograph. Bill Wong can be spotted in the centre of the group. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

He said his father embodied a generous spirit and a desire to build strong community — qualities passed on from his grandfather.

"If you worked with us [in the shop], you were part of our extended family," Steven said. "You came over to the family house to share some food and to celebrate. My dad continued that tradition that my grandfather started."

"I think that's a great community spirit."

With files from Elaine Chau.