British Columbia

Chinese-Canadian community honours Vancouver's Modernize Tailors, pioneer family

Modernize Tailors, run by the Wong family, first opened in 1913 and has suited up everyone from local residents to celebrities such as Sean Connery.

Tailor shop opened in 1913 by Wong Kung Lai and has supplied suits to people like Sean Connery

A 1946 photograph of Wong Kung Lai (bottom, second from right) with his children, and brother-in-law Chu (bottom, in uniform) who introduced him to his wife. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

In 1911 Wong Kung Lai was chosen by his small village in China to go and settle in Canada, with the village paying for his passage across the Pacific as well as the $500 head tax at the time.

"They probably saw him as the boy most likely to succeed," said his son Maurice Wong, who added that as a young child his father used to walk for hours to bring to market the bok choy his family had grown.

And succeed he did — by opening his own tailor shop in Vancouver's Chinatown, Modernize Tailors.

Modernize Tailors shop honoured

That store was passed on to his sons Bill and Jack Wong in the 1950s, and has supplied suits to everyone from locals and loyal patrons such as former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, and celebrities such as Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The store, now the last remaining tailor shop in Chinatown, continues to operate at the building on 5 West Pender St.
Modernize Tailors at the Chinese Freemasons Building on the corner of Pender and Carrall streets. After the store moved locations in the sixties, it recently returned to the original location at 5 West Pender. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

On Saturday, April 9 Modernize Tailors and the Wong family were honoured by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. for their contribution to the Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver.

However, Kung Lai's success was hardly tailor-made.

Maurice said that when his father first arrived in Vancouver, a time of economic depression and massive racial inequality, he could hardly have believed that one day he would run a tailor shop.

Wong Kung Lai as a young man. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

"I imagine my father getting off the boat … and he walks down Chinatown and it's hostile," Maurice said.

"As he walked down Pender Street, at that point the Chinese Freemason Building was up already and much later or somewhat in a few years his tailor shop would be there, but he didn't know at the time."

Maurice said Kung Lai sought out an English tailor who he could apprentice for, and "diligently learned the trade."

Once proficient, Kung Lai opened his store in 1913, catering to the demand from Chinatown men who were increasingly starting to wear Western suits.

Hard-earned success

Maurice said he remembers that there was always enough food on the table for him and his nine siblings, but said they only ate food such as chicken on Sunday.

"That was a big deal," he added.

Bill Wong, one of Kung Lai's sons who currently works at Modernize Tailors (despite being over 90 years old), poses with dedicated patron and former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

He said that his father always emphasized the importance of reading, writing and learning.

"When it was time for me to go to school, to grade one, he personally took me to the school," he said.

"Just think … you're age six, and your [father's] busy with nine kids and business. He personally took me to the school which illustrated to me indirectly how much he valued and how important this was for me to go to school."

Maurice, who works as a dentist, said his siblings have gone on to become businessmen, artists, world travellers and teachers.

He said their accomplishments are reflective of their father Kung Lai.

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

Kung Lai was heavily involved in the Chinese-Canadian community as a trustee in a local Chinese school and as president of the Wong Benevolent Association. He also continually sent money back to his home village.

"The Wong family is just one of many families who came here, worked their way up through the difficulties and became successful," Maurice said.

"He set the stage for it to happen so you have to recognize your roots and the help you had along the way, because that's what it's all about.

"Ultimately if we can become contributors to the greater good, that's the best that we can do."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and Elaine Chau

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Modernize Tailors, Wong family honoured for contribution to Chinese-Canadian community


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