Working for free -- for Sook-Yin, it's a family affair

This week on DNTO we explore the family business! That has Sook-Yin Lee reflecting on her own free labour at her aunt's restaurant, and you know what? It turns out that there can be worth in working for free.

"In my Chinese family you do that: work for free. Everyone pitches in."

Sook-Yin Lee and her aunt (Gooma), when she was in hospice care. She was nearing the end of her life, but still shining bright. (Deanna Lee)

When my dad was a kid growing up in Hong Kong, his parents ran a take-out wonton shop from their tiny basement apartment. They'd send their children into the streets to take orders. Then, my dad and his brothers and sisters would pick up the noodles and deliver them.

In my Chinese family, you do that: work for free. Everyone pitches in. When I was a teenager, my aunt Gooma ran Queen's Garden Restaurant on Fraser Street in Vancouver. When my parents split up, I went to live in her basement for a while with my dad.

After school, I helped at the restaurant by bussing tables. My cousins David and Joe, also teenagers, cooked in the kitchen with my uncle, Goo Joong. They could sculpt carrots into the most beautiful shapes. I was impressed.

Gooma held court and hosted while my cousin Amy waitressed. At the end of the night when the restaurant closed, we sat together for a delicious meal, then started all over again the next day.

Years later, Goo Joong got sick with stomach cancer. I remember visiting him at the hospital when he couldn't speak or swallow or keep food down. He pointed to the drawer by his bed. When I opened it, I discovered his stash of hospital juices. He gestured at me to take one. Goo Joong was kind and caring to the end. 

A few years after he passed away, my spirited Gooma, a woman who loved disco dancing in her black leather pants and intergalactic sparkly sweater, was also diagnosed with cancer, but as you can see from the photo of us together, she remained bright to the end.