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

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

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

By Gavin Fisher, Elaine Chau, CBC News Posted: Apr 09, 2016 4:42 PM PT Last Updated: Apr 10, 2016 10:46 AM PT

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.

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)

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Modernize Tailors, Wong family honoured for contribution to Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver 6:57

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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.

Courtesy Maurice Wong

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.
Courtesy Maurice Wong

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.

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