Long-distance call

Petti Fong

Carol Lee could have picked anywhere in Vancouver for her headquarters - but the daughter and granddaughter of two of the city's most prominent businessmen, and a successful entrepreneur in her own right, planned her future by delving into her family's past.

The Chinatown her grandfather helped develop in the early part of last century had, by the 1990s, become a shadow of its former self. The drug addicts of neighbouring Downtown Eastside spilled over into the once proud and historic district.

'The Chinatown I remember as a kid was a place where families gathered, everyone knew you and your parents and your grandparents,' says Lee, chief executive of Linacare Cosmetherapy, a maker of skincare products.

Vancouver's Chinatown is the second largest in North America in area, after that in San Francisco, but new immigrants are settling elsewhere while older generations watch their descendants move out.

When Lee and her business partner, Dr Henry Fung, were looking for a home for Linacare, which sells its products in North America and Asia, they were drawn to Chinatown. She chose a building that dates back to 1907 on Pender Street, a spot her grandfather would have known well.

Ronald Bick Lee, born Lee Yat-yee, was a major force in Chinatown. In 1921, 12 years after arriving, he founded Foo Hung, an importer of Asian goods. His first job had been as a dishwasher, having travelled to Canada after fellow residents of Ong Sum village in Taishan, Guangdong province, pooled their money to send one of their youths overseas.

His son, Robert H. Lee, Carol's father, founded commercial real estate company Prospero International Realty and is one of the city's leading philanthropists. He is a former chancellor of the University of British Columbia; the university's graduate business school is named after him.

'There is a link with Chinatown that will never disappear no matter where we go in our careers,' says Lee, who was born in Vancouver but lived in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, before returning in 2002. '[But] with each generation, people leave and it sometimes takes an effort to return.'

Linacare's location serves another purpose; Lee makes a point of taking business associates and friends to restaurants and pastry shops she knew and loved as a child.

'These places are in danger of disappearing because Chinatown has changed, but the businesses that remain deserve a chance for people to rediscover them.'

Last autumn, Lee helped launch Chinatown: Past, Present & Future, an organisation of business and community leaders, to help preserve the integrity of the neighbourhood.

'Chinatowns are significant to the Canadian cultural mosaic,' she says. 'Without preserving what our grandparents and our parents did to build this community, the [connection] really will be lost for the coming generations.'