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Chinese Canadian pioneers of West Kootenay: Jim and Annie Kee

Updated: May 23, 2023

The Kootenay Lake Historical Society has just reprinted the 1980 book Pioneer Families of Kaslo in a revised and expanded form. My contribution was providing notes about and securing photos of Jim Kee, a prominent Chinese merchant.

Jim and Annie Kee, 1947. (Courtesy Russel Lang)

One weak spot of the original book was that it only contained profiles of white families, and mostly British ones at that (not the fault of the folks who put it together; they put out a call for submissions, and printed what they received).

Early Kaslo was mostly white, but there was a Chinese community and a small number of Black residents. Jim Kee was one of West Kootenay’s most prominent early Chinese citizens and well liked by his white customers, though this hardly insulated him from racial slurs and general discrimination.

According to his family, Kee’s surname was originally Nip. He was born in Canton on July 1, 1854 or 1856 depending on conflicting documents, and came to Canada in 1880, possibly as a railway labourer. He appears on the 1891 census for Lower Kootenay as a prospector/miner.

Although the chronology is hazy, Kee had a laundry in Nelson in a log cabin west of the Hume Hotel. His business was successful and he used the proceeds to build a new laundry on Front Street opposite the provincial jail — now the site of city hall. This might have later become the Mar Sam laundry, which operated for decades in roughly the same spot.

The first newspaper mention of Kee was in the New Denver Ledge of Sept. 23, 1897 which reported: “Jim Kee has bought I.M. Wright’s house [in Whitewater] and will carry on the laundry business.” (Whitewater was a mining town between Kaslo and New Denver, now known as Retallack. Kee owned Block 11, Lots 7 to 10.)

The next sign of him is in the Sandon Paystreak of Oct. 20, 1900: “Jim Kee … from Whitewater, has purchased a patch of ground at the lower end of the K&S addition and together with several other Chinamen is proceeding to start a market garden.”

The rest of the item was a bunch of alarmist racism about how their arrival would herald “opium joints, fan tan layouts, bad smells and … other disgusting appurtenances.”

Kee was recorded twice on the 1901 census: in Kaslo, rooming with Mar Sing and a dozen other Chinese men, and somewhere in the Slocan, living with a laborer named Jah Shing. In both instances his occupation was given as gardener.

By 1903, Kee was a naturalized citizen and living in McGuigan, another town near Sandon, when he was charged with selling vegetables without a license. He pled guilty and was fined $5 plus costs. Apparently he was hauled before a magistrate several times, although rarely convicted for lack of evidence.

“Jim is cute, but not so cute as the citizens who oppose him, yet patronize him in his business,” The Ledge said.

Later that year he started shipping vegetables to Poplar City, where a gold rush was underway. At Lardeau, he was ordered to ride the freight car along with his produce, and then ejected from the train altogether. By the time he walked to Poplar the next day, his vegetables were gone.

“He is now suing the CPR and certainly has a good case,” The Ledge reported. “Jim also found that he was the wrong kind of yellow in a gold camp, as society bars the door against him at Poplar.” The outcome of the case isn’t known.

Kee then settled in Kaslo, where he established gardens at Block 24, Lots 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41 from 1904-06. He sold those properties to Leong Fong Lee by 1908. He also had a garden in Block 25, Lots 6, 7, and 8 from 1904-09.

At one point, he offered a reward of $50 (something like $1,700 in today’s currency) “for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who are maliciously destroying the vegetables in his Kaslo garden.”

Kee advertised in nearly every issue of The Kootenaian, which probably endeared him to the publisher — although not so much that he didn’t have to endure insults about his speech.

“Jim is giving more support to the local paper than some other Kaslo businessmen who claim they cannot afford to advertise,” the Moyie Leader said.

The Kootenaian, July 20, 1905

In late 1905, Jim went to Vancouver to be married. His bride’s name was given as both Leong Shee and Shum Yee, although she went by Annie. She was born in Canton on Feb. 11, 1889, making her not quite 17 — and about 35 years Jim’s junior.

A newspaper report, however, put her age at 20 and said she was a “petite brunette … who came to Vancouver from China six years ago and has lived there ever since.”

When the Kees arrived back in Nelson, the Daily News said they were

royally entertained … in Chinatown by Kwong Wing Chung, Wing Lee, Tik San Lung, Cong Show Wing, and a host of minor Chinese celebrities, while the whole of Chinatown joined in the festivities and presented the bride and bridegroom with all kinds of presents, many of which were beautiful and costly. During the afternoon Mrs. Jim Kee held a reception at the Hume Hotel which was largely attended by the ladies of Nelson, all deeply anxious to see the pretty bride and to inspect her reception dress, a many colored dream of hand worked and hand painted silk, quite unlike anything ever seen in Nelson …
The bride cannot speak English very well, but she poured out 5 o’clock tea for all her guests in the most approved fashion, tripped in and out of the throng of curious visitors most gracefully and smilingly, and offered innumerable strange and wondrous Chinese sweetmeats and wines to all comers …

Jim was “immensely proud of his pretty wife.”

On Jan. 7, 1909, she gave birth to a son, the first Chinese-Canadian baby in Kaslo and one of the first in West Kootenay. Two months later, a “very interesting and unusual ceremony took place in St. Mark's church,” when the baby was baptized by Rev. Gilbert Cook. According to The Kootenaian, with “a large number on hand to witness the ceremony,” he was named James Barrington Kee.

He received “many nice presents,” including $10 (about $342 in today’s figures) from his godfather, Kaslo mayor Fred Archer. Where the name Barrington came from is a mystery, but the new arrival didn’t use it anyway. Although he may have gone by Jimmy as a child, as an adult, he was known as Henry Lung Kee.

Two daughters were born in Kaslo over the next few years: Irene (Annie) on Jan. 23, 1911 and Jessie on Nov. 30, 1912.

In 1912, was selling vegetables in Creston. Soon after they moved to Calgary, where another son, Charlie, was born in 1916, and another daughter, Victoria, in 1919. The children all used the surname Kee, except for Victoria, who went by Nip.

On the 1921 census, the family is in Calgary, running a general store at 310 Centre Street.

The Jim and Annie Kee family, ca. 1930s. Back row, from left, son Henry’s wife, Henry, daughter Irene, Irene’s husband, son Charlie, daughter Jessie’s husband, Jessie, and daughter Victoria. Front row, from left, Henry’s son Douglas, Annie, Irene’s son Ian, Irene’s daughter Elizabeth, and Jim holding Jessie’s son Keith. Henry’s wife and son appear to have been pasted into the photo. They were likely in China at the time. (Courtesy Russel Lang)

Sometime in the 1920s, Jim retired to Victoria, where he died on May 2, 1953, age 96 or 98. He was buried at Royal Oak Cemetery in Saanich. His last address was 1337 Grant Street. Shum Yee Nip (Annie) Kee died in Duncan on Sept. 11, 1974, age 85, and was also buried in Royal Oak Cemetery. Their eldest child Henry died in Vancouver on March 1, 1981, age 72.

I became interested in Jim Kee simply because of his frequent ads in The Kootenaian and was able to track down his grandson, Russel Lang of Courtenay, whose mother Jessie was the middle of the five Kee children. He provided the photos seen here, including one of Jim and Annie included in a 1985 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit entitled Gum San, Gold Mountain: Images of Gold Mountain 1886-1947 and its companion booklet.

“I was about nine when my grandfather died,” Lang told me. “By the time I knew him, he was pretty cranky, but he was a determined businessman.”

He better remembers his grandmother, who was 12 when she came to Canada with a wealthy family. “She was supposed to be a concubine of the lord and master, but she refused and the lord and master’s wife gave her to my grandfather in marriage.

“In Kaslo, she was a member of the church and they taught her how to speak English. My grandmother was one of the first Chinese people of her generation to be fairly fluent in English. Because of that, all their children were fluently bilingual.”

Jim and Annie Kee had a total of nine grandchildren, one of whom, David, ran the Ashcroft House bed and breakfast in Victoria until his death in 2015.

I’m glad the Kee family is finally getting some belated recognition as one of Kaslo’s

pioneer families.

Kee family portrait, ca. 1940s. Top row, from left, Irene, Annie, Jim, Jessie. Middle row, Ian and Elizabeth (Irene’s children), and bottom row, Russel and Keith (Jessie’s children). (Courtesy Russel Lang)

— With thanks to Art Joyce for finding and sharing the terrific description of the Kees’ wedding reception.

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