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Columbia Street was once filled with as many grocery stores as there are bridal shops now. Though there had always been stores owned by Chinese-Canadian residents in the downtown area, from the 1920s onwards, green- grocers became especially prominent on New Westminster’s main business street. At different times, there were grocery stores like the Wong Gee where Columbia Square is today, the Lee Bing near Copp’s Shoes, the Lum Kee near Church Street and so on. As the city’s Chinatown (roughly in the area of New Westminster Sky- Train Station today) faced demolition and Chinese-Canadians were denied jobs in other industries, owning a business remained a way to make a living. Yet, the greengrocers attracted the attention of the Retail Merchants Association which, in May 1926, sent a large delegation to a city council meeting to complain about Chinese-Ca- nadians leasing stores on Columbia. Despite this, many of the stores remained successful for decades. Some of the most successful and long-lived stores were “Johnny” Cheung Hee’s grocery stores. His first store opened around 1924 at 49 Sixth Street, moving to their Columbia Street location near McK- enzie after a few years. The Chong Hee Market, as the 646 Colum- bia location was called, sold fruit and produce; it first appeared in the directories in 1927. It was located next to the Paramount Theatre. During the Great Depression, Hee was so successful that he opened two more locations. The Chong Hee Market’s second location opened in 1931 at 739 Columbia, on the block where the Anvil Cen- tre is today, while the Handy Food Market opened at 633 Sixth Street in 1938. Susan Chew worked at the Handy Food Market in the later 1940s (from about 1946) and eventually bought the store, running it for about ten years before opening the Waffle House. The store at 739 Columbia eventually became the Yee Wo Market in 1940 and was at that location until 1963. Yee was actually the fam- ily’s correct name; the “Hee” name was probably a mistake made by immigration officials.

739 Columbia Street location of Cheung Hee’s grocery store with three employees. This photo was probably taken in the early 1930s, when the store was called the Chong Hee Market. The location was on the Anvil Centre block. Photo courtesy of Bev Hee .

Columbia Street Greengrocers

The original Chong Hee Market at Columbia and McKenzie during the 1951 May Day Parade. This location is currently a bridal store. Photo courtesy of Bev Hee.

The early Yee Wo Co. at 49 Sixth Street in 1925 with a delivery truck on view. This 1908 building is still on the southeast corner of Sixth and Carnarvon. The windows tell what was sold: fruit, candy and vegetables; other signs advertise Coca-Cola, Wrigley’s and other products. Photo courtesy of Bev Hee.

Join the New Westminster Museum for the opening of its new exhibit on community food security on Thursday, May 16 at 6:00 pm.

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