We sadly announce the sudden and unexpected passing of our beloved mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, Bessie Lee (nee Lum) on December 22, 2016 in Burnaby at the age of 92 years.
Bessie was predeceased by husband, Henry James Lee; eldest son, James Lee (Colleen); and brother, Don Lum (Dorothy). She is survived by her children: Joyce, Jo-Anne (Gordon), Julia (Tom), John (Sharon), Jeffrey (Christine), Jerome, Jeanette (Doug); her eleven grandchildren: Aleysa, Andrew (Erin), Randall, Jasmine (Vince), Arlo, Meigan, Shannon (Nick), Kameron, Jaxson, Jesse, and Morgen; and great grandchildren, Elliott, Charlotte and Hazel.
Bessie grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s. She attended Strathcona and Vancouver Normal School. Her family operated a fish and general store that served the Chinese bachelors living in Chinatown. The family store became a favorite gathering place for them. Our mother loved to tell stories of her early life. From her mother, an herbalist, she learned how to prepare herbal tonics and medicinal preparations made from roots, leaves, bark and wild animal parts that the older men would bring in from the bush. Because her father died young, Bessie quit school before graduation to help her widowed mother run the business. Not being able to complete high school graduation was something she always regretted so she encouraged all of us to study hard and pursue higher education.
When she was 20 years of age, Bessie eloped with Henry, our father. They had 8 children. She was a kind, generous, and devoted mother who welcomed everyone into our home, especially her nieces and nephews, and our friends. There was always room for another chair around the kitchen table. She was a fabulous cook and she left an indelible mark on her children, as most of us love to cook.
Her proudest achievement was her close knit and loving family.
In 1968, out of necessity, our mother embarked on a career as a community organizer and civic activist. With her home threatened by the bulldozer, Bessie decided to get involved. She became a highly respected leader among Vancouver’s Chinese Canadian community and the local Strathcona neighbourhood. For over two decades, Bessie helped to pioneer innovative, culturally hybrid forms of political organizing such as ribbon cutting ceremonies, open houses and teas, walking tours and multi-venue Chinese banquets during municipal, provincial and federal elections. She worked with the skills she had. She recruited everyone she could to her cause, including family members. With others, she transformed a relatively powerless, non-English speaking, volunteer-run organization into a political power house to be reckoned with.
Bessie was diplomatic, genuine, gentle and persuasive. As co-founder and long-time President of the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA), she helped to halt a National urban renewal program that would have destroyed the older neighbourhoods of Vancouver. After stopping three levels of government, SPOTA convinced senior governments to implement a pilot urban rehabilitation project in Strathcona that became a national program for preserving older, inner city neighbourhoods. SPOTA received a Governor General's award for this project. Bessie was instrumental in helping to build affordable co-operative, infill housing for families and seniors on vacant lots. She worked tirelessly to improve health and social services delivery to Strathcona families and elders. She helped to develop and manage integrated community recreation centres and parks in Strathcona and Grandview Woodland. She strategized, coordinated and mobilized three neighbourhoods to work together to stop a freeway connector that would have run through the heart of Grandview Woodland, Strathcona and Chinatown and destroyed them. Bessie was a visionary. She had the conviction of her beliefs and she would not stop until she got what she wanted. In her words, “We have to remind the city that when they decide to change things in a community they must always consider the social planning of that community and the concerns of the people who live in it.”
Our mother, Bessie Lee, was a legend among Vancouver’s urban activists and planners. In recognition of her many contributions, our mother received the BC Community Achievement Award in 2014.
In her later years, she enjoyed attending the symphony and opera with her friends. Always adventuresome and curious, she was “bitten by the travel bug” as she put it. She travelled to almost all the continents, and in her 90s, she still loved going to Las Vegas and trying her hand with Lady Luck.
We were so fortunate to have had Bessie Lee’s love and guiding presence in our lives. We will greatly miss our precious mother.
In lieu of flowers, donations in her name may be made, “In memory of Jimmy Lee”, to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada.
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