Arlene and Leo Chan met in a café on Spadina Street in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown. The couple is a prime example of a life journey full of rich experiences, that is also marked by commitment to their community and pride in their Chinese heritage. Born to Cantonese-speaking parents, a soldier father and artist mother, Leo left his native Macau and immigrated to Canada in 1966. After working in restaurant kitchens and management in Canada and the United States, he taught culinary management at George Brown College and Humber College from 1981 to 2013. Passionate about history and political science, he earned his Bachelor of Arts from York University.
It was during the dark years of Canada’s policies on Chinese immigration that Arlene’s father immigrated to Canada at the age of 13. At the time, his parents had to pay the $500 head tax that was imposed on Chinese immigrants. Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to limit Chinese immigration, the Government of Canada implemented the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. This was in effect until 1927, after which there was a ban on Chinese immigration altogether until 1947. Despite the conditions of social exclusion that prevailed into the 1960s, Arlene’s parents, Jean and Doyle Lumb, worked hard to support their six children through their business activities. First they owned a grocery store and then they went on to own four restaurants. Via relationships with public figures and members of the Chinese community, Jean Lumb, Arlene’s mother and a truly exceptional woman, became an activist and ambassador for Toronto’s Chinese community and a citizenship judge for the Government of Canada. In 1976, she was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada.
Arlene’s life has been deeply marked by her sense of patriotism and her awareness of life’s challenges. A mother to two boys who speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, she has worked as a historian, librarian and lecturer. She has also written seven books on Chinese history and culture in Canada. Additionally, her pursuit of excellence has led her to compete in dragon boating on the international stage. Arlene and Leo are enthusiastic in reminding us how important it is to learn from our recent history and to value relationships between cultural communities. Canada’s cultural mosaic is vast and inspiring. We should always remember Toronto’s motto, Diversity: Our Strength.
Today, these two leaders combine their passions in their roles as lecturers and cultural guides for Heritage Toronto and the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area.