Remembering Insoon Lee, an entrepreneur who put her coronary heart into Koreatown

Insoon Lee left her native South Korea for a greater life in Canada, however upon arriving in Toronto within the ’70s, she discovered herself working nights as a worm harvester. This was earlier than she established herself as a revered businesswoman, prolific volunteer and founding member of Toronto’s Koreatown and the Canadian-Korean Buddhists’ Affiliation.

“The Korean neighborhood was actually small when our household immigrated to Toronto, perhaps 5,000 to six,000 (individuals),” says Insoon’s daughter Seung-Yoon Lisa Lee. “There was just one Korean grocery retailer and one Korean restaurant on Bloor Road. There have been a few small Korean-Protestant church buildings and a Korean-Catholic church, however no Korean-Buddhist temples.” Her mom took that as a problem.

Born in Jincheon County in North Chungcheong Province, Insoon was the youngest of 5 youngsters of Poong-Wu Lee, an influential farmer and mill proprietor who employed many locals, and his spouse, Solar Shim, a homemaker. Again then, Jincheon was a farming space principally untouched by modernity. “Our mom was about 10 years previous when electrical energy got here to the village,” says Seung-Yoon. “I bear in mind her telling us about how thrilling it was when the village gathered round a tv set for the primary time.”

Insoon’s siblings – brothers Sang-Wook, Sang-Hun Simon and Sang-Gun and sister Okay-Quickly – had been greater than 10 years her senior. When Insoon was 10, her mom died, and Poong-Wu remarried quickly after. Okay-Quickly helped to boost Insoon, who attended Sang-San Elementary Faculty in Jincheon and Cheongju Senior Excessive Faculty for Ladies, the place she was on the prime of her class. She graduated with a instructing diploma from Cheongju Sabom College.

In 1972, she met Hai-Chang Lee, a civil engineer. He was a good-looking and profitable bachelor who had seen 26 girls as part of a matchmaking course of and was proving to be choosy, in line with Seung-Yoon. “However he appreciated our mother. And our mother might see his good coronary heart.” Three months after assembly, they married in Seoul, the place Hai-Chang lived. “Our dad travelled for work so much,” Seung-Yoon says, “whereas my mother was nonetheless instructing in Jincheon. They’d meet weekly in Seoul and typically in Cheongju.”

On the time, South Korea was a poor nation with restricted alternatives. So, sponsored by Insoon’s brother Simon, the couple immigrated to Scarborough in 1975, dwelling in an house advanced at Sheppard and McCowan – “the primary house of many different new arrivals, because it was near Toronto’s first Korean grocery retailer,” says daughter Hera Lee. Unable to work of their respective fields, Insoon and Hai-Chang accepted varied handbook labour jobs. They turned mates with different newly arrived Koreans from their ESL lessons and established a “keh” group – a standard honour-based system for pooling and saving cash, utilized by many Korean immigrants on the time – to determine their first small enterprise, a small grocery retailer with a floral division.

A couple of years later, they bought the store to purchase a comfort retailer close to Royal York and Lakeshore, dwelling within the upstairs house earlier than shopping for their first home at Finch and Victoria Park. Their subsequent enterprise was “a Greek restaurant which additionally served as an area hamburger joint referred to as Macho Burger,” says Seung-Yoon. “It was actually well-liked. My mother and father added Korean meals to the menu, making it much more eclectic.” The success of Macho Burger allowed them to buy a second enterprise, a comfort retailer at Yonge and Eglinton referred to as Zip and Tuck, in 1987. They later bought each companies and moved to Markham and purchased three dry-cleaning institutions and a small industrial property.

“(Insoon’s) energy and confidence had been not like different girls’s and moms’ I knew,” says daughter Christina Lee. “She argued her factors with clients and I noticed them again down. I watched her negotiate offers with distributors and was amazed she usually got here out on prime.”

“She took super satisfaction in treating all these round her with care and respect,” says Hera, “whereas nonetheless being the powerful and quick-minded businesswoman everybody cherished and revered.”

The Lees usually helped others, opening the doorways of their household house to anybody who wanted a spot to remain. “Individuals they hardly knew,” says Seung-Yoon. “A household just lately immigrated from Korea seeking a house and a enterprise, a teen who left house after her mother and father divorced. They had been all the time giving our stuff away. My sister Hera jokes that issues would usually go lacking if (the friends) had been good.”

Identified in Toronto’s Korean Buddhist neighborhood by her Buddhist identify, Sarija, Insoon and her husband drove seniors to their appointments. “That they had an actual coronary heart for the aged,” says Seung-Yoon. They had been additionally among the many 20 founding members of the Canadian-Korean Buddhists’ Affiliation. Registered as a charitable group in 1995, it now has 1000’s of members.

As members of the Korean Dry Cleaners’ Affiliation, the Lees spearheaded a Korean-English environmental training program in collaboration with the Ministry of the Surroundings. And for the Koreatown Improvement Affiliation, Insoon negotiated with metropolis officers to erect bilingual avenue indicators (“the primary of their variety in Canada,” says Hera). It was, says Seung-Yoon, “a very memorable milestone of their lives.”

Insoon was a devoted mom to the couple’s three daughters – Seung-Yoon Lisa (born in 1974), Hera (1976) and Christina Yoona (1982) – and 6 grandchildren. She loved the writings of Ayn Rand and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “Her love for books, newspapers, popular culture and sports activities made her so relatable and saved us linked,” Christina says. “I might share my favorite books, biographies and flicks and he or she would ask for extra. ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Sport of Thrones,’ ‘Lord of the Rings’ – she had an unbelievable thirst for tales.”

The Lees bought their companies after Hai-Chang was recognized with lung illness in 2006, and Insoon was his main caregiver till he died in 2010. She later turned a devoted volunteer on the Rose of Sharon Korean Lengthy-Time period Care House and one other seniors’ house for these with dementia. A tai chi practitioner and achieved calligrapher, Insoon additionally travelled to Europe, Russia, Asia, and India and hiked the Canadian Rockies in addition to Yellowstone and Yosemite parks within the U.S.

“She impressed the ladies round her,” says Hera, “girls who usually felt powerless and weak due to their age; immigrant girls; girls whose native language was not English; girls who didn’t drive; widowed girls who had been depending on their late husbands their complete lives in Canada. She confirmed them that they may do it on their very own.”

“‘Dwell a life that makes others’ higher,’” Seung-Yoon remembers her mom saying. “Rising up, particularly as youngsters, this could possibly be an exhausting factor to listen to. Now, I feel there’s no higher technique to stay. It’s how our mother lived, and he or she had a beautiful life.”



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