Joseph and Doris Lee, one of the five pioneering Filipino-Canadian couples, will be honored at the 2014 EXPLORASIAN Recognition Gala. They will receive The Community Builder Awards 2014.
Joseph manages the Lee family’s Flamingo House Chinese restaurant, one of the busiest and most popular upscale Chinese restaurants in Vancouver. Flamingo has gone through several upgrades and continues to look contemporary while retaining the patronage of its many loyal patrons and drawing new client to the restaurant’s banquet style variety of Chinese (Cantonese) style dishes and its wide selection of dim sum specialties.
Some people are not aware that Flamingo has been owned and operated by a Filipino-Chinese family for 40 years. Though many patrons come from the local Chinese community, Canadian mainstream, various ethnic groups, tourists from Seattle and Portland, it is especially popular with the Filipino community. Despite the success of the business, the Lee family has always kept a low profile.
When asked why Flamingo continues to be popular, Joseph first gave his winning and friendly smile and replied, “It’s the personal touch. I remember distinctly that my late father knew his customers well and just like him, I make it a point to go from table to table to say ‘Hello’ to the customers. I was trained in the hospitality business and I am not shy. I can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Fukien, Tagalog and English, of course. We make the clients feel welcome and comfortable. The quality of food we serve is high but is affordable. More and more Filipinos go to Flamingo for private parties, birthday receptions, baptisms, and weddings. I would say that 40% of our total clientele is Filipino.”
On a personal level, Joseph was born in Ermita, Manila, Philippines. His father was originally from Kwantung, China, just like his Filipina-Chinese mother. He initially wanted to be an architect and enrolled at the University of Oregon, but later changed his direction and decided to move to Vancouver in 1969 with his family. He took a certificate course in Hotel and Restaurant management. This prepared him to help his father to open and operate Flamingo Restaurant.
Joseph is married to Hongkong-born Doris who was working for Japan Air Lines when they met in Vancouver. They have three grown up children, all professionals who are in their own fields of endeavor.
The following are excerpts from an interview of Joseph at Flamingo House Chinese Restaurant:
Q: What were your initial impressions of Canada and Vancouver?
JL: At the beginning, I thought Canada was all snow but the day we arrived, it was summer and it was so beautiful and not too hot. In 1969, there were very few Filipinos. I met Filipinos at school and Filipinos ahead of us like Dr. De Guzman, well-known general practitioner and the Mabanta family and some Chinese Filipinos like the Sy Family. Later in the 70s, we met more Filipinos.
Q: Did you have bad experiences as a Filipino immigrant?
JL: No, I think because I can speak English well. There was no problem in verbal communication and I assimilated and integrated in Canadian society without difficulty. I even studied at UBC and my classmates were local Caucasians.
Q: What were the challenges in setting up a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver?
JL: The most challenging was finding the right location. My father and I decided to open a Chinese restaurant away from Chinatown. We had a lot of negative comments because they believe it should be in Chinatown to succeed. We did not have full support from suppliers and they often did not give us the best products. With the success of Flamingo, the suppliers cooperated without problems. In the beginning, Flamingo’s clientele were the rich Hong Kong immigrants who resided in Oakridge. Our menu did not change much because our customers even today like traditional Chinese dishes, it is their taste. But with the change in demographics I also try to serve dishes geared to the Mainland Chinese taste and consider the people born in Canada. Our three most ordered dishes are sliced beef with Chinese donut, lettuce wrap and Peking Duck.
Q: What is your advise to new immigrants and to those thinking of immigrating to Canada?
JL: Educate your children and try to work harder. I think Canada can give you and your family a better future. Education is very important to me. That is the reason why my personal contributions are mostly for education but I chose to donate quietly. I help Vancouver College through fund raising. I also contribute to some schools in the Philippines. I think education is necessary to make people succeed. Don’t forget your heritage but a new immigrant should blend more to the Canadian community. In Canada, Filipinos are accepted as a person more than a race. I have a feeling that Canadians welcome us. I don’t feel neglected, I don’t have uncomfortable feelings.
Q: What is your advice to those interested in starting a business in Vancouver?
JL: When you plan to go into business, study your venture well, the cost, the market and the location. Some people start a business they cannot sustain and only good at the beginning. Make sure you know what you are doing and conduct your business with honesty and fairness. There is no substitute for hard work and good customer service. Work hard to keep your customers happy and attain your goal on a long term basis.
Immediately after the interview, Joseph started his practice of going from table to table to meet customers and friends to make them feel at home and also to find out their favorite dishes. Joseph Lee must be doing something really good because restaurants open and close in Vancouver but Flamingo has not lost its luster after 40 years. It is still one of the best Chinese restaurants in Vancouver.
This interview was made possible through Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society’s (VAHMS) explorASIAN 2014. Portions of the interview, along with the interviews of other Filipino First Families couples, will be shown in a short video of the “Filipino First Families, First Stories Project” during the Recognition Gala on June 1, 2014 at 5:30pm at the Pink Pearl Restaurant, Vancouver. Tickets through Esmie 604-437-6353.