Atikokan’s original Chinese restaurant, the former Can Am restaurant on Main Street, is being demolished, and its demise has elicited many memories for generations of Atikokanites – but none more so than cousins Kam Lee and Maureen Knowles, whose family were its original owners.
In the early years it was renowned for the sweet and sour sauce Kam’s mom Chan Fung Lee made; it simmered all day long on the stove. “Everything was done from scratch,” recalled Kam. To this day, some people still talk about that sauce. There was no written recipe; she kept the method all in her head.
Throughout the years the shop always offered traditional Western fare as well, and was known for its steak and hot sandwich dinners and fries. “My husband still raves about the hot beef sandwiches and the large peas,” recalled Susan Bryk, who has compiled a listing of businesses throughout Atikokan’s history.
“[Customers] also really liked [Mrs. Lee’s] turkey and the dressing she made,” recalled Anna Talbot, who worked there as a waitress from 1955 to 1962. During the town’s mining heyday, the restaurant cooked three turkeys each day, and had one employee strictly devoted to turning potatoes into French fries.
The Lee family, who opened ‘Lee’s Steak Grill Dine and Dance’ at 110 Main St. W. in 1951, had all come from China, and many worked as cooks in Winnipeg before moving to Atikokan.
“They had heard of Atikokan, and that there was no Chinese restaurant there, so the brothers and uncles all got together and started the restaurant,” said Kam, whose uncle, Tom, was the first owner before brothers Harry Lee (Kam’s father) and Peter Lee Owen (Maureen’s father), took over in 1954. They had a bunkhouse relocated from the west end of Main St. (now M&C Motors) to the back part of the existing building, as a family residence.
Throughout the 18 years the Lee family ran the business, they often hired other family members who had recently emigrated from China. (After immigrating, Harry Lee returned to China, married Chan Fung Lee and returned to Atikokan in 1952.) Kam arrived here with his grandmother in 1958.
Chan Fung Lee, a nurse in China and Malaysia, made her escape from Communist China with the help of brother-in-law Peter, through a letter he sent to her requesting she pick up a “valuable parcel” in Hong Kong, 100 miles away. She was able to clear China customs, and from there boarded a ship sailing for San Francesco and made her way to Atikokan.
“It was a culture shock for her, for sure,” said Kam of her arrival in Atikokan, a railroad town with muddy streets. She, husband Harry, and Peter were all cooks. Peter also did the bookkeeping, the “hiring and firing and throwing out the drunks,” says daughter Maureen.
The origins of the restaurant building itself are not clear, but it seemed it had previously served as a restaurant because the horseshoe-shaped booths and adjoining dance hall were already in existence. These were later converted into two dining rooms, and the Lees quickly discovered that to avoid having customers ‘dine and dash’ they had to close one of the doors so there was only one way to enter and exit.
“There were too many escapees,” recalls Kam.
During the dredging of Steep Rock, the town’s population reached 7,000, a young 7,000, and business boomed. Many workers dropped off their lunch pails and the restaurant made their lunches for them.
The dance hall hosted many weddings and banquets; the venue, good food, and good service mad it popular. Martha and Pete Romanson had their wedding reception there with a roast beef dinner, in September, 1951. “It was the only place in town you could have a nice dinner,” said Martha.
Lee’s was usually the only restaurant open after the bars closed at 2 am. There was nothing like a big meal to help sober up – at least for the more for the civilly inebriated.
Juke boxes were in vogue then, and the restaurant had one large one, and a smaller one in each booth (along with a coat hanger). “You should have seen the quarters [that were taken out of that machine at the end of the day],” said Kam. “You’d get three songs for a quarter and it played all the hit songs. They were 45 records.” (The juke box machine supplier and the restaurant would split the profits.)
Anna Talbot remembers how at age 17, the job kept her busy and also provided some newfound independence.
“It was long hours (sometimes from 6 am to 6 pm), but we were young and full of energy, and you couldn’t ask for a better boss,” in Harry and Peter, she said. Two years later her younger sister Marie joined her on the staff. “Whenever Harry asked my sister and me to work longer hours, he’d say ‘You don’t have to, I’m just asking.”
The owners made sure the waitresses always had time for a meal. Talbot enjoyed her job there – and the bonus was that it gave the girls a break from household chores.
“It was nice to get out of the house. We didn’t have to wash the floors on our hands and knees anymore,” she recalled with a chuckle.
Marianne Henze also worked there in the early 1960’s. She recalled that porterhouse steaks were a $1.00 and when waitresses worked nights, the police would drive them home.
Kam grew up living on the premises of a thriving restaurant business, yet neither his dad nor Maureen’s dad were ever home before 6 pm, and “never took holidays. My dad was a good guy; I just wish I could have spent more time with him,” said Kam, of Harry, who died of a heart attack in November, 1965.
Peter continued to operate the shop with sister-in-law Chan Fung until 1969, when business took a downturn. “People weren’t going out as much,” said Kam. Mrs Lee and Peter sold the business that year, and she moved to Toronto, where she lived for another 40 years. Peter and his family moved to Winnipeg in 1970. In earlier years several other Lee family members moved to Fort Frances and Thunder Bay, and worked as cooks or started their own restaurants, said Kam.
In fact, in its first two decades, the restaurant was a starting place for several newly emigrated Lee family members who moved on to start their own restaurants.
During the 1960s the restaurant was something of a ‘teen hangout’. “They would nurse a coke and sit all day,” jokes Maureen.
Bryk can attest to that: “One person would order a pop and ten of us would sit there and talk, and then when we were done, we’d go over to Sinclair’s Restaurant and do the same thing.” In later years, teens would divide their time between the Chinese Restaurant and Burky’s pool hall in the Sunset Square Mall.
Lee’s later became the HO-HO Restaurant, owned by the Au family from 1969 to 1982, the Kim-Vi under owners Du and Vi Tuan and Kim Nguyen (1982-86), the Can-Am under owners W. Phoung and Linda Phan until 2000 and owners Julia Tang and Randall Lu until the restaurant closed in 2005.
The building, which went back to the Town, is now being demolished, a process that should be completed in the next few weeks, said the Town’s chief building official Graham Warburton. Work by Stan Bates (Construction has been slowed by the removal of asbestos and other hazardous materials contained in both the siding and the boilers inside the building.)
Like so many of the businesses from the booming Steep Rock days, it will live on now only in memory…