Giving back to the community is a value that West Vancouver philanthropist Lily Lee embraced from a young age.
Her dad, who settled in Alert Bay at a time when Chinese Canadians were still treated with overt racism, always encouraged his children to consider others.
In the 1950s, Lee left the small coastal village and studied nursing at the University of British Columbia. Her first job was as a public health nurse on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“When I graduated there was an opening at the metropolitan health unit,” with offices on Cordova Street in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, she said. “It was very rewarding working there.”
At the time, “It seemed very safe,” she said. “We didn’t have all the drug problems we have today. There were hardly any people living on the street.”
Decades later, Lee, 88, is making a $3.8-million donation through the Chinatown Foundation in the hopes that a new community health centre in the Downtown Eastside will help residents there access the supports they need.
The money will go towards a 10-storey social housing and health centre that will provide 230 new housing units along with accessible health care, including specialized mental health and addiction care.
It is being built with support from BC Housing, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and $30 million from the Chinatown Foundation, run by Lee’s daughter Carol Lee.
“Hopefully it’ll just improve the life for people down there,” said Lily Lee. “I’ve been lucky in my financial life.... It was an easy choice for me to make to donate.”
“I just hope that my donation will set an example and that other people will follow suit.”
Lee and her late husband Robert Lee have been generous donors to health and educational projects for decades, previously giving $2 million to the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation in 2011 and to UBC in 2005.
Lee didn’t grow up surrounded by luxury. When she was young, her father moved the family to the small community of Alert Bay.
“We ended up there actually kind of by accident. My dad had gone up to work in the logging camp. And then when he got there, they said, ‘Oh, we don’t hire Chinese.’ So they said, ‘Go across the river.’ And that was Alert Bay. And it just happened there was this little grocery store for sale. So he ended up talking some relatives into lending him a bit of money. So he bought that store.”
“He worked day and night,” Lee recalled.
Lee said she has fond memories of attending UBC in 1950s, when nursing, home economics and teaching were among the few areas girls were encouraged to study. “When I went to UBC it was still small. It was probably the size of a big high school,” she said.
Chinese were excluded from the usual sororities and fraternities, she recalls, so she joined the Chinese Varsity Club, where she met her husband, Bob.
The pair eventually married and raised a family, settling on the North Shore, where the couple was active in the community for many decades, until Bob Lee’s death in 2020. Now Lily is carrying on their legacy.
“I’m a North Shore person,” she said.