‘Finding Fred Lee’ uncovers a piece of Kamloops history

How the near erasure of a respected Chinese family in Kamloops — and one man’s military service — was uncovered.
A Chinese man stands in his uniform. Poster is of 'Finding Fred Lee' documentary.
Kamloops-born Fred Lee was one of around 300 Chinese Canadians who volunteered to fight in the First World War. Photo courtesy of Jack Gin.

On Thursday, March 9, curious Kamloopsians filled the Paramount Theatre downtown to watch Finding Fred Lee as part of the 27th annual Kamloops Film Festival. 

The documentary details the life of Private Fred Lee, a Kamloops-born Chinese man who volunteered to fight in WWI together with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

In the days leading up to the screening, Jack Gin, Finding Fred Lee director, producer and writer, was in conversation with The Wren. He spoke about details dug up during his investigation into Fred Lee’s life and his motivation to make a film about the Kamloopsian.

While speaking with Gin, few topics were more sorrowful than that of the forgotten sacrifice made by Fred Lee alongside his brothers in arms, likely at Vimy Ridge, after witnessing victory at the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, France, during the First World War. 

Still, learning about the near erasure of the Lee family name from Kamloops’ early history was gut-wrenching.

At a time when Chinese people were systematically discriminated against, intimidated, surveilled and controlled, Fred and other Chinese men would have been excluded from mandatory government conscription. 

However, Fred was able to take up arms as a volunteer, despite being denied the right to vote, participate in certain activities, work in certain professions and exist in certain parts of town. 

While Fred resembles a typical volunteer soldier, his Chinese heritage and the discrimination he would have overcome make his story unique, Gin says. 

In Finding Fred Lee, Gin sets out to answer a question — who was Fred Lee? Why did he care so much about Kamloops, or Canada at large, that he felt implored to fight in the First World War?

Finding the fallen soldier

When members of the Hill 70 Memorial Project in Kingston, Ont., informed Gin of a mysterious soldier named Fredrick Lee who they thought might be Chinese, his interest was piqued. 

Gin explained that finding Fred Lee was nearly impossible, but he was able to commence his search with a few good clues.

Fred was discovered after someone found his attestation paper, a form that he and other soldiers would have filled out to show their willingness to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in the First World War.

The Hill 70 Memorial Project hoped to honour Fred Lee in Lens, France, by naming a walkway after him and by adding his name to the existing memorial that honours the Canadians who lost their lives there. 

Before moving forward, Gin recalls saying, “wait a minute, you don’t have enough information to name this soldier and memorialize him … in Chinese culture, it’s actually a dishonour to memorialize someone without contacting or getting to know the family.”

“It was a friendly argument,” he says. 

Because Fred’s attestation paper held important information that ultimately led Gin down the correct path, he took it upon himself to get in his campervan and make his way from Burnaby to Kamloops.

Fred’s papers revealed he wished for his belongings to be returned to his mother, who lived in China, although Kamloops was listed as his place of birth.

“From his attestation paper, we knew he was born in Kamloops and had signed up with the Rocky Moutain Rangers … who would have assembled a battalion in 1916 called the 172nd that Fred was a part of,” Gin explains. 

A law firm, listed as Fulton, Morley & Clark, also appeared on his papers. The firm, now known as Fulton & Company LLP, still exists in Kamloops today. 

Armed with the above information and a curious mindset, Gin hit the road. 

Who were the Lees? 

After arriving in Kamloops, Gin found clues at Fulton & Company, the Kamloops Museum and Archives and the Chinese Cemetery that furthered his research. 

As those interested will find out within the film, Fred’s father, Chong Lee, was as Kamloops as it gets. 

Gin explains that Chong Lee would have arrived in Kamloops around 1861. 

“He came for the Gold Rush,” he says. Fred’s father, like many men who made their fortune here, was a pioneer. Chong Lee panned for gold over at Tranquille Creek, where Kamloopsians still pan for gold to this day.

“We’ve even got evidence that he worked for the Hudson Bay Company,” says Gin. “Historically, the Hudson Bay Company was ‘the’ company to work for, next to the Canadian Pacific Railway.”

“When the Canadian Pacific Railway Project started in 1881, [Chong Lee] had already opened up a merchant store. There he supplied timber to help in completing the railway project.”

“He was mister everything,” says Gin. “He spoke English, had multiple English nicknames and was a well-known and respected businessman.”

Chong Lee was even a leader of the Kamloops branch of the Chinese Freemasons and volunteered his time as a court interpreter.

“As a leader of the Chinese Freemasons, he existed to support the overthrow of a dynasty and recreate a republic. He was so Canadian he helped start a democracy to some extent. I mean, wow, that was one of those spine-tingling things,” Gin says.

Gin explains that when Chong Lee passed away at 56, Fred’s mother moved back to China with Fred’s three sisters and left him and his three brothers to take care of his father’s estate.

Fred’s mother likely felt very vulnerable after Chong Lee’s passing, Gin says. Living as a single mother under the Chinese Exclusion Act at a time when Chinese people were treated as second-class citizens couldn’t have been easy.

“It didn’t take long for the family to implode under the pressure of the rules, laws and regulations,” Gin says.

Names of fallen soldier are etched into a cenotaph in Kamloops, British Columbia. Fred Lee's name is seen near the bottom.
Fred Lee is the only Chinese man listed on the Kamloops Cenotaph honouring Kamloopsians that fought in the First World War. Image from video preview.

Honouring Fred Lee

Without giving too much away, Finding Fred Lee at long last puts a face to the name Fred Lee. 

Fred wasn’t only a soldier. Although he volunteered to fight and ultimately lost his life, Fred had a life here in Kamloops that was unique because of his Chinese heritage, Gin says. 

Fred would have been one of the first Chinese men to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War. That said, Gin believes Fred should be remembered for his selflessness and bravery in battle.

“We must not forget Fred Lee and others like him. Our history should honour all ethnicities … all walks of life,” Gin says. 

In 2019, the walkway in memory of Fred Lee was completed. Those who visit Lens, France, to spend time at the memorial can now follow the Fredrick Lee Walkway up through a trench to reach the summit of the obelisk at the Hill 70 Memorial Park

On the walk, visitors are sure to notice 1877 maple leaves set into the walkway in honour of all the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives at the victory of Hill 70.

Finding Fred Lee has already connected the Lee family to some of Canada’s most significant historical events. Gin says he hopes to find Fred’s living family members “so that they may take a stroll on the Frederick Lee Walkway towards the cenotaph at Hill 70 where their Great Uncle Freddy’s soul remains lost.”

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