“I started growing hard-to-find Chinese vegetables in 1950s Toronto and helped shape Chinatown into what it is today”

“I started growing hard-to-find Chinese vegetables in 1950s Toronto and helped shape Chinatown into what it is today”

When Wing Fung Chong came to Toronto from China as a young man, Chinese produce was scarce. So he saved up, bought a farm and started importing and cultivating fruits and vegetables to supply the city’s growing Chinese population

Wing Fung Chong, who brought fresh Chinese vegetables to Toronto for the growing Chinese population to have a taste of home

I was born in 1933, and I spent much of the first 15 years of my life in the rice fields of China’s Guangdong province. I was the fourth of six siblings. We collected our water from a community well and grew rice and vegetables on the surrounding pastures. There wasn’t always enough to eat—from 1944 to 1946, China’s war against Japan strained our resources, and we had very little food. We ate whatever we could find in the rice fields, and it was seldom enough.

Rice Fields in China, 1939
Rice fields in Guangdong, China, in 1939

When I was 16, I moved to Hong Kong on my own to look for work. I got a job as a cook for the employees at a clothing factory. It paid the equivalent of $3.75 for half a month, plus room and board; I slept on the factory floor. Soon afterward, my 80-year-old grandfather, who had moved to Toronto in the early 1900s, wrote me a letter encouraging me to move to Canada and work on my uncle’s four-acre farm at Jane and Eglinton. I was approved to immigrate in 1950 and travelled by plane to Vancouver that April with almost no money. From there, I took a four-day train to Toronto. I was exhausted when I arrived at my uncle’s vegetable farm. My job was to plow the fields with a horse. I was barely five feet tall and had never ridden a horse, and worst of all, my uncle told me that the horse only understood commands in English, which I had yet to learn.

I figured out how to do the job and saved the little money I made. By 1956, I was married, had three children and lived in a small house with my cousin, Harry Chong. I needed more money to support my family, so I found a second job in a soap factory in Thistletown. After a year of working two jobs, I had saved enough money to buy a house on William Cragg Drive, just off Jane Street. Next, I set my sights on buying my own farm. 

At the time, the Chinese community—about 2,000 people in the mid-1950s—relied on a food supplier who went by the name of Jewish Mac. He transported large quantities of Chinese vegetables to the city from the west coast by rail. The problem was that the shipment took four days, and the vegetables were sometimes rotting by the time the produce arrived at the stores. I saw an opportunity to start a business growing hard-to-find vegetables for Toronto’s Chinese population.

My wife, Lena Fung Ling Chong, and I found the perfect spot on a 48-acre plot of land on the corner of Derry and Trafalgar roads in Milton. The only problem: it cost $20,000, and we were $5,000 short. I made a deal with a produce-supplier friend I’d met through the Chinese community, Chum Lee: he bought half of my house and turned it into an apartment for his family. I used the money to buy the farm and started growing Chinese vegetables, like napa cabbage, bitter melon and Chinese broccoli, and selling them to local produce stores.

Chong on his vegetable farm in Milton
Chong harvesting bok choy at his farm in Boynton, Florida, in 1969

In 1962, when I was 29, I saw an opportunity to ramp up my business. I rented a half-tonne pickup truck and drove to Jacksonville, Florida, with Chum Lee. I chose Jacksonville because I’d heard it was one of the warmest areas in North America, which meant that I could potentially grow vegetables there year-round. Farmers in Jacksonville grew malanga (a starchy root vegetable) by the thousands and sold 100-pound bags for only three dollars. Chum Lee and I bought three bags for nine dollars, drove back to Toronto in just under three days and sold each bag for $30. It was the middle of winter, so fresh malanga was a hot commodity. I realized that we had a business on our hands. 

The following year, I bought a 16-foot truck with refrigerated cargo space that could carry 160 cases of vegetables. I drove to Jacksonville and collected malanga, along with the vegetables we grew in Canada during the summers, like napa and Chinese broccoli. I was the main driver, and the journey was long because I could go only 50 miles an hour on the old highways. Each trip took one week: three days to drive there, one day to load the truck and three days to drive back. I’d get back to Toronto, go to sleep and head out again the next morning. I did this all winter, and we cleared about $2,000 per week. Meanwhile, the population of Chinatown was growing by the thousands as men who had already immigrated to Canada started bringing their families over to join them. That caused the demand to go up even more. 

The next year, we scaled up again and bought a 24-foot truck that could carry 240 boxes of vegetables. By then, I’d hired drivers and was focused on coordinating distribution. We were bringing in enough vegetables to supply all of Toronto’s produce stores, so we also started selling fruit in Montreal. A few years later, in 1967, we leased 2,000 acres in Boynton, Florida, to grow our own napa, bok choy, gai lan and kohlrabi year round. Eventually, we expanded our import business to other locations: we shipped in snow peas from Guatemala, fuzzy squash from the Dominican Republic and eddoes from Costa Rica. My company, WC International, was the first to import lichee from Taiwan to Canada. 

Wing Fung Chong with TK and imported produce from the Dominican Republic
Chong in the Dominican Republic in 1986, looking to import snow peas to Canada

It meant a lot to know that our business allowed the Chinese community to enjoy beloved dishes from back home. During the annual Full Moon Festival in October, which celebrates East Asian culture, it’s customary to eat malanga, which we made sure was in ample supply. Many restaurants in Toronto’s Chinatown also became popular over the years, offering up special dishes, like dim sum, that were previously hard to find. Dim Sum King on Dundas Street West is one of my favourites; I love their har gow and barbecue buns.

I remained in the farming business, and as Toronto’s Chinese population grew, our business gained an international reputation. In 1998, I received a call from the Chinese government. They invited me back to Guangdong, where I was raised, to check out their crops and give them farming tips. I saw that their vegetables were wrapped in bunches. The government thought that forcing them together would help them grow, but it was robbing the vegetables of sunlight. I advised them to untie the vegetables and get back to me in a month. Sure enough, an official called a month later and told me my advice had worked—the vegetables had grown well. For that, the Guangdong province gave me a plaque of excellence. I’d come a long way from my time there as a boy, when I could barely find enough to feed myself. 

Wing Fun Chong, who grew and imported hard-to-find Chinese vegetables for Toronto's growing Chinese community, in Chinatown

In 2002, I sold WC International to a company in New York, but I didn’t want to slow down or stop being involved with my community. At 90, I am still a member of the Toronto chapter of the Lung Kong Association, an ethnic fraternity with deep roots in Chinatown. At weekly meetings, we discuss how to keep Chinese culture alive and vibrant; consult with Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats; and organize Christmas parties, anniversaries and birthday celebrations to bring the community together. I also follow the Toronto Stock Exchange every day, calculate my money to the penny and memorize all of the stock prices. To me, the secret to a long, meaningful life is to keep your mind working and do things that challenge you.

I am proud that we found a way to bring fresh Chinese vegetables to Toronto, but my greatest accomplishment is that my son, two daughters and five grandchildren have had the means to receive university educations and have all graduated with degrees. That’s the other secret to living a good and meaningful life: put your family and friends first. Some people get rich and immediately buy nice cars and houses, but it’s hard to be happy if you don’t have friends and aren’t engaged with your community.

People often ask me for business advice, but I can’t tell them what to do. The world is too different now—humans are trying to make it to Mars! But I see the quick pace of change as a positive thing. The human mind never stops; we’re always reaching for something better. It pays to think outside the box.