Remembering Insoon Lee, an entrepreneur who put her heart into Koreatown

Insoon Lee left her native South Korea for a better life in Canada, but upon arriving in Toronto in the ’70s, she found herself working nights as a worm harvester. This was before she established herself as a respected businesswoman, prolific volunteer and founding member of Toronto’s Koreatown and the Canadian-Korean Buddhists’ Association.

“The Korean community was really small when our family immigrated to Toronto, maybe 5,000 to 6,000 (people),” says Insoon’s daughter Seung-Yoon Lisa Lee. “There was only one Korean grocery store and one Korean restaurant on Bloor Street. There were a couple of small Korean-Protestant churches and a Korean-Catholic church, but no Korean-Buddhist temples.” Her mother took that as a challenge.

Born in Jincheon County in North Chungcheong Province, Insoon was the youngest of five children of Poong-Wu Lee, an influential farmer and mill owner who employed many locals, and his wife, Sun Shim, a homemaker. Back then, Jincheon was a farming area mostly untouched by modernity. “Our mother was about 10 years old when electricity came to the village,” says Seung-Yoon. “I remember her telling us about how exciting it was when the village gathered around a television set for the first time.”

Insoon’s siblings – brothers Sang-Wook, Sang-Hun Simon and Sang-Gun and sister Ok-Soon – were more than 10 years her senior. When Insoon was 10, her mother died, and Poong-Wu remarried soon after. Ok-Soon helped to raise Insoon, who attended Sang-San Elementary School in Jincheon and Cheongju Senior High School for Girls, where she was at the top of her class. She graduated with a teaching degree from Cheongju Sabom University.

In 1972, she met Hai-Chang Lee, a civil engineer. He was a handsome and successful bachelor who had seen 26 women as a part of a matchmaking process and was proving to be picky, according to Seung-Yoon. “But he liked our mom. And our mom could see his good heart.” Three months after meeting, they married in Seoul, where Hai-Chang lived. “Our dad travelled for work a lot,” Seung-Yoon says, “while my mom was still teaching in Jincheon. They would meet weekly in Seoul and sometimes in Cheongju.”

At the time, South Korea was a poor country with limited opportunities. So, sponsored by Insoon’s brother Simon, the couple immigrated to Scarborough in 1975, living in an apartment complex at Sheppard and McCowan – “the first home of many other new arrivals, as it was close to Toronto’s first Korean grocery store,” says daughter Hera Lee. Unable to work in their respective fields, Insoon and Hai-Chang accepted various manual labour jobs. They became friends with other newly arrived Koreans from their ESL classes and established a “keh” group – a traditional honour-based system for pooling and saving money, used by many Korean immigrants at the time – to establish their first small business, a small grocery store with a floral department.

A few years later, they sold the shop to buy a convenience store near Royal York and Lakeshore, living in the upstairs apartment before buying their first house at Finch and Victoria Park. Their next venture was “a Greek restaurant which also served as a local hamburger joint called Macho Burger,” says Seung-Yoon. “It was really popular. My parents added Korean food to the menu, making it even more eclectic.” The success of Macho Burger allowed them to purchase a second business, a convenience store at Yonge and Eglinton called Zip and Tuck, in 1987. They later sold both businesses and moved to Markham and bought three dry-cleaning establishments and a small commercial property.

“(Insoon’s) strength and confidence were unlike other women’s and mothers’ I knew,” says daughter Christina Lee. “She argued her points with customers and I saw them back down. I watched her negotiate deals with vendors and was amazed she often came out on top.”

“She took tremendous pride in treating all those around her with care and respect,” says Hera, “while still being the tough and quick-minded businesswoman everyone loved and respected.”

The Lees regularly helped others, opening the doors of their family home to anyone who needed a place to stay. “People they hardly knew,” says Seung-Yoon. “A family recently immigrated from Korea in search of a home and a business, a teenager who left home after her parents divorced. They were always giving our stuff away. My sister Hera jokes that things would regularly go missing if (the guests) were nice.”

Known in Toronto’s Korean Buddhist community by her Buddhist name, Sarija, Insoon and her husband drove seniors to their appointments. “They had a real heart for the elderly,” says Seung-Yoon. They were also among the 20 founding members of the Canadian-Korean Buddhists’ Association. Registered as a charitable organization in 1995, it now has thousands of members.

As members of the Korean Dry Cleaners’ Association, the Lees spearheaded a Korean-English environmental education program in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment. And for the Koreatown Development Association, Insoon negotiated with city officials to erect bilingual street signs (“the first of their kind in Canada,” says Hera). It was, says Seung-Yoon, “a particularly memorable milestone in their lives.”

Insoon was a dedicated mother to the couple’s three daughters – Seung-Yoon Lisa (born in 1974), Hera (1976) and Christina Yoona (1982) – and six grandchildren. She enjoyed the writings of Ayn Rand and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “Her love for books, newspapers, pop culture and sports made her so relatable and kept us connected,” Christina says. “I could share my favourite books, biographies and movies and she would ask for more. ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Lord of the Rings’ – she had an incredible thirst for stories.”

The Lees sold their businesses after Hai-Chang was diagnosed with lung disease in 2006, and Insoon was his primary caregiver until he died in 2010. She later became a dedicated volunteer at the Rose of Sharon Korean Long-Term Care Home and another seniors’ home for those with dementia. A tai chi practitioner and accomplished calligrapher, Insoon also travelled to Europe, Russia, Asia, and India and hiked the Canadian Rockies as well as Yellowstone and Yosemite parks in the U.S.

“She inspired the women around her,” says Hera, “women who often felt powerless and vulnerable because of their age; immigrant women; women whose native language was not English; women who did not drive; widowed women who had been dependent on their late husbands their entire lives in Canada. She showed them that they could do it on their own.”

“‘Live a life that makes others’ better,’” Seung-Yoon remembers her mother saying. “Growing up, especially as teenagers, this could be an exhausting thing to hear. Now, I think there’s no better way to live. It’s how our mom lived, and she had a wonderful life.”