Albert Leong was joined by more than a dozen family and friends on Wednesday, as he held an emotional farewell to the store that had been a part of his family for around 100 years.
“My dad moved here in the (1920s), and he bought this store in the twenties,” explained Leong.
“He moved the store from Vancouver to Lethbridge, and we’ve been here ever since. I was born in the basement, so I’ve lived in this house all my life.”
Bow on Tong, located at 316 2 Ave. S, was home to many activities. It was a place for gathering, gambling, and stories, as well as medicine and shopping.
In 2014, it was designated a municipal and provincial historic resource.
Leong, 80, has been running the store for most of his life. He now lives in a nearby apartment building.
According to the City of Lethbridge, both the Bow on Tong and Manie Opera House were deemed unsafe for habitation several years ago.
Leong said he was approached by the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone (DBRZ) to help identify grants and other opportunities to get the building restored.
“I was told if I had this place declared a historic site, it would be fixed for me, (because) I didn’t have the money,” he said.
The DBRZ told Global News while it does not provide funding itself or advice on construction projects, it was one of the many organizations who stepped up to help support Leong and efforts to fix Bow on Tong.
“The DBRZ is not in the business of designating buildings historically nor are we an organization that is able to provide funding or advice on construction projects, as that is not our mandate or area of expertise,” a statement read.
“We are however one of several organizations and community members who stepped up to help support Albert and the protection of the buildings by the identifying grants, organizing community fundraising events, and trying to coordinate efforts to have the buildings restored.
“We acknowledge the importance of preserving Lethbridge’s history, which the Bow On Tong and the Manie Opera house is very much a part of our community.”
However, years of road bumps have meant Leong was forced to sell, as he ultimately could not afford the cost of returning.
“I realized that I would never get back in,” he admitted.
He has now handed the keys over to new owners, and isn’t sure what they plan to do with the property.
“I hope they do well, whatever they do,” he said. “Maybe they’ll put a restaurant in there instead.”
The bittersweet end to an era was also felt by longtime friend Cheri Sowther, who previously owned a neighbouring business.
“Without him here, Chinatown is no more,” Sowther said.
“He was so welcoming — at any time of the night or day, (Albert) would be happy to share those stories.”