A devastating fire Wednesday at a multi-use building on the corner of Portage Avenue and Langside Street left a number of businesses out on the street, and left one Winnipeg family with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
When Paul Lee, a former Winnipegger now living in Vancouver, got a call about the blaze, it was heavy news. Eben Convenience — a small store owned by his family of Korean immigrants for decades — was among the fire’s victims.
“My heart sank. It’s been a tough 48 hours, and I think particularly the fact that I’m not with my family at this time has made it severely challenging,” Lee said.
“That store has been a part of our family and a part of my community my entire life, since 1998, so it’s been a pretty devastating loss to have lost that in the fire.”
Making matters worse, Lee’s parents lived in the building, in a unit adjacent from the store. Although they managed to escape unscathed, the same can’t be said for their home, the family business and all of their belongings.
“I was quickly in contact with my mom and dad and learned that they were safe and were able to exit the building when they noticed the fire, but they left with the clothes on their back. They’ve lost everything,” he said.
“They’ve been staying with some family friends, and I think in the short term, that’s been really great… but I’m definitely concerned for the long-term in regards to housing as well as just what the next steps will be as far as a job, income, employment, all of that.”
To help keep the family afloat, Lee and his brother launched a GoFundMe to help raise money. It’s a campaign that, after only a few days, has already raised over $20,000 toward its $30,000 goal, and Lee said having the help of some heavy hitters who know a little something about Korean convenience stores was a bonus.
Andrew Phung and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, stars of the sitcom Kim’s Convenience, gave the fundraiser a signal-boost on social media, but Lee said the family’s story likely resonates with many Canadians.
“It sounds like our family story, the story of this Korean-Canadian immigrant family, has really resonated with a lot of people,” he said.
“It’s just been so overwhelming, the love and support that’s been coming in. I’ve really been noticing the Asian-Canadian community in general, the Asian diaspora, really coming together in this time of need for my family.”
Although the building featured tenants like Eben Convenience and the West End BIZ, both of whom could be easily seen from the street, its basement also included a small rehearsal space for Winnipeg musicians.
Dan Thomas and his band The Ripperz had been using the spot for a few years and lost a significant amount of musical equipment, merchandise and more in the fire.
“It was great little spot — a hidden gem,” said Thomas.
“We figure it’s probably safe to say (we lost) at least $30,000, which people probably hear and say, ‘That’s insane’, but it was bought over time. It grows. It adds up quickly, that stuff.”
Thomas said while it was a tough loss, it was important for the band to look at the bigger picture.
“I remember sending a text to the guys saying we can sulk today… and then we can dust ourselves off.
“We’re not the only ones affected by this. There’s businesses in there, there’s other bands in there. Everyone there has suffered something.”
Initially, when presented with a GoFundMe created by a fellow musician to support The Ripperz, Thomas said the band was uneasy about asking for money — until they saw the amount of support from the community.
“It’s such a small community — we had people reaching out so fast. (It was) really overwhelming and humbling.
“Collectively, as a band, we weren’t quite sure what to do with that, truthfully… but in the end we decided that it seemed like enough people really wanted to help, so we humbled ourselves and said, ‘Let’s take the help’.
“If somewhere down the road, we get things moving again, maybe we can get behind an initiative and try to give it back somewhere else — pay it forward.”