The Purple Lantern
Location: Edmonton & Calgary, AB
Owned by: Yee Family
The Early Years
The early history of the Purple Lantern is hard to trace. It appears to have been opened in the late 1930s by Eddie Wing, who operated a modest but successful business. He sold it in 1940-1941 to fund his studies in architecture in the United States. It was purchased by Dick Yee and his partners, who renovated and upgraded the restaurant in 1942. Edmonton, Crossroads of the World, a tourism book written about the city in 1944, describes the Purple Lantern as follows:
“Attractive Oriental decorations give an atmosphere of the Far East to the Purple Lantern. Throughout the salon and dining rooms there are many instances of the treasures of Old China. Master chefs prepare the rarest of Chinese cuisine, from standards which have been handed down through generations, and favourite Canadian menus are also served.
“The Purple Lantern is a favourite meeting place at lunchtime, with business men and social parties. Tea hour finds shoppers taking time out for relaxation, and dinner is served to many private clubs and individuals. Late in the evening–until three of the morning–is a gay centre of attraction to the younger generation. ”
Brothers Dick and Barney Yee came from a restaurant family. Their father, who had brought his four sons, ages 5 to 12, to Canada in 1920, owned ‘Ching Yee’s’ café in Millet. As was common at the time, wives and daughters were rarely brought to Canada because of the cost of the head tax. It was amazing that this modest business made enough money for Ching Yee to pay the $2000 head tax for his sons. Ching Yee was not reunited with his wife and daughter until after the repeal of the head tax in 1947. In 1930 Dick and his brother Charlie took over the Millet café, renaming it the Yellow Café. In 1942, Dick moved on from Millet and took over the Purple Lantern.
Barney did not join Dick at the Purple Lantern until 1947. Barney had been sent back to China in 1938 to get married and he stayed for a year to start a family. The outbreak of the Second World War prevented his return, and the family believed that he had died in the war. Barney resurfaced in 1947, when he returned to Canada but without his wife and son.
Dick Yee was an entrepreneur. Along with the Purple Lantern, he operated the Devon Grill and Club Pagoda in Devon and was part owner of the Cathayan Restaurant in Edmonton. In 1955, Dick and Edward Wong invested $200,000 to open a second Purple Lantern, in Calgary. The Calgary restaurant, located in a two-storey building, offered seating for 110 in booths on the first floor and private seating for groups up to 60 on the second. In 1956, a competitor started a rumour that the restaurant was using cat meat. Although this was reported in the Calgary Herald, it did not close down the business.
The success of the original Purple Lantern made all of the family’s other ventures possible. People lined up around the block to get a seat. At its height, the restaurant employed 60 Chinese staff, working in three shifts, and took in $3000 per day. It went through 100 pounds of rice a day and made three different types of Chinese noodles. According to Barney’s son Kai Yee, the majority of the Purple Lantern’s customers were Canadian and Jewish. To better serve this clientele, the restaurant specialized in chicken and shrimp dishes and was known for its Pineapple Chicken. The Purple Lantern also made its own desserts, primarily cakes and pies. There were no Chinese desserts until fortune cookies were introduced in the 1960s.
The Purple Lantern closed in 1970. The building was sold to Scotia Bank for redevelopment and the street address no longer exists. The brothers tried to revive the Purple Lantern with a new restaurant, ‘The Lantern’, in Spruce Grove but the business closed after two years.
Copyright 2014 Royal Alberta Museum