lee's food products toronto building

Abandoned Toronto soy sauce factory faces fight over demolition

A Leslieville building that was once a beloved soy sauce factory for over seven decades may soon be preserved due to its cultural heritage.

The Toronto Preservation Board will be meet tomorrow to discuss the fate of 1233-1235 Queen Street East, or the Lee's Food Products factory, the former home of the China Lily soy sauce brand.

A proposal wants the factory complex to be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, saving it from further development.

The building was constructed in 1920 with the earliest structure being a two-storey main street, mixed-use/commercial building that originally housed a billiards room with apartments.

Yeat Lum Lee purchased the property in 1947 and converted it to the headquarters and factory of Lee Food Products Ltd. The company operated out of this location for more than 70 years before quietly moving to Scarborough in 2020.

"Known especially for their widely distributed China Lily brand of soy sauce, Lee's company helped to popularize Chinese ingredients among Canadian households, beginning at a time when Chinese residents continued to face systemic barriers in many aspects of Canadian society," read the proposal.

Lee died in 1962 and his family took over the operation of Lee's Food Products from then on.

He was born in Kwangtung, China (Guangdong) and moved to Canada in 1913 in his late 20s. Before settling in Leslieville, he moved to Brampton and operated a hotel, according to the city's documents.

"When the company began distributing its products in the late 1940s and 1950s, this would have been one of the first opportunities for Canadians to access Chinese ingredients in grocery stores outside of Chinatown and try them at home."

An interesting fact is that China Lily Soy has been known as an "essential part" of Indigenous cuisine in British Columbia.

A Research and Evaluation report has already found the building meets criteria for municipal designation on the basis of "its design/phyiscal, historical/associative, and contextual values."

Lee's Foods stands across the street from a landmark designated property, Duke of York Hotel, originally known as the Marion, which was built in 1870.

The building is an "unique example of 1920s mixed-use building converted to food manufacturing at mid-century," and features stone quoins, bay windows and dog tooth brickwork, and has "direct associations with the Chinese community in Toronto."

This past spring the city received many applications to redevelop the properties at 1233-1243 Queen Street East and 77 Leslie Street for an 8-storey mixed-use building.

If this development went through, it would include the demolition of all structures at 1233-1235 Queen.

"Designation enables City Council to review proposed alterations or demolitions to the property and enforce heritage property standards and maintenance," read the report.

The fate of this iconic Toronto building will be discussed tomorrow.

Not everyone is happy to hear this news, with HousingNowTO asking where the city's priorities are with affordable housing.

"How serious is @CityPlanTO about dealing with our City's #HousingCrisis - when they are trying to give "Heritage Designation" to an old, low-rise Soya Sauce Factory on Queen Street East…?" read their tweet.

Lead photo by

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