Born in Sacramento in 1890, Joe Sim was a babe in arms when his parents pulled up stakes to take him and his two siblings back to China. Joe dreamed of escaping poverty. He knew of a relation in Hull, Quebec, and in 1904, he came on his own to Canada. A Canadian immigration official, unaware of the Chinese convention of the surname preceding the given name, recorded his family name in error, as Sim, which he kept as his legal name. In due time, Joe returned to visit China, married, and fathered two sons. In 1919, back in Canada, he sent for his wife, Wong Shee, and his second and only surviving son, Jack, aged 7, to join him.
Joe’s wife bore eight more children, all born in Hull: Florence, Lucy, Harry, Violet, Donald, Paul, Margaret and Norman. The eldest, Jack, handsome and dapper, and fluent in French and English, took over the running of his father’s two and eventually, four restaurants: the Paris Café at 24 Bridge Street (later renamed Eddy Street) and Star Café at 95 Main Street in Hull; and the Tea Garden at 145 Sparks Street and the El Rancho drive-in restaurant on Bate Island (under the Champlain Bridge) in Ottawa. On a weekend night, youth crowded the parking lot there, standing around their cars, chatting and eating; the chow mein bun and egg rolls were menu favourites. When the El Rancho burned down in 1950, Jack re-built and opened the Café Champlain.
Harry Sim recalled the variety of clientele at their restaurants, from the rough and tumble crowd in Hull where their cafés opened 24 hours a day—”If the customers invited you to step outside, it wasn’t to gaze at the stars!”—to the rustic El Rancho, where waitresses dressed as cow girls and the chic Tea Garden, which had shorter opening hours, and served a clientele that included parliamentarians.
Harry Sim: “The boys had to slug it out”
In the late 1940s, Jack looked to move the family to Ottawa. He moved them to the stately area of Island Park Drive, his chosen location in part because it was a quick route across the river to Hull. Supported by Jack’s success as a restaurateur and later, as a land developer, his eight siblings all graduated from university, counting among them a teacher, an architect, a lawyer, and a civil engineer. Reflecting on his parents’ path to success, Harry Sim, long since retired as an architect, said: “Except for a difficult period after the [Second World] war, we managed to do well. . . . We didn’t scrimp, but we also bought only what we needed.”