Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lee, Albert (1916–1993)

by Darryl Bennet

This article was published online in 2017

Albert Lee (1916–1993), restaurateur and community leader, was born on 10 September 1916 at Shekki (later part of Zhongshan), Guangdong, China, elder child of New South Wales-born Len Boo Lee, businessman and herbalist, and his Chinese-born wife Ruby Poon. Len travelled between Australia and China, where Ruby raised their children. Permitted to enter Australia temporarily as a student, Albert sailed alone to Sydney in 1927, joining his father at Scone and attending the town’s Catholic primary school. In 1931 they moved to Killarney, Queensland, and Albert continued his education at the Christian Brothers’ College, Warwick. He returned to China in 1933. There, an uncle taught him to cook Cantonese food.

In 1936 Lee again secured temporary entry into Australia. His status would later change to permanent resident (1958) and naturalised citizen (1962) as the government relaxed its policy of restricting non-European immigration. He worked as an assistant to Chinese retailers at Goondiwindi, Queensland (1936–39), and Inverell, New South Wales (1941–43), and operated companies in Brisbane importing Chinese herbs and groceries (1939–41 and 1946–50). His father had set up as a herbalist at 536–38 Queen Street. In World War II father and son, with various partners, established the Oriental Café at 202 Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley, and the Paradise Café at the Queen Street premises. Albert cooked at the Oriental and from 11 October 1948 was its sole proprietor.

Through hard work, culinary excellence, and business acumen, Lee developed the Oriental into Brisbane’s premier Chinese restaurant. Upstairs became the restaurant, named the Pagoda Room, while downstairs remained a café and milk bar. In 1962 the Oriental was one of the first five restaurants in Brisbane granted licences to sell liquor. On 4 November 1964 at St Barnabas’s Anglican Church, Bondi Junction, Sydney, Lee married Judith Anne Grace (d. 2015), a fashion consultant, whom he had met on her promotional visits to Brisbane. Known to their devoted staff as ‘Father-Lee’ and ‘Mother-Lee,’ she managed the restaurant while he supervised the kitchen. Celebrities flocked to the Oriental: on a memorable night in 1965 a flamboyant young Luciano Pavarotti dined there with (Dame) Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, and entertained customers and staff.

Working quietly and modestly behind the scenes, and shunning public recognition and personal gain, Lee promoted the welfare of Brisbane’s Chinese community. He advised and staked men starting out in business; contributed to the restoration of the Temple of the Holy Triad at Breakfast Creek; and helped found the Chinese Club of Queensland (1953). His integrity and earthy amiability drew people in the wider society to him; the doctor Sir Raphael Cilento and the prominent businessman William Brett were among his friends.

The Lees became Valley identities, he noted for his sartorial smartness and she for her outgoing personality. After preparing fine Cantonese food for his customers, he liked nothing better for his own dinner than roast lamb or an Australian meat pie. He was a good poker player but warned his children against punting on racehorses. Saddened by the Valley’s decline as a respectable commercial district, and unimpressed by moves in government and business circles to develop a Chinatown there, he sold the restaurant and retired in 1988. He died on 4 October 1993 in Brisbane and was cremated. His wife and their two sons and one daughter survived him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Biggs, Andrew. ‘Sweet and Sour: Bizarre Times at that Old Pagoda.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 26 April 1988, 9
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), ‘Pagoda Room Memories Live On: Obituary.’ 6 October 1993, 12
  • Ip, David. ‘Contesting Chinatown: Place-making and the Emergence of “Ethnoburbia” in Brisbane, Australia.’ GeoJournal 64, no. 1 (2005): 63–74
  • Lee, Ferris. Personal communication
  • Lee, Judy. Personal communication
  • Liu, Peter. ‘A Special Memorial Service for Mr. Albert Lee.’ Eulogy, 8 October 1993. Copy held on ADB file
  • McKay, Belinda. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. J25, 1961/5008

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Lee, Albert (1916–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-albert-23861/text32727, published online 2017, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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