Prairie and Northern Stories


In the last half of the 1800s and early 1900s, the Chinese in Canada continued to face virulent racism and discrimination. Many influential groups in society adamantly opposed their presence and wanted to keep Canada a white nation. The federal government enacted the Head Tax to restrict Chinese immigration and the popular sentiment was to completely exclude the Chinese from establishing roots.

In British Columbia, where the majority of Chinese lived, discrimination and racism was pervasive and forced many Chinese to leave. After the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed, leaving thousands unemployed, Chinese workers began moving eastward to the Prairies. The Chinese were wrongly perceived as sojourners who worked in Canada and viewed China as their true home. A continuous community did establish and families were formed, but in general, “Gum San” or “Gold Mountain” was not a welcoming place. “Grandpa came here to Winnipeg, did not speak English, and people made fun of his long pigtail. They gave him a rough time,” says son Kenny Choy of Brandon. (See Choy family)

By the late 1800s, the Chinese migrated eastward to the Prairies and beyond, and many started small businesses across Canada in almost every small village, town, or hamlet and established roots in the Chinatowns of various cities. In small towns, their presence was a symbol of their perseverance often coming alone to eke out a living amongst strangers. The Prairies would become home to many. But it was not a life without challenges. Many were married bachelors living alone in Canada, unable to bring their wives and children over due to the onerous Head Tax and the prohibitive Chinese Exclusion Act. “I never saw my Dad until I came over here. I was a baby when he left [in 1934]. I used to ask people, who came back from Canada, what my Dad looked like. When I was a kid in China, I was really curious” says Calgary descendant Jack Yee about his 15-year separation from his father. (See Jack Yee)

Others were single young men willing to take a chance to find their place in Canada.

During the Great Depression, many Chinese-run enterprises including small town cafés and grocery stores failed. Chinese laundries also faced closure by the 1940s after the mechanization of the industry. Many Chinese moved to the cities while others persevered and stayed in small towns across the Prairies. Some adventuresome Chinese would migrate to northern Canada. “He had no money. Sometimes he would wait for a relative to throw their shoes away and he would put them on,” says Ping Ting Ma, about Gee Yen You, her father-in-law, who came to Canada in 1919 at the age of 17. (See Ping Ting Ma)

The Loh Wah Kiu

The Loh Wah Kiu were the early Chinese gold miners who sought their riches; railroad workers who built the CPR; and those who immigrated during the Head Tax era from 1885 to 1923. They were the generations affected by the Chinese Head Tax, paying a $50 Head Tax to enter Canada in 1885, a $100 Head Tax by 1900, and a $500 Head Tax by 1903. Many were the first of their family to go overseas to Canada as their families would arrange to borrow the money to pay the Head Tax, with debts to be paid back over many subsequent years and decades. Many of these young people were never able to go back to China to see their families again but would continue to send remittances to help the family. “An uncle told us that my father’s mother looked out for him to return every day, and he never got back. She looked for him every day, for 35 years, and never saw him again,” says Jim Yee about his father George, who came in 1923. (See George Mun Yee). Those who were able to return to China to marry and have children would be sure to leave China within two years to be permitted to re-enter Canada.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, the Head Tax payers were able to reunite their families in Canada. Families formed and the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of these pioneers would now establish and raise their own families in Canada. Some Head Tax descendants were born in China due to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. Some were “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” who desperately wanted to reunite with their brethren in Canada and could not because of immigration restrictions for children over 18. Many families of paper sons and daughters worried about being deported. “She said what if the greencoats (immigration officials) come in the middle of the night and knock on our door? Take you away, tie you up and throw you in the river, then what will I do? We are a family. Then where would the family be?” says paper son Sid Chow Tan on a lifelong worry by his grandmother.

As the descendants of the Loh Wah Kiu began to discover and understand how Canadian authorities and society had treated their parents or grandparents, they would question the validity of discriminatory and racist legislation enacted by past governments. They would support the now aging Head Tax payers in demanding an apology and some form of financial redress from the federal government for the 62 years of racist legislation which affected their families.

Chinese Migration to Alberta

Chinese migration to the Prairies began with a group who came to Alberta in 1880 over the border from Montana. Many more Chinese, including the ones left unemployed after the building of the CPR, would move there over the next decade. Others were new immigrants following the footsteps of their clan relatives.

Alberta’s first Chinatown was formed in Calgary, following the completion of the CPR. It was located at the corner of Centre Street South and Ninth Avenue East. By 1890, Chinatown was comprised of two groceries, a laundry, two restaurants, and a rooming house. Some of the major clan associations that were established included: Wong Kung Har Tong (the Wongs), the Mah Gim Gee Tong (the Mahs), the Chee Duck Tong (the Chows, Ngs, Choys, Chos and Yung’s), Yee Fung Toy Tong (the Yees), Leung Toy How Tong (the Leungs), and Tung Shing Fon (the Lees).

The first known Chinese immigrants to Edmonton were two brothers – Chung Gee and Chung Yan who travelled north from Calgary to start a laundry in 1892. By 1931, Edmonton’s Chinese community numbered about 440 men and 27 women. Over the next three decades, services for the community were established and these grew to include clubs and benevolent societies which provided seniors’ housing, and language and cultural activities.

The early Chinese would also migrate to Lethbridge where CPR lines were established. Chinatown became a segregated district with a population of around 100 and businesses consisting of six laundries, four grocers, and two restaurants in the early 1900s. The Chinese Freemasons building later served as the social and cultural centre for the Chinese community. But the Chinese residents began moving out of the area in the 1960s, and by 2000, all but one resident — Albert Leong, owner of Bow On Tong — had moved out, and Chinatown was reduced to one block with only a handful of buildings.

The Chinese would also try their luck in various small Alberta towns where one or two residents who operated a café or laundry. “In those days, business was so slow they put out a coffee cup for people to pay. It took all day and it still wasn’t full of cash. That’s how bad it was at one time,” says Edmonton’s Lily Welsh, daughter of James Marr, who started cafes in Chipman, Alberta then Davidson, Saskatchewan. (See James Marr).

While the discrimination they faced was not as overt as in the cities, the Chinese were still targeted as outsiders. In Coleman, where the earliest Chinese arrived in the province, the local newspaper urged residents to vote Conservative in the 1908 election to prevent Canada from being “overruled by the Mongolians who work for starvation wages on which a white could not exist.” The Chinese would persevere in these small towns and gradually changed negative attitudes.

Chinese Migration to Saskatchewan

Chinese settlement in Saskatchewan dates back to the late 1880s, after the CPR was completed. Wherever there was a divisional point on the line, the trains would stop in these communities for maintenance, switching cars, or changing crews. Often the train crews would need lodging and its passengers would patronize hotels, cafés, and laundries – many of which were Chinese-run. In 1882, Moose Jaw was chosen as the divisional point of the CPR and developed quickly into a boom town. By 1910, a small Chinatown with a population of about 150 had emerged on River Street. Moose Jaw was initially one of the largest Chinese communities in Saskatchewan, but the Depression and the introduction of steam laundry put many Chinese laundries out of business. In Saskatoon, the Riversdale district had a historical Chinese settlement where the early Chinese immigrants were employed by the CPR, and established businesses within this district. Regina did not have a Chinatown, partly due to the small Chinese population and the mutual agreement made among the early Chinese immigrants to avoid competition by not setting up businesses close to each other. As well, opening hours were restrictive, so the Chinese had to be creative in how they set up their businesses. “Only Saskatchewan had tea rooms,” explains Sam Gee, who helped his father run the Fifth Avenue Tea Room in Regina. “Edmonton just had grocery stores, confectioneries. It was law. If you are a grocery store, you cannot open at night. But a tea room, you’re selling coffee, soft drinks, and a little bit confectionery. You bend the law a little bit. What you’re not supposed to do, you do,” he explains. (See Sam Gee)

Chinese Migration to Manitoba

The first Chinese to settle Manitoba actually came from the United States. The Manitoba Free Press reported that three Chinese arrived by stagecoach from Minneapolis and St. Paul to Winnipeg on Nov. 19, 1877. Charlie Yam, Fung Quong, and an unidentified Chinese woman would start the first Chinese laundry in the city. Winnipeg was the major point of settlement for Chinese before heading farther east. A few Chinese stores at the intersection of King Street and Alexander Avenue would become the centre of the community’s Chinatown starting in 1909. “In those days [when my father came], they seemed to have a sense of superiority – the white man you know. They had this over the Chinese. Because of them, we were second-rate citizens – inferior to them. That’s how I feel about them,” says Winnipeg restaurant worker Bill Dong. (See Bill Dong)

Many Chinese followed clan relatives and friends to small towns from The Pas to Roblin and the towns in- between. From 1881 to 1959, Sam Wong and his family owned the Carlton Café in Brandon for almost 50 years. Lee Low came from Toishan county in China to Canada in 1911 and ran the Rex Café in Carberry, Manitoba, for 10 years with his brother Tong. In 1949, following the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he would bring his sons, Walter and York, to join him. Meanwhile, Choy Soo and his son, Choy Him, would operate the Paris Café in Newdale after migrating there in the 1930s. The Soo family, after being reunited in 1959, would open Soo’s Chop Suey House in Brandon until 2002.

Chinese contribution to the Prairies

Chinese people came to the Prairies with nothing, some with all their possessions on the end of a stick. But all held a dream to find a future home for their families. Their contribution to Prairies life is important as generations stayed and settled in cities and small town across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They quickly learned how to cook Western food and provide necessary supplies to mostly non-Chinese customers. They also introduced and popularized Chinese cuisine in every part of the Prairies, gradually showing lo-fahn (white people) the many interesting aspects of Chinese culture.

As lo-fahn began to know and appreciate the Chinese as their neighbours, especially in isolated small towns of Western Canada, they also began to understand and respect the Chinese. No longer were the negative stereotypes appropriate, but the Chinese were seen as generous, law-abiding, humble and friendly. Chinese operators would provide credit to all people in need, especially during the Great Depression and became an integral part of small town life.

While they tried to integrate, the Chinese who came to the West, also had to make tremendous sacrifices to reunite their families in two continents, a struggle which many non-Chinese would later join in repealing the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. “Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.” says Sgt. Louey King, one of the more than 500 Chinese who fought for Canada in the Second World War. (See Louey King)
By 1931-41, at the peak of their migration to the Prairie provinces 50 years later, the Chinese community would establish 1,710 laundries, 4,887 restaurants and cafes, 510 retail outlets and 804 farms and market gardens.

Chinese Migration to the North

It would be decades before any Chinese would migrate to Canada’s northern territories. They tried to join the Klondike Gold Rush, beginning in 1898, but their boat was turned away by angry white miners. “No Chinese Wanted Here” was the headline in the June 28 edition of the weekly Whitehorse Star. After the Gold Rush ended a year later, a few Chinese migrated to the Yukon and worked as camp cooks, houseboys, and in other service positions. One reason there were so few Chinese who ventured past the 60th parallel was because a road system was not established until the Dempster Highway was built in 1958 to connect the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.

Mah Gow would come to Yellowknife and buy the Wildcat Café in 1934, becoming the first recorded Chinese resident of the Northwest Territories (NWT). (See Gold Range Café) He continued to operate the Wildcat Café until 1951 when he fell ill. The café subsequently closed but was saved from demolition when a small group of Yellowknifers ensured the log cabin was designated a heritage site. The Gold Range Café, now a venerable institution in Yellowknife, was established in the late 1950s by Newton Wong, Randy Pon, Jimmy Pon, and Calvin Mark, all of whom hailed from Edmonton. Chinese cafés, including the ones that began in the 1960s in small towns like Inuvik, Fort Smith and Fort Simpson, have long been part of the Northwest Territories. Ownership would change hands at these cafés but they would continue to be passed down to Chinese relatives and friends.

Chinese Canadian professionals from across Canada would come to Nunavut to work for the Inuit land claim groups, the Government of Nunavut, and the City of Iqaluit.

The stories that follow are representative of the experiences of the Head Tax families who migrated to the Prairie provinces and Canada’s North. Most found themselves living alone in small towns across the Prairies and the North until their children came to join them in the 1950s. “You don’t have a social life, you can’t go out. They were in little small towns and were in their 24 hours a day. You get up in the morning, cook seven days a week, work two or three years, save your money, go back to China and come back,“ says Edmonton’s Don Mah, on his father’s life working in small town cafes. Every one of these unique experiences adds to the growing history of Chinese Canadians as told in their own voices and seen with their own eyes.

Louey King

Ping Ting Ma

James Marr

Wally Mah and Don Mah

George Yee

Jack Yee

Norman Tan and Sid Chow Tan

Sam Gee

Bill Dong

Kenny Choy and Sue-On Choy Hillman

Gold Range Cafés

For a downloadable compilation of the stories, please click:
Prairie Northern Stories


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