Gold Range Café

The Gold Range Café: alive and well in the North

“Filet mignon, juice and salad. I delivered,” – Manager Harry Wong recalls the special takeout order from the Gold Range Café when Queen Elizabeth II came to visit Yellowknife in 1973.

– Yook Shew Gee and Chick Yee (Sam) Cheung became lifelong friends after wandering around Alberta for more than 40 years looking for work in Chinese cafés.

Since 1966, the two descendants of Chinese Head Taxpayers have worked in numerous small towns across Western Canada and the far North. In Yellowknife, where both would end up by their late forties, Yook Shew would help Sam at the venerable Gold Range Café.

The Gold Range Hotel Building with Cafe

The two first met in the southern town of Claresholm where Sam‘s father, Yuen, was working at the Holly Restaurant. Yuen had sent for his 20-year-old son in 1959, after 20 years of separation – a result of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Second World War and the years spent repaying the debt on his $500 Chinese Head Tax.

“My father wanted me to come and see him. He said: Today, you come to Canada from Hong Kong. Tomorrow, you go to work,” recalls Sam, now 74 and retired. Sam was able to find work as a dishwasher at the Canadian Café, a large, popular restaurant in Calgary’s Chinatown before working at another Chinatown restaurant – the Silver Dragon, which is still in business.

Yook Shew Gee Photo: Gee family collection

Yook Shew also came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1956 to marry Ping Ting Ma, after the marriage was arranged by their parents. He worked at the Blue Willow, the Seven Seas Restaurant, and the Belmont Café in Edmonton before striking out on his own in rural Alberta. Yook Shew’s father, Gee You Yen, also paid the $500 Chinese Head Tax in 1919 and was separated from his son and wife for 15 years until 1949, two years after the Exclusion Act was repealed.

Yook Shew Gee and Sam Cheung became quick friends though they were completely opposite in personality. Sam had trouble with English and continued to speak only a minimal amount throughout his life, while Yook Shew spoke almost perfect conversational English and loved to engage Chinese and non-Chinese into debates and arguments, which he usually won.

Unfortunately, in one conflict in High River in 1965, blood would be spewed after a customer at the New Look Café where Yook Shew worked as a waiter, started belittling him, calling him a “Chinaman” and a “Chink.” A proud man who didn’t like to be mistreated, Yook Shew broke a phone over the man’s head, fracturing his skull. Although hospitalized, no charges were laid but gradually more incidents occurred and Yook Shew would move on from the hometown of Joe Clark, a future Prime Minister of Canada.

Neither Yook Shew nor Sam knew very much about Canada, only what they were told. While travelling through nearby Nanton with another friend, their car would hit a moose on the highway. Not knowing what had happened or what they hit, all the men were in shock until someone else came along and helped them move the moose and skin it. “We never saw a moose before,”said Yook Shew. That month, all the men’s families ate well, after being sent moose meat.

Although their adventures would end for about five years as both went their separate ways, they would meet again in Peace River in 1970 when Yook Shew would set up the Blue Eagle Café to compete with the Sun Café where Sam worked. The venture did not pan out, and Yook Shew returned to Edmonton. Meanwhile, Sam continued to work at small cafés in Grimshaw and High Level, before moving to manage a café in Fort Simpson, and finally in 1972, he came to Yellowknife, where he worked at the Gold Range Café. Sam, Harry Wong, Don Wong, and Jason Mark would be given the keys to the café after the original four owners retired.

Yook Shew would meet Sam there in 1985 after failing in the restaurant business in Edmonton. For the next 20 years, Yook Shew would work with his friends Sam and Harry who took over the oldest Chinese-operated restaurant in Yellowknife.

The venerable café, located next to the “Strange Range” bar which boasts of serving the most amount of liquor per capita in Canada, was taken over in the late ‘50s by four Chinese Canadian businessmen from Edmonton. At that time, Newton Wong and friends Randy Pon, Jimmy Pon, and Calvin Mark believed the Gold Range Café would be a great business opportunity as the capital city was entering an economic boom when Yellowknife began a major expansion.

Their hunch was right, as the Gold Range would become the busiest local eatery in the 1960s as miners, construction workers, and new arrivals made it wildly successful. “We only had four cooks, two per shift, and we opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 2 a.m.,” recounted Harry, now retired to Calgary at age 76. Although they served Western food at first, gradually Chinese dishes were introduced in the 1960s and it became the first popular Chinese café and takeout in the capital.

Harry Wong in the kitchen

Harry had come directly to Yellowknife from Hong Kong in 1972 as a new immigrant. For the next 21 years, he would manage the Range with his friend Sam during the good and bad years that eventually befell the café. Two other partners – Don Wong and Jason Mark – would work in the back as cooks until Mr. Mark left in 1986 to run a sister restaurant: the Red Apple.

At the Gold Range Café, for more than 40 years, time seemed to stand still. Almost nothing changed since Harry and Sam arrived there in the 1970s. The café, with its kitschy ‘50s décor, hearkened back to the 1950s. Round stools before u-shaped counters would greet patrons and the staff would stand in the middle and put out cutlery and condiments. An old clock from that time remained unmoved for four decades, next to the green Olivetti milkshake machine where customers would get rich, frothy milkshakes. Even the cash machine continued to work after 40 years. The smell of fresh apple or cherry pie would greet customers from the pie pantry. A fresh cup of coffee was always available and customers often made the coffee, if the eatery was too busy. An old menu, designed from the 1960s, remained virtually unchanged except for the prices. Back in 1958, it was $1 for a t-bone steak and coffee was five cents. Except for small jukeboxes at each table, the Gold Range Café seemed to bring customers back to those early days of Chinese cafés decades before on the Prairies.

For 30 years, every afternoon, Harry Wong would put on his orange or yellow uniform once worn in most Alberta Chinese cafés and Sam Wong would wear his signature bow tie each day to greet their regular customers. “No one wears a bow tie to work anymore,” says Sam, now 74 and also retired.

Regular customers of the Gold Range had been frequenting the café for more than four decades, as generations of the same family would come for meals and some would also work there coming out of high school for their first jobs.

On a Saturday night, the regular customers would come in from the bar next door where jam sessions had been going on for hours. A local“Johnny Cash,” dressed in black, would bring in his guitar and take the corner table of the café each Saturday night. Street regulars would come off the street for a coffee and families from out of town would frequent the café each weekend after shopping.

The Dene Rae band with a number of families would come and eat each month and take a table at the back of the café, cordoned off from the coffee shop. Harry would meet two generations of families during his 25 years there: the grandchildren and children from these families came to the café for a treat. In Rae, 60 kilometres outside of the capital city, there were no local cafés until the 1990s in the predominantly Dene community. “I would know their children, then their grandchildren,” he recalled.

Sam Cheung: one of four owners of the Gold Range Cafe. Photo: Gary Gee

For much of its time, the café had a diverse group of regular customers from all walks of life in Yellowknife. Those on social assistance would show up for a meal each Tuesday, many of them regular coffee drinkers. After the federal government devolved powers to the territory to run their own affairs by 1967, it was common to see the mayor and even the government leader having lunch at the Gold Range Café. For three decades until it declined in the 1990s, the power brokers of Yellowknife would meet for breakfast or lunch at the café. It was the preferred destination for a meeting that included Chinese cuisine.

“It was really popular,” recalls Arlene Hache, who worked there as a waitress in 1972 when she was 17. “All the business people came in. There would be politicians. It was the place to go. Newton Wong and the other owners were very well-respected,” says Arlene.

The café was known for some of the unusual fare served on the menu. For more than 40 years, it would serve the westernized Chinese cuisine such as Cantonese chow mein, chop suey, chicken fried rice, chicken balls, garlic and sweet and sour ribs, and pineapple shrimp. Its more popular item would be the egg rolls. The café served a giant egg roll that would cost $9 by the 1990s. It would be six inches in length and three inches wide, stuffed with Chinese vegetables. These giant egg rolls and the plum sauce would be made in advance each week.

Many of the cooks specialized in preparing the old Chinese food started in the 1950s in many Chinese cafés and restaurants. These Chinese comprised a majority of the community that came to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They spoke a dialect called Toishan and many started cafés and restaurants initially in BC, then across the Prairies before migrating to all parts of Canada. Like Harry Wong, Yook Shew Gee and Sam Cheung, they all spoke the same language and commiserated about their lives in Canada on topics from what to serve the lofahn (white) customers, their families in the old country, what they knew about Canada, and even Canadian politics.

These old cafés started dying in the 1980s across Canada, as new Chinese from other parts of China and Hong Kong came over and started different ones with new menus. The work also seemed to dry up for many of the workers, especially across the Prairies. They spoke the Toishan dialect, not Cantonese nor Mandarin, which later became more dominant.

But the Gold Range Café in Yellowknife didn’t change. Its owners neither wanted change nor seemed to think it was needed. The older workers who lost jobs as new cafés were started with Szechuan and northern Chinese cooks, found work at the Gold Range. For the last 50 years, it has hired Alberta Chinese workers – some as old as 70 years of age – for its café to keep the operations going. The workers are either relatives or friends or from the same clan. Some start as dishwashers, others as cooks and waiters.

Yook Shew Gee was one of those workers. He would leave his family after losing his restaurant in Edmonton. After working for four years in Drumheller, Alberta, he would come to the Gold Range Café in 1984 and work off and on for some 20 years. It would be his longest stint working at a café since he first came to Canada in 1956 to join his father Gee Yen You. Yook Shew developed a gambling habit that would take him away from his family for most of his life. In Yellowknife, he often worked as a waiter, in-between opportunities to run a café for absentee owners. Often, those enterprises did not succeed and he would be back waiting tables at the Gold Range or its sister cafés like the Red Apple.

He was unusual in that, unlike other Chinese workers, he dressed impeccably, sometimes flamboyantly, often wearing a hat and a three-piece suit with cuff links, out of sync with his low-paying waiting job. Yook Shew was also different in that he spoke almost perfect English despite having a Grade 7 education, while being very fluent in his own dialect of Toishan. He liked to win arguments but his outspokenness often jarred non-Chinese who wanted to put him in his place. It was a combination that would cause conflict where Harry would break up fights with customers. “He could get angry. He didn‘t like the customers sometimes,” noted Harry.

Sometimes the RCMP would be called in during late night scuffles when the Gold Range staff would have to close shop and a large mob of drunken partiers stood between them and the door. “After the bar, people fight like hell. Right now, no fights. It was different,” said Sam, who often kept a mickey beneath the cash register to weather the bad nights.

In the ‘90s, with more violence out on the main strip of Yellowknife, the Gold Range Café would feel the effects of being next door to one of the most notorious watering holes in Canada.

Regular customers who had frequented the café for years no longer came in. A conflict developed between young, unemployed Dene and Métis and the staff. Harry and Sam still spoke broken English but would feel the effects of this misunderstanding. Some customers would insult them with racial epithets, not knowing they had befriended their relatives for 40 years. “Some would eat in the back. Then they would be gone. They would walk out with the whole meal, the plates and the cutlery,” says Harry, ruefully.

“We never changed the Gold Range for 25 years. Kept the old style you know, so the children and the old men and women would know to come there. There were a lot of regulars,” says Harry, who welcomed the idea to sell the place in 1999. Shortly after, their old friend, Yook Shew would leave Yellowknife and by 2008, he suffered a stroke and passed on.

Both Sam and Harry remember the old days, and some of the conflicts their friend would get involved in or sometimes start and his uncontrollable gambling habit. “He lost $10,000 in one night. Didn’t look very good next day,” said Harry. “He was a good friend,” said Sam, who always got a laugh from him.

Harry says he would like to come back to Yellowknife, not just to visit his daughter and her family. “I still want to work,” he says, after retiring in 2007.

There are still the memories though. When Queen Elizabeth II came to visit Yellowknife on a Royal tour in 1973, Harry still remembers what she ate, as her staff ordered a takeout from the Gold Range Café. “Filet mignon, juice and salad. I delivered,” he recalls.

After 50 years, the Gold Range Café was sold by owner Jerry Wong in 2002 to another local Chinese Canadian restaurateur, Patrick Yee. He promptly renovated it, renamed it the Gold Range Bistro, and today it still stands as a testament to the hard work and enterprising skills of Chinese who came up North and made it a success.

Sixty years later, the Gold Range Bistro is still relying on Chinese Toishan-speaking workers from Alberta and the Prairies.


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