Edmonton Chinese Oral History Project
Edmonton Chinatown Chinese Library
Do you like bean sprouts in chow mien? In egg foo young? We are going to tell you a story about a gentleman who had a lot have to do with how we can buy bean sprouts at Superstore in Edmonton today.
Mr. Bill Mah was born and raised in Nanjing, China. His grandfather’s hometown is Toishan, Guangdong province, China. It was a small town in southern China where many early Chinese immigrants came to Canada from. How did Mr. Mah’s grandfather move to Nanjing? In today’s travel, the distance is 1133 kilometers by air from Guangzhou to Nanjing. From Toishan to Guangzhou is another 107 kilometers by air. Just imagine how difficult the journey must have been in the early 1900’s to cover over 1200 kilometers during war time in China.
Actually, Mr. Mah’s grandfather went to Nanjing from Canada. He must have left Toishan to Edmonton during his young adulthood. Have you heard of Dr. Sun Yat-sen visiting Calgary and Lethbridge in 1911? Dr. Sun did not visit Edmonton but he had an advisor visit Edmonton. Some believe that Mr. Mah’s grandfather might have been invited to support the revolution like many overseas Chinese. He left Canada for Nanjing and did not return to Canada again. Mr. Bill Mah shared that there was a neighbourhood in Nanjing called Hua Qiao Cun (Overseas Chinese Village). Houses in the neighbourhood were very modern and beautiful. But they had been all torn down and the area is now a park.
A member from the Oral History Project team remembers learning about a group of people went from Toishan to Nanjing to support Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolution. Mr. Bill Mah told the team that some of these Mah descendants are still residing in Edmonton.
When Mr. Bill Mah arrived Abbey, Saskatchewan in 1952 he was only 19 years old. He did not know any English. His father paid $2000.00 Canadian dollars for him and his brother to come to Canada. Even though they have the legal right to join Mr. Mah’s father in Canada nevertheless he had to pay for his son’s entrance to the country because he lost the document that proved their relationship as father and sons.
Mr. Bill Mah remembers that he arrived on December 26, 1952. Within a couple of days, he got the document to stay as a Canadian citizen. He began working at his father’s restaurant. As mentioned earlier that he did not know any English. His Dad told him not to worry just repeat what the customer said to the kitchen staff and they would take care of the orders. An English speaking customer teased him that he wanted a washroom. Mr. Mah went to the kitchen and placed the order. The staff in the kitchen laughed, laughed and laughed. Mr. Mah was embarrassed but he was not discouraged. Instead, he realized how important it was to learn English as quickly as he could.
Mr. Mah’s family also owned a grocery store next to the restaurant. He helped set up the store before he went to school. His Dad would open the store at 9 o’clock in the morning. So, every morning, by the time Mr. Mah arrived school and was expected to learn, he was already too exhausted from setting up the store.
Three years after, Mr. Mah returned to Hong Kong and got married. His wife’s family owned a restaurant called Lin Yuan (林園) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. She had never worked in a restaurant before. After she arrived in Hinton where Mr. Mah’s father operated a restaurant she had to work in the family business. She had no idea how to prepare a hamburger. In fact, she might not have even tasted one before she left Hong Kong.
Two couples, Mr. Mah’s parents, he and his wife worked very hard running a restaurant in Hinton. The ground floor was the business and the first floor was their home. Local residents wondered how they worked and bought houses, one after the other. In a few years they had acquired eight houses. Some people suspected that they did no pay taxes and challenged Mr. Mah. He responded that they could pay taxes as anyone else.
Over 20 years Mr. Mah stayed in Hinton and established his business. The town was expanding and his Dad advised him to purchase the land besides the restaurant. Otherwise, in the future he might have difficulty accessing his building. Someone suggested him to buy a bigger piece of land which is about ten times the piece he intended to buy. But he did not have $2000.00. One of his good friends, a German immigrant lent him the money. He even named his daughter Violet which is Mrs. Mah’s first name. When Mr. Mah was able to get all the documents about the land in order after over ten years. By then this piece of land had a value many times of the purchased price. Mr. Mah exclaimed that he was simply “lucky”!
When Mr. Mah’s children attended the University of Alberta he decided to sell his businesses and properties in Hinton and moved to Edmonton. He purchased a house for the children. He planned to live a quiet life with his wife in Sherwood Park.
Unexpectedly he was invited to join a business venture led by three gentlemen of the Mah’s clan. They acquired some machines and started a bean sprout business. They were the first Chinese business that convinced Superstore in Edmonton to carry their product – bean sprouts. It was in the 19 70’s, before that one had to visit Chinatown to buy bean sprouts from a Chinese grocery store.
The bean sprouts business took off. They got the only contract to supply bean sprouts to Safeway, IGA and some other wholesale markets. When the team asked Mr. Mah how they got the contract, he replied humbly that it was lots of work and it costed some money.
After Mr. Mah retired he is still involved with Chinese community organizations, such as the Mahs Association, Edmonton Toishan Society, Edmonton Chinese Senior Lodge. At one point he was the vice-president of Edmonton Chinatown Multicultural Centre. Currently, he does not hold any formal positions but whenever there are events and extra pair of hands are needed he would be there.
Mr. Mah shared that community organizations should welcome everyone, no matter one is Toishanese, Cantonese or Mandarin speaker. He gave an example of non-Chinese people dropped by Mahs Association and learned how to cook Chinese food.
He hoped that more young people would take part in these organizations to help and be ready to take over. He encouraged his son to help the Mahs Association. He is a volunteer photographer for the association. Mr. Mah’s grandson studied Chinese from Chinese language weekend program at Edmonton Chinatown Multi-cultural Centre (ECMCC). He later even taught with the program for a short period of time.
When we spoke about how future generations might maintain Chinese language and culture, Mr. Mah shared that was the reason that he donated and supported Edmonton Chinatown Library Foundation (ECLF). He considers ECLF has an important role to play in Edmonton Chinese community in providing a place for the public to enjoy wonderful literal, contemporary and historical resources.
In terms of current leadership in Edmonton Chinese community groups, Mr. Mah acknowledged that Mr. Frank Gee and Mrs. Mei Hung have done tremendous amount of work in connecting numerous community groups. He hopes that the newly formed youth group, Edmonton Chinese Youth Leaders Council (ECYLC) will learn and one day take over some of the community building work.