Reflections of Ponoka: Ponoka’s early ambitious Chinese connection

Thousands of Chinese immigrants sought a new life in North America in the latter 1700s, many of whom over a decade late

Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Mah Poy celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in Ponoka in 1958. Since Jimmy’s arrival here from Canton

Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Mah Poy celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in Ponoka in 1958. Since Jimmy’s arrival here from Canton

Thousands of Chinese immigrants sought a new life in North America in the latter 1700s, many of whom over a decade later sought wealth and adventure in the Fraser Valley gold rush, while over 7000 went to work for $1 a day helping to build over 200 miles of the first Canadian Pacific Railway track through the rugged Rocky Mountains. Moving into the 19th century, countless more Chinese families welcomed the exciting opportunities, paid $100 a head to enter Canada, and then slowly blended into the many new villages, towns and cities that were popping up everywhere.

Welcome to Ponoka

Jimmy Mah Poy arrived in Canada in 1902 after teaching school for a number of years in Canton, China. After working in the coal mines around Victoria, B.C.  for two years, he moved to the new Town of Ponoka, Alberta. In 1905, Jimmy opened the B.C. Cafe at the corner of 51 street and 50 Avenue in the Purdy Building, and was joined by his wife in 1912. In 1915, the ambitious couple moved to a small building near the Bank of Commerce and opened a shoe repair shop, which they operated until 1928. The very same year, their next adventure included the construction at the same location along Railway Street of the palatial Union Cafe, which they operated until 1943, when it was taken over by their son Hong and his wife Lorna Mah Poy.

Along the way, six children were born into the family, including daughters Song, Winnie and Lucy and sons Hong, Glen, and Gale, who later blessed them with 12 grandchildren. The grand old couple continued to work in the growing Ponoka family businesses until 1953, and then later retired to B.C., where Jimmy passed away in 1959 and Mrs. Mah Poy in 1965.

The first laundry business in Ponoka was opened by Mah Chung on Railway Street in the very early 1900s. As a young boy, Frank Young, who would later become the chief engineer at the provincial mental hospital, recalled that he was the Chung’s delivery boy in 1906, and at that time a freshly laundered shirt, undershirt, drawers and socks would cost the customer 25 cents. The gentlemen of the community always brought in their white collars to Chung to be laundered and starched stiff and shiny for a fee of a nickel. He was a true Chinese country man, wearing a pig tail as was the early custom, but later succumbed to the new fashion style of the wild-wild west. The popular Mah Chung Laundry would serve Ponoka and district until 1944 when it was sold to Mr. Jack Stickel.

The Club Cafe was opened by Messrs. Mah Chew and Mah Bow in the Leland Hotel in the early 1920s, and then in 1926 the family purchased the lot where Steele’s Lumber and Machinery had been directly across the street and built a very smart restaurant. Eating out was very private in those days, and the Club Cafe offered its clientele private booths surrounded by dark red velvet curtains. As well as a great host, Mah Bow was also a curling fanatic and helped to promote the game in and around Ponoka, as well as later getting involved with several partners in the operation of our first Pool Hall on Chipman Avenue. Their posh and popular restaurant on Chipman Avenue operated until well into the 1940s when Bow was forced to retire due to ill health and Chew went to Vancouver.

Howard Lee and Hong Mah arrived in Ponoka in 1964 and together as partners took over the Leland Hotel Cafe. They continued in this thriving enterprise for several years, and then later purchased the land directly across the street known as the Baadsgaard property. In June 1971, a new building was completed containing a coffee shop and dining room, which they called the Valley Inn Restaurant. This family eatery, complete with plush booths and juke boxes, became very popular, offering a great Chinese and western menu that featured eat in and take out from sunrise until late into the night for the tavern and party crowd.

In the middle of the ‘dirty 30s’ a young gentleman by the name of Jack Mah Ming and Jimmy Mah Poy purchased the Bank of Montreal building, then moved his dry cleaning plant there as well as adding a fine line of men’s clothing. Later the business would become exclusively Men’s Wear, and after World War ll, Jack’s son Glen Mah Poy and his wife took over the store and completely remodeled it in 1951, including apartments on the upper floor. Hong Mah Poy then built another new building on the corner of 50 street and 51 Avenue, where he opened a modern dry cleaning facility, which, years later, was operated as New Glo Cleaners by the next generation of the family, Doug Mah Poy.

In a small room of the early 1900 Mah Chung Laundry, Ponoka`s first shoe repair shop would later be operated by his son Mah Hong Len, who came to Canada at a very early age with very little money in his pocket, could speak absolutely no English, but luckily he had a tag in his pocket declaring his final destination as Ponoka, Alberta. After many hours in customs, Hong Len finally made it here, became very good in his trade and served local customers until 1945. I will never forget when we lived in a little house along 53 Avenue over 30 years ago, there was a Chinese gentleman and his wife who lived across the alley, and  every morning would slowly walk up the alley to their tiny shoe repair shop behind the old  Algar building on Railway Street. I took my shoes and boots there many times, and when I could finally make him understand, he would smile and say, “I fix”, and he would always make them better than new. Over those many exciting decades and to the present day, countless Chinese and families of other nationalities have made Ponoka and district their home, have mingled and mixed among the growing population, offered and shared their trades, skills, and traditions, and helped to make our community the successful, hospitable, and proud legacy that it is today.