History books tell us that early in the 19th century a great number of Chinese immigrants appeared in Alberta and British Columbia. Thousands of these new Canadians would work on the gruelling construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway as it wound through the Rocky Mountains, through the Prairies and across Canada.
Other Chinese folks would settle in the vibrant new towns and villages, seeking employment in all areas, as well as opening small family businesses. Here in Ponoka the Mah Chung Laundry was established in 1906 along Railway Street, and offered a complete service of cleaning and delivering customers’ clothes for just 25 cents a load. Mah Poy Sing (James Mah Poy) opened the first Chinese restaurant (The Union Café) here in 1918, and this would be the humble beginning of a proud tradition of serving customers with a fine oriental cuisine that has carried on in our community for so many decades.
New feature now on display at Ponoka museum
The Fort Ostell Museum in the Lions Centennial Park is proud to host a colourful display entitled Chop Suey on the Prairies, which salutes the long and colourful history and popularity of Chinese restaurants in Alberta. This large display, courtesy of the Royal Alberta Museum, will be at Fort Ostell until the end of October, and everyone is welcome to visit and browse from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
For over a century all across the Prairies, Chinese restaurants could be found in nearly every city, town, village and hamlet, and now in the 20th century throughout North America they outnumber all other fast food outlets combined.
Whether it is a grand upscale restaurant serving 500 patrons or a small hole-in-the-wall café where the parents cook and serve and the children clean vegetables while doing their homework in the corner, Chinese restaurants have become a very big part of our community landscape, social, and culinary desires.
Ponoka residents have always been treated to a wide variety of exotic Chinese restaurants, all offering a wide variety of dine-in or take-out cuisine, but also adjusting to the varied tastes of the modern era by topping off their menus with all the best western dishes and other favourites.
Jimmy Mah Poy opened his first Ponoka restaurant in 1918 in the Purdy building on Railway Street, then in 1928 this was removed and the new and posh Union Café was constructed next to the Imperial Bank of Commerce. Along the way, James and his wife raised their family of six children, and together they operated their popular restaurant until 1952.
The Club Café was opened by Mah Chew in the Leland Hotel in the early 1920s, then in 1926 Mah and his partner purchased a lot across the street and built their elite Chipman Avenue eatery. The owners always stressed that dining out should be a very private and enjoyable affair, and some of old-timers will recall that the Club featured dark velvet curtains, fancy booths, and soft lighting. It was also a great gathering spot for those who had attended social functions at the Elks Hall down the street, then going into the 1940s and 50s the teenagers would frequently meet at this café to enjoy after-the-show goodies and play the jukebox.
In 1968, Howard Lee and Hong Mah erected a new building on the Baadsgaard property along the north side of Chipman Avenue, and then in 1971 they transformed it into a popular coffee shop and dining room known as “The Valley Inn Café.” In the 1990s the longstanding restaurant at 5014A-50th Avenue was renovated by new owners, took on the name ‘Hong Kong Café’ and is operated today by Lisa and her family.
Back in 1978 the Lili Song family from Stettler purchased one of Ponoka’s most historic buildings at 5014-50th Street and transformed it from a dry goods and ready to wear business into the Golden Wheel Restaurant. The Songs operated the eatery until 2009, when it was bought by Ping Bo Chen and Jessie Pei, who met in Vancouver in 2007, then decided to begin a new adventure in the restaurant business right here in Ponoka. After overcoming early language barriers, the couple enjoys living in Ponoka and serving their faithful customers at the Golden Wheel.
The big building at 5021-51st Avenue was the original Wayne’s Auto and Industrial Shop until the late 1970s, at which time it received a delicate work over and became Hong’s Garden Restaurant. In 1979 it was sold and renamed the Ponoka Chinese Food and Steak House, which operated there until 2002 when it was sold to Yanyi Li and her family and renamed The Seasoning Pot.
In 1976 the Riverside Motor Inn was built at 3825-46th Street Ponoka, and as well as lively lounges, a pub and comfortable rooms, always featured a fine dining room. Most recently Jain Ke Di and family have operated the restaurant as ‘The Chinese Palace’ but effective Sept. 1, 2011 it went under the new ownership of Mr. and Mrs. Jason Wu.
As we all continue to enjoy the great tastes and traditions of Chinese food, we also have the opportunity of learning about the colourful and longstanding history in our community by dropping into the Fort Ostell Museum and enjoying the Chop Suey in Ponoka display. Who knows, you may even be presented with your own yummy and lucky fortune cookie.