You work hard. Everybody backs you up, you put yourself through fine.
Did your father send for you?
Yeah, my father send for me.
And he had to send the money?
Yeah. I had to pay five hundred dollars head tax too for coming to Canada. My grandad paid that too, you know, for my father.
The ubiquitous small town prairie Chinese cafe. The Public Lunch, owned and operated by the Wong family, was the one in Olds. Years ago when I was doing freelance work, I interviewed the third Mr. Wong to arrive in this country. In 1921 his father was able to bring him to Canada to help out in the restaurant. He was to work that business for the next 52 years.
As Mr. Wong told it, in the late 1800s China was all upset, there was no way to make a living. His grandfather had to leave his wife and everything at home and come to Canada by himself. Arriving in Olds in 1898 he started a laundry business. When this burned down he opened up the restaurant. After he was here for a few years he could send for his son (Mr. Wong’s father). He never had a chance to bring his wife over because first he had to get his son, who could help him make a living. You gotta make a living. If you had a grocery store you could bring your son and your wife but for a restaurant only the son.. Every ten or fifteen years you could go back to China and stay for a year and see your wife. You couldn’t stay longer than a year.
During the Depression a lot of people had trouble. These boys come over here at harvest time, can’t get a job, nothing to eat, you know. I help them. The people who come from China, we help them too. We help everybody, you understand? When I did that I didn’t know but when they got a job, they come back and tell me. Everybody remembers that when they were hungry, I feed them. They come back and say, remember when I got off the flat train and you gave me a meal.
We always had chickens, got the house there, two huts, they had the Chinese cook there, had the hay there for the chickens, boys had a place to stay, sleep there. I give them a sandwich, we got lotsa eggs, feed em see. Lotsa fun there in that house. They never forget.
The first few years he missed China but here it was just like heaven. Here you could own something of your own, with no trouble from landlords and warlords. Things were very bad in China. The only thing bad here was the weather. We had a cook, there, see, and one night his pigtail froze to the wall of his hut. In 1927 Mr. Wong married a woman from Victoria whose family had worked on the railroad. Then he had a partner and a family. I taught my children to work hard. They still work hard.
So why have I been thinking so much lately about Mr. Wong and that interview? That’s what I ask myself. Mr. Wong must be gone by now as is the town of Olds as he knew it, when a full restaurant meal was forty cents and a piece of pie a nickel, when ice cream came on the CPR in 5-gallon insulated tubs, when lump coal was hauled from Drumheller by horse and wagon. Yet the rhythm and pattern of his life still exist in my head. I close my eyes and see him walking the sidewalks of Olds, the two blocks between his house and the restaurant. I see the restaurant cook travelling those same two blocks, with a wagon and two pails of chicken feed, collecting the eggs and returning to the restaurant.
The rhythm and pattern of lives lived, the uneventful daily routine of most of the world’s population as people go about doing what they have to do to survive, day after day and year after year of work and family life. Endurance and survival, two words that magnify in meaning as one ages.
I get along good here. I get along good with the public. They all like me, I like them too.
You like that work?
I loved that work.
You had a good life?
A good life.