So here I am, hard at work on my Chinese restaurant history book investigating the countless small cafes run by Chinese in rural provinces of Canada like Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. An “aha” moment strikes as I suddenly remember that my mother had a sister, or was she a niece, who came from rural China to even more rural Saskatchewan back in the 1970s or maybe even earlier. Even though they never got a chance to visit with each other, I do recall that they exchanged annual xmas cards. In fact, I even found an envelope from one of those exchanges dated in the mid 1980s with a return address: Box 535, Norquay, SK, Canada. Checking a map on google, I found it was in the middle of the proverbial ‘nowhere’ with less than 500 people living there. In my research, I had read that all Chinese did in the region was run small cafes. Could it be possible that my mother’s sister or niece also ran one of them?
A few months ago, I checked every web resource I could find and saw no evidence of any Chinese or Chinese café in Norquay. This relative had moved or had died, but even then, she would have had several adult children…. Maybe I could locate them? I then contacted the Norquay city hall or the equivalent thereof, asking if anyone there remembers there ever being any Chinese in this community even though they had undoubtedly moved away or died a decade or so ago? But I gave up as I never got so much as a “sorry, can’t help you” reply.
End of search? No, just a hiatus, it turns out. Then months after my unproductive investigation, while searching the web for photographs of unique looking “Chinese cafes and restaurants” my eye caught one of Steven’s Café and Chinese food located in Stoughton, SK. which happens to be not too far from Norquay.
Steven’s café occupies a undistinguished looking building, aside from it being painted completely in a blushing pink color. A tiny front door stands in the middle between two small storefront windows with awnings. It looks more like a hardware or auto supply store than a Chinese café. So, I contacted the person who posted this photo on flickr and discovered that she was a historian working at a provincial museum in Saskatoon. On a hunch, I decided it would not hurt to just ask her if she was familiar with Norquay, the little town where my mother’s relative had lived. Possibly, she might have known whether it had a Chinese family there, and if so, whether they had operated a café. This was a long shot, but I had exhausted my other means for researching this question.
No… was her answer, but she gave me the name of someone she knew who knew the Norquay ‘scene’ as he published a local tourist magazine. Excitedly, I contacted him and he promptly volunteered some bad and some good news. He himself did not know of a particular Chinese family that met my description, because he was fairly new to the area himself but his wife, a local, did remember their prior presence. Moreover, she knew other locals that would know even more about them.
So I anxiously waited until that evening when I could call my source person in Norquay, a very helpful 85 year old retired farmer who indeed knew Wayne and Helen Quong and confirmed they did in fact operate one of the two cafes in town, both run by Chinese. (In general, he told me, all cafes in this region were run by Chinese).
Both Wayne and Helen were no longer alive, but it was thought that a son, one of their 4, operated a café in a nearby town, Canora. However, my information turned out to not be correct, as Chuck the café owner, although Chinese, was not related to the Quongs. There was still hope, as he referred me to Ben who worked in yet another Chinese café in Canora that might help me.
So I called Ben at the Silver Grill but he was either very busy (8 p,m.) or very suspicious and reluctant to divulge information. He asked me to call later after the café closed. When I called again, he seemed more relaxed, especially after he confirmed that I was Chinese (he asked twice). Now he felt he could tell me he was not a direct relative, but was, I think, an adopted or step-son. I think possibly he was a step brother of Wayne. In any case, he did disclose the name of Wayne’s older sister, Sue, over in Yorkton about 50 miles further south of Canora, who he felt should know the whereabouts of the Quong children.
Sue spoke English but seemed to prefer Chinese, so I made the effort. Conversing in half and half, or more like 25-75, I managed to convince her that I was indeed Chinese, and could be trusted. Once she knew that somehow we might be distantly related, if only by marriage, she offered me the name, Danny, of the oldest son, of the Quongs. He ran Danny’s Café in yet another town, Quill Lake, of about 500 population, which was closer to ‘civilization,’ not too far from Regina.
So, I held my breath, waiting until after their lunch hour to call. But there the trail sort of died, as the woman who answered didn’t seem to have a clue what I was asking about. She even asked if I was trying to hire someone to work in a Chinese café. I may have been given the wrong telephone number; however, the woman was Chinese and she was working in a Chinese café. She had only been in Canada for 2 years, an immigrant from mainland China to Quill Lake to work in this Chinese café.
Where does this leave me? Although I failed to locate the children of my mother’s sister (or was she a niece), the quest was not a total loss. I now had a direct confirmation of what I learned from research, i.e., that every little town in the area has one or two cafes, and that most of them are run by Chinese immigrants and their families. My ‘relatives’ seem to have been involved with such businesses in at least 3 or 4 little towns. And while I have no visual evidence about their restaurants, in my mind’s eye I imagine that they might well have resembled these two photographs of more recent vintage, first one in Cut Knife, SK, and the second one in Wakaw, SK, by my Saskatoon museum acquaintance, the same person who took the photo of Steven’s Café that started me on this trail.