From Hong Kong to Fort Chipewyan - The Amazing Resilience of an Out-of-Town Bride
Their father and grandfather worked together at the Swift Meat Company in Edmonton’s “Packingtown” where, by the end of World War II, meatpacking was the major industrial employer. As it is in the Chinese culture, one worker talked about having an industrious son who was looking for a young woman to be his bride; and the other talked about his beautiful granddaughter in Hong Kong, who was ready to marry. And so the arrangement to unite the children was made. That is why Kim Mah, at age 17, arrived in Edmonton on Oct. 5, 1957 via Alaska from Hong Kong.
En route to the airport for her flight, Kim thought she was travelling to the foreign country of Canada to visit her grandfather, but she learned from her father prior to the plane’s departure that there would be a young man waiting to meet her in Canada. And that he wanted to marry her.
“I’m C.O.D.,” says Kim with a smile while chatting over coffee at the Athabasca Café and Dining Lounge in Fort Chipewyan1 in the quiet calm after a luncheon rush.
She also recalls the story of the $2,000 deposit made to Canada Immigration by the Mah family as a requirement for her entry to Canada. It was a surety for the cost of her return to Hong Kong if she decided not to get married.
On October 14, only nine days after her arrival in Canada, Kim and Dickie Mah, then 22, were married in a Canadian-style wedding and the newly married couple arrived in Fort Chipewyan to start their lives together on Oct. 22, 1957.
“I did not meet my husband until I arrived at the airport,” Kim says. “I only see a picture before I came to Canada. In the 1950s there are a lot of Hong Kong people trying to look for a different life. Before 1982, it was hard to leave China… you had to go to Hong Kong to leave. There were a lot of girls for C.O.D.”
But their elders made a good match, according to Kim. “He treat me good,” she says about Dickie. “He give me six children (Jeannie, Susie, Darlene, Eddie, Loretta, Serena). Our marriage stayed for 33 years. I had a good life with my husband. He was 54 or 55 in 1988 when he died of pneumonia.2 My heart died when he died.”
Life for the Mah family has for five generations centred on the Athabasca Café and Dining Lounge, built initially in either 1924 or 1927 by Charlie, Kim’s father-in-law. Charlie worked hard to earn enough to bring his wife and children in 1947 from China, including George (18), Dickie (12) and their sister. They attended the only school in Fort Chipewyan at the time and learned English, Cree and ‘Chip’.
Life for Kim after her husband’s death was the Athabasca Café and raising her youngest child.. “My father in California tell me to join the family there when Dickie die,” she continues. “My father says I am always his baby so I can’t stay in Fort Chip. I tell him to give me two years. If I cannot stand alone in two years, I will meet him at the airport in California. “But I promised myself for Serena to finish university and I know I can make a dollar bill in Fort Chip. I have to make a dollar to support my children.”
After Dickie’s funeral in Edmonton, their son Eddie left his engineering position in the oil industry and he and his wife stayed with Kim for two years at the Athabasca Café. In 1989, he obtained the second liquor licence issued in Fort Chipewyan.
However, after two years, with his wife expecting twins, Kim insisted they return to Edmonton.
“I am proud of myself,” says Kim. “I can stand by myself.
“I told him to go with his wife,” recalls Kim. “Leave me alone here. We will see who grabs the dollar bill first. [Today] everybody have education, have a job, make a dollar, and have a house. They have jobs elsewhere, but I see my kids twice or three times a year and most of the kids come home at Christmas.”
Kim now also has 17 grandchildren.3
David Blair, a Ward 2 councillor for the region, says Kim and Dickie are to be commended for sticking through the good and the bad times.
“I knew Dickie really good and they were always helping out,” Blair says. “They would give back. They’re actually a really nice family, a really strong family and it portrays itself throughout the community. It was hard work to raise a family and send the children south to go to school when they reached a certain age. The family has really strong values.
“The Mah family from Fort Chipewyan is well known,” he continues. “I’m in Edmonton right now in an office and they’ve heard of the Mah family and how far away they are. They are very strong people to come there that many years ago….”
Although local residents frequent the Athabasca Café, it is the travellers, contractors and visitors who count on Kim the most. The airport and the two daily scheduled flights from Fort McMurray are the lifeline of Fort Chipewyan, along with the Winter Road. Often, the flight and road vehicle passengers are engineers, consultants, college professors, environmentalists, historians or visiting lecturers. When they arrive, there are few places to stay and even fewer places to eat. Over the past five-plus decades, the Athabasca Café has sustained countless travellers.
Moving at a slower pace after a recent surgery, Kim, as always, turns on the fluorescent red ‘Open’ sign in the Café window. There was a time after Dickie’s death, when she was proving that she could ‘stand alone’, that she would work 17-hour days, but no longer. She has a young woman taking the orders from the two tables of three guests, all of whom are obviously visiting Fort Chipewyan. Later, while paying at the cash register, one woman asks Kim if she will be open that evening for the supper hour. The answer is ‘Yes’.
“I am so glad,” the traveller responds. “If you weren’t open, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would starve.”
Kim prepares a takeout for someone who has phoned in and another table of four young women arrives. They order her famous hamburgers. As they are about to leave, they chat up Mrs. Mah about celebrating ‘coming of age’ by ordering a drink later in the week.
“That’s okay, that’s okay,” replies Kim, who knows every resident and family in Fort Chipewyan. “But you must have your ID. No ID, no drink.”
Every year, Kim travels to Edmonton, California and Hong Kong. One year, she travelled to Hong Kong with Elsie Yanik, 95, one of her best friends from Fort Chipewyan. Kim still smiles from ear to ear when she remembers the trip (as does Elsie Yanik). Two of Kim’s children are in Prince Edward Island, but the others are in the Edmonton area. Kim’s mother and father are still both alive and in their 90s in California, along with her five siblings. One of her grandmothers died at 110, so she expects to continue visiting her parents in California for some time yet.
Kim continues to make Fort Chipewyan her home after 50-plus years. Her work, livelihood and friends are there. When anyone she’s met enters her café, she greets them fondly by name or nickname. She is the waitress, cook and dishwasher, ‘a one-woman show’. And after doing all of these duties, she manages to take the time to listen to their stories and provide them with a history lesson of her arrival in Canada at such a young age and the heart-warming story of her love for her late husband, Dickie. Due to the care and respectful support of her family, her six children and her friends, Kim’s life and memories are still rooted in Fort Chipewyan. No doubt those who love her are encouraging her to consider taking life easier, but she is still resilient, still strong and still ‘standing alone’.
And the landmark Athabasca Café continues to be a haven for hungry travellers.
1 Fort Chipewyan, one of the oldest European settlements in Alberta, is 223 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The hamlet is home to a population predominantly made up of Cree First Nations, Chipewyan (Dene) First Nations and Métis people. According to the 2011 Census, it had a population of 847 living in 302 of its 358 dwellings, but locals put the true number around 1,100. Fort Chipewyan is accessible only by plane and boat in the summer and, in the winter, by the Winter Road or by plane.
2 Kim spoke no English when she arrived in Canada. And while Dickie managed the Athabasca Café and she raised their six children, Kim would cook in the back of the Café. Kim seldom interacted with customers and seldom needed to speak English except with her Canadian friends. When Dickie died, suddenly, Kim needed to be able to communicate in English and transform herself from being the owner’s wife to being the owner/manager of the Café. For the next two years, slowly, she built her English vocabulary and her confidence. Like most English as a second language speakers, Kim has a unique way of expressing herself. To avoid any misinterpretation, Kim’s eldest daughter, Jeannie, has spoken with her mom in her native language to ensure the quotes and their context in this article are accurate. One of the benefits of Canada’s diversity – and its growing number of English as a second language speakers – is the accompanying variations in the use of the English language and syntax. If the purpose of language is to better understand one another, there can be no doubt that Kim has mastered the art of café conversation in English.
3 For a time, Charlie Mah’s mother also lived in Fort Chipewyan so when Kim’s children and grandchildren gather around her at the Cafe, it is a celebration of a family history in Canada of five generations.