Sunday, 6 March 2011

Chinese Hotel Owners: "Friends to All"

Chinese immigrants in Canada, c. 1900. Image source

“George Brennan built the first hotel and managed it until Prohibition came. When he could no longer get a license for the bar, he sold it to some Chinamen.” This line from Pennant’s history book describes a typical scenario. When Saskatchewan’s hotels hit hard times, the province’s small Chinese community stepped in to pick up the pieces, keeping those hotels in business. Many Saskatchewan hotels were owned and operated by Chinese throughout the Prohibition years of the teens and 1920s, and into the Depression of the 1930s. In his address to the annual convention of the Hotel Association of Saskatchewan in 1952, George G. Grant stated that, back in the early1930s, “the condition of hotels was desperate, and half the hotels were operated by Orientals.” (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, May 20, 1952, p. 3)

The “Chinamen” who bought the Pennant Hotel from George Brennan in 1916 were “Yock Yee, Yee On, Yee Kong, and Young Yenchew, better known to all as George, Doo Lu, Louie and Charlie.” Like many Chinese enterprises in small-town Saskatchewan, the Pennant Hotel was not, strictly speaking, a family business. Rather, it was run by several men – relatives or friends – who worked as partners. This was necessary because, from 1885 until well into the 20th century, restrictive immigration laws prevented Chinese from bringing their wives and children to Canada. As a result, the Chinese Canadian community became a “bachelor society.” 

Chinese immigrants began arriving in what is now Saskatchewan in the late 1880s after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fleeing from mob violence in British Columbia, they tended to disperse into the new railroad towns of the prairies. In his book, Sweet and Sour; Life in Chinese Family Restaurants (2010), John Jung explains that, upon arriving in a community, Chinese had to find or develop forms of self-employment as a means of economic survival. Other forms of work such as railway construction were denied to them. “Lacking English language skills, having little money, and little experience,” Jung writes, “one of the few opportunities was in domestic work, typically considered ‘women’s work’. Thus, they started their own small businesses such as laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants often in areas where there were few other Chinese.” Some became cooks in small-town hotels where they learned the business. 
Chow Chow on right, with Robin Chow, n.d.
                       From A Link to Our Heritage: Lacadena and District (1989)
Chow Chow came to Lacadena in 1925 and built a hotel with eight guest rooms upstairs, and a very good café on the main floor.  According to Lacadena’s local history book, Chow was a generous, good-hearted businessman. “At Christmas time he always had a gift of chocolates or Christmas cake for every family,” the book recounts. “He provided service twenty-four hours a day if food was needed.”  Other members of the hotel staff were Wing Chow and a nephew, Ernie Chow, who attended school in Lacadena for a year or two. In 1947, Chow Chow's life changed when the Canadian government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act. His wife, son and two daughters were finally able to come from China to join him. He left Lacadena and moved to Vancouver where his wife helped him in a confectionery-café until he passed away from leukemia in 1972. 

The Wong Gin family of Herbert, 1940. Image Source

Wong Gin was a lucky man.  He came to Canada from China in 1908, and by 1913, he was the owner of the Tuxedo Café in Herbert, Saskatchewan. Thirteen years later, in 1926, he was the owner of the Tuxedo Hotel and Café, advertised as “The Best Hotel in Town – Ice Cream and Confectionary – Meals at All Hours – Clean Rooms and Best of Service.”  Wong Gin was also fortunate because his wife and family were not thousands of miles away in China. In 1927, he married Mae Yea of Riverhurst, Saskatchewan, and they had six children. Wong Gin was in competition with the Herbert Hotel owned by Mrs. E.M. Stephenson – “A Home Away From Home – Home Cooking – We Employ White Help Only.”  He must have been a naturalized Canadian, because in 1935, the year the province allowed the sale of beer by the glass, he bought the Herbert Hotel from Mrs. Stephenson and he was able to obtain a license to open a beer parlour – something many Chinese hotel owners were not permitted to do. Chinese were excluded because the law required that the applicant for a liquor license had to be a person who was entitled to vote. The Chinese in Saskatchewan did not receive the provincial franchise until 1947. In 1939, N.B. Williams, chairman of the Saskatchewan Liquor Board, stated that some liquor licenses had been granted to naturalized Chinese "who had long operated hotels in communities and were respected there." It was not, however, the board's policy to grant a license to naturalized Chinese "who had bought hotels after the former white owners had failed," Mr. Williams said. (Regina Leader-Post, Aug. 22, 1939, p. 9)

The Herbert Hotel in 1908.Image source
In 1945, Wong Gin sold the Herbert Hotel. He died in January 1960. The Herbert history (1987) records the following tribute:  “Wong had more than fulfilled the requirements of any citizen. As a pioneer he took an active part in building Herbert, for the well-being of his children and his neighbour’s children. He had helped to build on every project that needed volunteer labour – the school, hospital, skating rinks, curling rinks, exhibition grounds and Bible School. … One winter he even won a trophy in a farmers’ bonspiel.” The Gin family has continued to be active and involved in the Herbert community ever since.  

Edam Cafe and Hotel, n.d Image source
Charlie Chan arrived from China in 1910.  In 1915, Chan and a partner built a hotel on Main Street in Edam that, according to the Canada’s Historic Places web site, “was considered to be one of the most elegant establishments of its kind in the region.”  Chan’s business consisted of hotel, café and ice cream parlour. He eventually bought out his partner’s share in the Edam Café, and his family operated it until 1986. The two-storey, wood frame building, designated as a Municipal Heritage Property, was moved in 2003 from Main Street to the site of the Edam museum. 

Back in Pennant, Young Yenchew (aka Charlie) and Yok Yee (aka George), owners of the Pennant Hotel for many years, were considered “friends to all,” especially the children. The hotel café was a great place to meet for a 25-cent banana split, or an orange drink called “belly wash” for five cents. Charlie loved the sport of curling, and attended many bonspiels throughout the region. “When they left Pennant,” the history book reports, “a large crowd gathered at the Memorial Hall to say thank you for all the years of service to the community.” 

Once economic conditions improved during the war years of the 1940s, the number of Chinese hotel owners in the province dropped substantially.

© Joan Champ, 2011


  1. A fascinating account of a part of Chinese immigrant history that is totally new to me. It would be interesting to correlate the operation of stand alone Chinese-run cafes with their involvement in hotels, with or without food services. It would also be worth finding descendants of these owners to get their views about their parents' hotels and why they got out of the business after WWII. Were small town hotels no longer viable because of better roads or did the Chinese descendants move on to more lucrative or prestigious occupations and professions?

  2. All good questions, John. I really appreciate your comments. I hope to interview more people - Chinese descendants included - as my research for this project moves forward. The diminished viability of these hotels was probably a combination of a lot of factors. After the Second World War, people started moving to the city. With the appearance of all-weather roads, travel became easier. Few people stopped in rural hotels overnight. It was the beginning of the end of many small towns in Saskatchewan. That being said, however, today in many of these towns, all that is left standing is the hotel - that's why I call them "tenacious!" The school is closed, there's no more post office, the grain elevator has been torn down, the population has dwindled down to 10, but the hotel, or should I say, the hotel bar, is still in business!

  3. Ah yes, there's always those who need "one for the road"

  4. I have also been corresponding with John Jung. In my Outlook, SK "Chinese Restaurants" episode on Noisy Jim (who is also mentioned in Lilly Cho's new book "Eating Chinese"), we took Noisy Jim to Moose Jaw to check out the Chinese owned hotels in the Prohibition Era. It is rumoured that Al Capone hid in the tunnels under the buildings along main street. The tunnels were made by Chinese railroad workers at first to hide from immigration officials. Moose Jaw, of course, was the end of the line for railroad workers coming from the West. It was from Moose Jaw where they dispersed into the hinterlands of SK opening Chinese restaurants.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Kwan. I am honoured that you have viewed and commented on my blog! I am going to try and watch the "Noisy Jim" episode of your series, "Chinese Restaurants."

    Moose Jaw did, indeed, have the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the early days. According to the 1911 Canada Census, of the 957 Chinese in Saskatchewan, 25 percent lived in Moose Jaw. As for the tunnels, I have taken the following excerpts from

    "In the early 1900′s the majority of the large buildings in Moose Jaw were being heated by steam. Engineers who looked after this heating system in the basements decided to create a network of tunnels linking the buildings together, so they can easily move themselves and their equipment from building to building without freezing in them gosh darn cold prairie winters. During this time, many Chinese immigrants had begun to arrive in Moose Jaw to work for very low wages. In order to survive off their poor wages, the immigrants adopted the tunnel system as living quarters and workplaces which were cheap to run, and hidden from the occasional hostile populace."

    The author of this blog goes on to debunk the tourism industry's claim that Al Capone ever even visited Moose Jaw.

    1. I worked with Noisy Jim and was in the video made about Chinese and Canada, at the New Outlook Cafe. I am looking for the video online.

    2. Hi I am Cheuk Kwan. Are you Ms. Spencer, did you write me sometime ago asking to look at the video online? I would like to send you the DVD if you give me your address.

  6. Dear Mr. Jung and Ms. Champ,

    My name is Gary Gee and I am an associate of Jim Wong-Chu and Cheuk Kwan. I have known Jim a long time, and after a career in journalism and communications, I expect to embark on trying to write the definitive book (s) online and paper that would explain my community's history in establishing Chinese cafes and restaurants in small towns and in Chinatowns across Canada. I'm particularly interested in the small-town entrepreneur as that was the liveliood of my father and within isolated parts of the evolving city of Edmonton ~ that of my grandfater.

    Small-town Alberta is where my childhood memories lie, as I tried to trace the footsteps of my father ~ they were the other part of the head tax generation who came to Canada in the '50s following repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

    These stories represent a large part of our community history. By the time people like my father emigrated at 15 and with no education, many were faced with either working for 40 cents an hour as a waiter since they arrived too late and too young to start their own establishments. Or as in my father's case, he had trouble getting along with my grandfather whom he had only first met as a 15-year-old teen. Like others who did not have a great future in the city, they went to rural Canada often without their families.

    This group of workers at least in Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan would form a network of contacts that would last another 60 years and would supply workers, cooks and waiters and managers all the way to northern Canada.
    They were the working class of their generation, many whose dreams could only be fulfilled in small towns as more Chinese were allowed into the country, causing a glut of unemployed who had no real skills except waiting on tables. My father was one ofthose people ~ at 70, he would still travel as far north as Yellowknife to spell off workers. He kept a room in a run-down hotel even when not working to make sure he would not miss the next chance to replace someone.

    I am researching that history ~ the pipeline of workers from southern Alberta to the North.

    I would be happy to collaborate with either of you to find relatives of these pioneers and interview them for future historical purposes. I am not a historian, but an experienced writer. Of course, all original research would be credited and acknowledged.

    As part of the Community Historical Recognition Program, the Chinese Canadian National Council is expected to be funded for a book detailing the history of Chinese Canadians on the Prairies and I have been asked to do the research and writing. I would be happy to share some of the work and grant.

    Please contact me at for anything further.

    Thank you and all the best in your endeavours.

  7. Hi Gary,

    Thank you so much for your comments on my Small-Town SK Hotels blog. I would like to interview hotel owners, past and present, including Chinese owners or their descendants. If and when I make contacts with Chinese Canadians for such interviews, I will let you know. I would appreciate it very much if you could contact me as well, should you find someone with a hotel story to tell.

    Best of luck with your projects.

  8. Joan,
    As I am tracing my family tree, I stumbled across your article that paints a rosy picture of Gin Wong. Can I suggest that someone do a little more research as to how he came into ownership of the Tuxedo Hotel and Cafe within 5 years of arriving into Canada? If there are historical records of the ownership, the records should read that there were three owners. Due to the misfortune of one of his partners not having family here and took ill and passed on in the 40’s.. contributed to his fortune as he was entrusted with it. If more research is done to correct this information, I would look forward to seeing this posting as I am the granddaughter of one of the partners and his actions has cause my family some hardship.

  9. Thank you for your comments. The two sources I used for the Wong Gin story are "Faspa County; a Herbert Story" (2004) and the local history book, "Bittersweet Years: the Herbert Story" (1987 - see Both sources can be found on-line, and both do paint a "rosy" picture of Wong Gin. (This is how his name is recorded in the above sources. You are correct in calling him Gin Wong.) He was clearly very well respected in the community throughout the decades, despite whatever misdeed may have taken place during the early years.

    On p. 122 of "Bittersweet Years," it states that Wong Gin arrived in Herbert in 1912 or 1913. He bought the Tuxedo Cafe from Patrick Scoles and Jack McKeon, but the year this purchase was made is not given. Perhaps it was in 1918 -- the year of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Below is a quote from the book, p. 178:

    "Patrick and Mame Scoles who farmed south of Herbert helped neighbours very ill with the flu, by doing chores, caring for the sick... Mame Scoles tended to the needs of sick neighbours, and did not get sick herself until that winter when they returned to St. Paul. Once there, she became ill with influenza and died. Pat's sister, Susan Scoles, quite her job and took over her brother's household as well as caring for his four young children."

    Wong Gin was granted a license to operate the restaurant in the Herbert Hotel in 1918, and the Wong Brothers (?) were granted a similar license to operate a restaurant in the Tuxedo Cafe (also called the Tuxedo Cafe and Hotel). (p. 175)

    I haven't yet written an article for this blog on the hotels in Herbert. If and when I do, I would appreciate any information you can share with me. If you wish to correspond privately, please reply with your email address.

    Thanks again,

  10. Joan,

    Thank you very much for verifying the information on the Wong Brothers. I will send you an email in private if I am able to dig up any information to assist with your article.


  11. This thread is fascinating, especially since I am doing research on my grandfather who had owned/managed a series of nightclub-restaurants that featured prominent American artists such as Artie Shaw!

    Given the various mob/mafia connections within the speakeasy/nightclub industry, it led me to this website and its insightful observations of business people that not many people were/are notaware of.

    Given the tragic days of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States - along with similar laws in Canada - these success stories were/are truly remarkable then, as it is now.

    Given that Chinese immigrants that spoke Chinese/Cantonese/Toisan and English well, along with being successful business people in the American/Canadian landscape, being limited in numbers - one would think (hope) that they knew and/or worked together.

    Wouldn't it be a THOUGHT-PROVOKING historical story based on a society of successful Chinese immigrants who spoke English and Chinese.

    It would be PRICELESS!

  12. Side Note:
    For those interested for more information on the person mentioned in the previous post (Jun Bing Mar) and/or for future dialogue on how we can help each other - please visit the Facebook page located at!/profile.php?id=100002270363604&sk=wall

  13. "I haven't yet written an article for this blog on the hotels in Herbert. If and when I do, I would appreciate any information you can share with me. If you wish to correspond privately, please reply with your email address."

    Would welcome to interact on how the hotels in Herbert and interconnected with other Chinese immigrant known businesses inthe Northeast areas of the United States - like Jun Bing Mar's establishments.

  14. This was necessary, because from 1885 until well into the 20th century restrictive immigration laws prevented Chinese from bringing their wives and children to Canada.

    Hotel cabo frio

  15. The Gin family has been a integral part of the Herbert community for 4 generations, some still live and work there.

  16. Yes, as I mention above, "The Gin family has continued to be active and involved in the Herbert community ever since."

  17. Dear Ms. Champ:
    I was recently emailed about your blog. I was very surprised and pleased to see this article. My family is very proud of our Chinese heritage and equally admires our father, grandfather and great grandfather. We all consider ourselves Canadians of Chinese decent. My Grandfather was a role model and hero. As the oldest Gin Grandson of Wong Gin, I continue to view my Grandfather as one of the great entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan. His legacy as a fair, kind compassionate man lives on through his many offspring. In the photo post of the family, all the sons and daughter pictured are still alive, only the youngest daughter Dolly (not pictured) has passed away. Wong and Mae actual had 6 children not 5 as the article indicated. Wong also fostered another child Danny (Timmy) Thom who is retired journalist and lives in the USA.

    Even though I did not grow up knowing my grandfather, (I was 2 when he died) my grandmother shared many stories with me. Times were tough in rural Saskatchewan. My father (Sueloge Gin) was born in 1930, the second child (1st son) of Wong and Mae; and like most children growing up in the great depression they worked in the family business. Dad still tells us stories where he served in the beer parlor when Dad was under the legal age of consumption. Grandpa was chastised by the liquor commission and almost lost his license for that incident. Dad still lives in Herbert and continues to be one of the citizens who dedicates his time to serve others. For years he has taken care of young children often tying their skates and showing them how to pass the long winters enjoying skating, playing hockey and curling in the community sports arena. Dad will be 82 next January and loves his community.
    My Grandfather is still respected to this day we still hear stories about his legacy from the old timers. I love to hear these stories as they are part of our heritage. Although I am not much of a historian or genealogist my brothers David and Rory are fascinated with tracing our family roots. They have come across Grandpa’s naturalization papers of which I have a copy. We do not want to share them with the public as they are family keepsakes, but I can tell you he arrived in Canada at Victoria Sept 4, 1908, and his naturalization certificate is dated April 2, 1929. You are correct in stating his given name was Gin Hong Wong. When he immigrated to Canada his name was changed to Wong Hong Gin.

    Gin Wong also had a wife and family back in China, however I do not know much about that part of his history so I cannot comment too much here. If anyone has more information about my Grandfather or stories we would love to hear them. Grandpa was truly a lucky man – I prefer to believe his luck was though his ingenuity, passion and hard work.

    Yours sincerely
    Gordon E. Gin

  18. Gordon,

    Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog article. I am honoured that you have shared information about your family here. Everything I have read about your grandfather confirms that he was a well-respected man. How wonderful that your brothers are keen to trace your family history and genealogy.

    I will make the corrections to the errors that you have pointed out.

    This post about Chinese hotel owners in Saskatchewan is the most popular one on my blog. I attribute this to the fact that more and more Chinese Canadians (and Americans) are beginning to trace their family roots. My friend, Dr. John Jung, has written several books about his family, and I actually was instrumental in helping him locate some of his Saskatchewan cousins!

    Best wishes,


  19. Click on John Jung's name -- first in this list of Comments -- to find out more about his book, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants.

  20. Dear Ms. Champ

    I would like to add a comment to my brother's (Gordon Gin) response. My grandfather, Wong Gin, had a wife and young son in China, but he was unable to bring them to Canada. However, he continued to support them, and eventually brought his grandson Louie Wong to Canada. Louie and his family live in Vancouver.

    Along with his other attributes, these are characteristics of an honorable man and I too prefer to believe his success was due to intelligence, perseverance and hard work.

    Suelaine Gin

  21. Hi Suelaine,

    Thank you for your comments. Your grandfather was clearly a very interesting man. I'm glad you and your family have read my blog, even though none of what I have written is "new." All of the information about your grandfather that I have present here has already been published in the Herbert local history book, and on-line at - Faspa Country.

    Best wishes,

  22. I would like to contact you privately, my email address is

  23. I grew up in Herbert and being about the same age as some of the Gin boys, I spent many hours at their home and playing with them. Their playtime was restricted because they spent much of their time helping in the cafe. I have never met a more respectable and industrious family.
    A few years back, Herbert had a homecoming celebration. Several hundred past and present residents attended a program at the Sportsplex. At one point, the Master of Ceremonies spoke of the Gin families' commitment to the community over the years. At that, the entire audience rose to their feet and gave the family a standing ovation lasting several minutes. Everyone there had fond memories of the Gins and the cafe and were eager to thank them. Unfortunately no one from the family was present to see this- they were back at the cafe preparing the meal that they donated for the evening festivities. That's the kind of people they were.

    1. What a lovely tribute to the Gin family, both at the Herbert homecoming celebration, and the one you just wrote on my blog. I hope the members of the family who commented earlier will read this.

  24. My Dad (Sueloge) and I just read this comment by Anonymous posted June 13, 2013. It brought a smile to his eyes. He needed to hear that right now. Thank you so much for posting this lovely and respectful post.

  25. My heart goes out to you and your family at this difficult time.

  26. I just visited the Vancouver Public Library where I found my grandfather's C.1.9 papers that stated in 1908 he wanted to travel back to China from Herbert Town where he had resided for 2 years as a cook. What really surprised me was your blog on the Wong Gin family. My family name is Gin as well. I would like to learn more if possible.

  27. I was fascinated to learn about the Wong Gin family as I have just visited the Vancouver Library where I found my grandfather's C.1.9 certificate stating he was a resident of the Town returning back to China in 1908. His stated occupation was cook. Could I be related to these Gin's?

    1. Sorry it took me a few weeks to post your comment. Some members of the Saskatchewan Gin family have also commented on this article. Maybe you can connect with them somehow and find out if you are related. 😊