The New China Restaurant, in the center of the block, was purchased by C.H. Poon in 1945.
Architect: J.B. Henderson
Builder: McDougall and Forester
Architect: J.B. Henderson
Builder: McDougall and Forester
Siu Yee Ho (Building Owner of 210 / 212 Centre St) & Carol Tsang (Calgary Harmony Arts Treasurer)
+ What’s your connection to the Canton Block?
Sui Yee: I’ve owned 210 Centre Street in the Canton Block since 2004, and I rented the top floor of 202 Centre St in Canton Block between 1987ish – 2004. Calgary Harmony Arts was registered in 1991.
Before the 1960s… my husband’s grandfather owned two of the units in the Canton Block. The family then sold the units.
In 2004 Siu Ying bought back these building units (210 / 212 Centre) from Doug Wong’s mom. [The restaurant] Ho Won was willing to pay Doug Wong’s mother $490,000 for the building units, and the pharmacy owner wanted to pay even more, but Mrs. Wong refused to sell the place to them. She gave it to me at a cheaper price. She’s been important, like a mentor to me. She charged no interest on the payment — Mrs. Wong just asked me to pay back later on.
+ Why did you decide to buy back the building?
The previous owner was Mrs. Wong (Doug Wong’s sister, Carol) & Hon Louie (her husband, who knew my husband from a long time ago. My husband and her husband used to rent two units downstairs for Silver Video (1987-1992). Then because laser discs came out and the discs were expensive to buy, costs were too high. The business was sold to Video & Sound, which left after a couple of years.
View of the Canton Block, 2020.
+ What’s the current-day situation with your units in the Canton Block?
Today, Calgary Harmony Arts is a non-profit org that occupies two units on the top floor, and we put on different shows of Cantonese opera. We’re open to the public to anyone who wants to join.
I rent out the ground floor units of 210 and 212, which are today the hair salon and the massage parlor.
+ What’s your story? How long have you been in Chinatown? What was Chinatown like then?
I moved to Calgary from Hong Kong in 1966.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinatown was very quiet. It was a very small community and everyone knew everyone. Everyone was very nice. You had to speak Toishanese to get around in Chinatown at the time.
It was really cheap. Houses were really cheap, like $16,000. However, there was little access to fresh food: snow peas came from Vancouver and the seafood was all frozen.
I remember that Doug Wong’s mom owned the first car.
Perhaps nearly 20 years ago, [the Chinese grocery store] Kin Sang (in the taller unit in the Canton Block.) closed down… but the unit is still owned by Mrs. Wong (not Doug’s family; another Mrs. Wong). Currently it’s used as storage for the Noypi meat shop and is connected to the Noypi storefront.
+ Do you know of any major renovations or changes to the building since it was first constructed?
This unit was a restaurant (Ho Won Restaurant) before. Three units — 210 / 212 / 214 — used to be Ho Won. When we moved in, we removed most of the commercial kitchen in what is now our kitchenette. We put up an interior wall to make the orchestra area.
This block is protected by the government, so you can’t build above, and can only renovate the interior.
WITH SU YING STRANG (DIRECTOR OF THE NEW GALLERY AT 208 CENTRE ST )
+ What’s your story? How long have you been involved in Chinatown and how long has The New Gallery been located in the Canton Block?
My name is Su Ying Strang, and I’m the Director of The New Gallery, a charitable artist-run centre that has been sharing art and supporting artists across Mohkinstsis/Calgary since 1975. In the summer of 2013, The New Gallery relocated our Main Space from Art Central (now Telus Sky) to a storefront in the Canton Block, unit 208. I was excited that the gallery would be located next door to one of my favorite Chinese BBQ restaurants, Gee Gong. Unfortunately, during our lease negotiations, the devastating Flood of 2013 happened, and many small businesses in Calgary Chinatown, Gee Gong included, closed. In 2019, we also relocated our Resource Centre—a combined library, archive, and community space—to the second level of our unit in the Canton Block, directly above the Main Space. Although COVID-19 has delayed access to the Resource Centre, we plan for this site to be a place that community members from Calgary Chinatown can gather and connect.
+ What do you know about the building owner and the previous tenants in this space?
The Canton Block has had several different owners across the different units. The units we occupy are rented from the Poon family, who have owned these units for 3+ decades. We are currently gathering information about past tenants, but we know there was a bookstore in the storefront for around 25 years. Our previous neighbors on the second level had an informal social club, which we are told was there for 10 to 15 years.
+ What was this unit like when you moved in? What interior renovations did the space undergo?
As a result of the Flood of 2013, the landlord’s insurance company hired contractors who gutted the storefront and basement right before we took possession of the space. They installed tile flooring and new plywood risers in the basement. Prior to this, the basement had been filled with contents and ephemera from tenants past. Much of it appeared to be books and VHS, but we were unable to go through this material as it was all disposed of after the flood. When we moved into the upstairs unit, it was filled with old furniture, including couches, chairs, card tables, small household appliances, and decorations from the past tenant. From 2018-2019, we renovated the interior of both suites and the facade thanks to generous support from The Calgary Foundation, Alberta Culture, and the Rozsa Foundation. The Main Space renovations included framing out and installing plywood-backed drywall, finishing the ceilings, creating a wheelchair accessible entrance and washroom with new fixtures, installing new flooring, installing a window seat and a reception desk, and upgrading electrical and lighting. In the Resource Centre, renovations were much more minimal, including adding LED light panels, new vinyl flooring, creating storage space, and upgrading bathroom fixtures.
In 2019, The New Gallery worked with the Calgary Chinese Community Service Association and Chinatown District BIA to select artist Alex Kwong to transform the backside of The New Gallery’s Resource Centre with his mural, “The Way.” The Calgary Chinese Community Service Association also asked us to collaborate on the recreation of the “Hands of the Community” mural, also on the backside of The New Gallery. The first rendition of this mural was created in 2009 at the annual Calgary Chinatown Street Festival, and it was the first mural in Chinatown—we were honored to support recreating this community visual.
In 2020, The New Gallery replaced the mismatched and missing cladding on the front of the building. We also had The New Gallery’s first billboard space fabricated and installed. This new programming site, named Billboard 208, is located on the facade of The New Gallery’s Main Space. The namesake came from the format itself, using the aesthetics and functionality of billboards, our unit number, and the sign’s dimension, 208″ wide. This project was created to share art accessibly with a wide audience, including commuters, visitors, and residents of Calgary Chinatown.
+ How does The New Gallery connect to greater Calgary Chinatown?
The New Gallery loves connecting with and being a part of the community of Calgary Chinatown. Our team works hard to make our programming accessible through translation and interpreting. We also develop community-specific programs with some of our incredible partner organizations such as the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizens’ Association, the Calgary Chinese Community Service Association, and Clover Living. Some recent highlights of collaborations include: partnering with I Love YYC Chinatown to collaborate on Lemon Chicken Association, a publication resulting from a multigenerational writing project about Calgary Chinatown; and co-producing a lantern workshop with Tony Wong for artists to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival with the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre.
Perhaps my favorite way to connect with Calgary Chinatown is to participate in local events and celebrations, and encourage our team and broader arts community to learn about and support these events as well! Lunar New Year is always an incredible time in the community, and other annual events, such as the community clean-up and the summer street festival are a great way to get to know our neighbors and participate in the community.
+ How have you interacted with your neighbors in the Canton Block?
Many of our non-profit neighbors in Calgary Chinatown are our long-term partners, and we’re grateful for their ongoing support and collaboration. We also have many neighbors operating businesses that offer unique or core services, such as Hing Wah’s post office and gift shop. I’ve been going to Hing Wah since I was an art student for supplies such as brushes and ink. You can also get dishes, small appliances, dried foods and herbs, newspapers and more there, all while mailing your letters! We often don’t need to walk more than a block to find a neighboring shop to pick up supplies or nourishment! The New Gallery’s staff and artists love to frequent neighbors like Muze Coffeehouse to get our caffeine fix (I’m currently hooked on the milk tea and coffee blend!), or Try Again Beverage House to grab an afternoon bubble tea (fantastic homemade pearls!). Each time we open a new exhibition, we like to celebrate with the artists by sharing a meal together—more often than not this is at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, Great Taste.
There are too many favorites to list there, but I’m particularly fond of the house special XLB (soup dumplings!) and pork belly with preserved vegetables. There’s also all the familiar faces of neighborhood residents! I try to be respectful and greet elders who I see daily. Even when we don’t know one another well, it’s always nice to recognize so many people in the community and say hello!
+ How long have you been involved in Calgary Chinatown and what are your impressions of it? How have you seen Calgary Chinatown change over the last years?
I first started visiting Calgary Chinatown right after I moved to Mohkinstsis / Calgary in 2006. I was looking for something familiar—such as groceries or Chinese BBQ—to connect me to my family after landing in a new place by myself. I began frequenting the neighborhood, most often the Chinese bakeries. Jing Jing’s, where Muze Coffeehouse is now located, was my favorite, with their iconic neon and incredible egg tarts and char siu bao. I recall seeing pigs being moved and butchered in the alleyway right behind the gallery, never imagining that I’d one day be walking through that alleyway daily. My interactions during those first few years were definitely as a tourist, an outsider who only accessed and knew the surface of the community. That all changed once The New Gallery moved into Calgary Chinatown and I began spending the majority of my waking hours there. My initial impression was that it was someplace special, that had an air of familiarity while also being wholly unique. That feeling stays with me today.
Calgary Chinatown seemed to begin a significant shift after the Flood of 2013. There were a few years that followed the disaster where there were several empty storefronts. It was a difficult crisis to bounce back from for so many across the region. Over the past few years I’ve noticed an uptick in new businesses started by youth. I’ve also seen much more youth involved in the community in Calgary Chinatown, which has been really exciting and I feel this has created an access point to the community for newcomers to the neighborhood like myself.
with Ed Tam (Advisor to the HK Chinese Immigrant Association of Calgary)
+ Tell me about your involvement with the HK Chinese Immigrant Association of Calgary.
How long the association has been located in the Canton Block?
I have been their advisor since 2006. The association moved into the Canton Block in 2007 and just moved out in April 2021.
+ Many community members have reminisced about the Kin Sang Market. I know you mentioned this market in our conversation last winter. Can you tell me more about how Kin Sang Market was important for the Chinatown community? When was it open and when did it close down?
Kin Sang Market was the first grocery store in Chinatown. It may be fair to say it is the first one in Calgary that carried a good supply of Chinese-style groceries. Then, it had an herbal supply with a Chinese physician by the name of Len Wong. He is alive, and is mid-90 years of age. IT also had the first BBQ place open, which brought traditional BBQ style to Calgary. I remembered the Alberta Health regulations did not cover nor handle the small shop within Kin Sang, causing lots of debate and arguments. The Kin Sang location has changed names and is currently leased to a meat processing shop that caters to local residents. The famous Silver Dragon Restaurant and Kin Sang are in the same building, with one owner for over 50 to 60 years. The opening and closing of Kin Sang was approximately between the 1970s to 1990s. It requires a chat with the owner, Ben Wong.
+ How have you seen the building transform over the decades?
The outside look of the building has not changed much over its 110 years of existence. However, businesses and property owners have changed a lot. All of the restaurants in the Canton Block could not survive the economic ups and downs, especially after the major flood in 2013, which damaged the entire Canton Block basements. The Block has had numerous ownerships but never formed a condominium corporation to look after the block. There were difficulties to coordinate any major renovation of the block.
+ Is there any interesting building history to share about the Canton Block and the different restaurants, associations and businesses that have been tenants and owners?
Before the flood, the front bricks fell off and no one took responsibility. The City had to build scaffolding for safety purposes and coordinated the owners for the repair and replacement. It was big news in Chinatown.
While the business storefronts and signage elements have changed time and time again, the red brick structure of the Canton Block has remained relatively unchanged.
Photograph captions (from left to right):
1.) Canton Block, circa 1910-1911. Courtesy of the City of Calgary Corporate Records Archives.
2.) Canton Block in 1967. Silver Dragon and The New China restaurant were prominent landmarks in the building. Photograph courtesy of Alison Jackson and the Glenbow Archives.
3.) & 4.) Allen GH Poon at the cashier, by the curios cabinet at The New China, 1963. Photograph courtesy of Carol Poon & the Poon family.
5.) Allen GH Poon in the New China restaurant in the Canton Block, 1955. Photo courtesy of Carol Poon & the Poon family.
6.) The Canton Block in the 1980s. Photograph courtesy of Doug Wong and the Wong family.
CURRENT DAY BUILDING PHOTOGRAPHS
Photographs taken in 2019 – 2020.
Find more information on the Canton Block and the Canton Block Extension on The City of Calgary’s Historic Resources site.