PARKING LOT ON THE SITE OF THE FORMER W.K. RESTAURANT BUILDING
Currently a parking lot, the previous building on the south side of the parcel was destroyed in a fire on January 25, 2010.
THE FORMER W.K. RESTAURANT BUILDING
THE W.K. RESTAURANT
1950s - 1960s
CHINATOWN INN BUILDING
WITH DOUG WONG (FAMILY OWNERS OF THE W.K. RESTAURANT)
+ Tell me your story — what’s your connection to Chinatown? How long have you been in Chinatown?
I was born in Calgary at the General Hospital on September 11,1952 and grew up in Chinatown. I have lived in Calgary all my life. My father’s name was Woon Ming Wong and my mother’s name was Shu King Yee. I have 5 sisters… Mabel and Karen are older than I am and Carol, Esther, Joy are younger. The youngest sibling is my brother Peter.
I went to the James Short elementary school, which is now a city parkade. The only thing that remains of the original sandstone building is the cupola which has been placed on the corner of Centre Street and 5th Avenue SW. It’s ironic that the school was located across the street from Chinatown because James Short was a school principal and lawyer that helped the Anti-Chinese League. Their goal was to stop Chinese Canadians from establishing the Chinatown that still stands today.
Another interesting note is that James Short lived at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street SW which is now the location of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. In light of the rise in anti-Asian racism, there has been a proposal at City Council to rename the parkade and the park where the cupola sits.
When I was a teenager, I started to work part time at the W.K. Chop Suey House, a restaurant started by my parents and grandparents. My mom’s older brother Harry worked at a place called Southern Music and his job was to service the jukebox in the restaurant and change the records from time to time. He used to give me the old 45’s and also gave me my first record player so I could listen to the Beatles and Elvis, etc and that’s how I got interested in music.
When I was in high school, I produced a record with local bands using my dad’s Sony reel to reel recorder on which he listened to recordings of Chinese opera. A TV news reporter helped us promote the record by doing a story on us and he later became the Premier of Alberta: Ralph Klein. As a result of the record, I ended up being a booking agent, manager and ran a couple of record labels for a local studio. Eventually, I built my own studio with Nigel Blagborne who was a musician and recording engineer. In 1986, we had our first gold record with a popular country artist named Ian Tyson. He was a Juno Award winner and recorded more albums with us yielding our first platinum album. This led to us working with other successful artists such as Feist, Jann Arden, Paul Brandt, Tegan and Sara, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman (of the Guess Who), etc. Because of my interest in music, I did not follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather with the W.K.
+ Tell me about the W.K. Restaurant.
The W.K. Chop Suey House was originally located at 209 Centre Street South. We lived in a fourplex next door, so it was very convenient for my parents to go to work (as well as for me when I worked there as a waiter during my teenage years). It has since burned down and is now a parking lot for the building next door, where our home used to be located.
We shared the fourplex with the Poon family (they lived in 211 and 213 and we lived in 215 and 217). Just south of us was Linda Mae’s, which was owned by the Poon family. The main floor was a coffee shop and there was a dining room on the second floor called the Lotus Garden. Next to the coffee shop was a gift shop. One notable person who worked at Linda Mae’s was Normie Kwong, the veteran CFL football player nicknamed “The China Clipper”. He played for the Calgary Stampeders and then for the Edmonton Eskimos (now the Edmonton Elks). Normie was the first Chinese Canadian to play on a professional Canadian football team and he later became the 16th Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.
Like Linda Mae’s, The W.K. had two floors of dining. There was a main floor dining area as well as a larger dining room on the second floor, which opened at 4PM for supper and late night dining.
At the W.K., the smaller dining area on the main floor was open for lunch at 11AM and closed in the evenings when the second floor dining room was open.
Leading into the main floor dining area, there was a gray vinyl folding door that was slightly angled and had a magnetic clip. On the left side of the room were three booths and on the right, there were two – each booth could seat 4 people. There were chrome rods attached to the side of the seats between the booths and the rods had coat hooks on them. They looked a bit like this (right), though our benches were dark green and the coat hangers were chrome:
Moving further into the restaurant towards the kitchen, there were two round tables; one on the left and one on the right. They were dark brown and could seat six people easily. This is where we would sit and do some food prep such as shredding chicken by hand for the Chicken Chop Suey or removing the stems and “strings” from snow peas. My mom would also use the tables for her materials to make artificial flowers which were sometimes sold as corsages. We would also have family dinners at these tables so there were many uses for them.
Next to the table on the right side, there was a counter for the cash register and also some shelving behind it for cigarettes and gum for sale. We used the area under the counter to store aprons for the cooks and extra jackets for the waiters. They were all made of a sturdy white cotton material, similar to this (left) in style…
Under the stairs, my father had a tiny office that could barely fit two people. It was lit with an incandescent light. The dining area was lit with fluorescent fixtures and there was a heating grate adjacent to the middle booth on the left. The heat rose from a cast iron stove located in the basement and we used to stand on the grate on cold days to take off the chill when coming home from school on a winter’s day. In the summer, there was no air conditioning on the main floor so we had an electric fan mounted on the ceiling to cool things off. As far as I can recall the second floor was “air conditioned for your comfort”, as the ads used to say.
Heading towards the kitchen, there was a counter and some shelves where water glasses, plates and utensils were stored. On the right side was the entrance to the kitchen and an area where there was a small porcelain sink and a table with a large metal dispenser for hot water. We always served a pot of jasmine tea with a meal and our non-Asian customers seemed to like a side plate of sesame seeds and another plate for soy sauce. They would dip their forks in the soy sauce and then into the seeds, so they would stick to the fork and make them easier to eat.
I remember going with him on some of the buying trips. We stayed at a Hotel Balmoral in Vancouver which seemed quite luxurious to me as a kid (it’s now run down and in skid row). The neon sign outside reminded me of a seahorse because of its shape.
One thing I didn’t like was being awakened early so that we could go to a restaurant for Dim Sum at 6AM! There wasn’t much of a selection but they had the favorites like Sui Mai and Har Gow and my dad loved it so much he eventually hired a dim sum chef and introduced it to Calgary. This happened when The W.K. moved from the west side of Centre Street at 209 to 210 on the east side, replacing the New China restaurant in 1971.
The original W.K. catered to Caucasian customers with dishes such as sweet and sour spareribs, chicken fried rice, egg foo young, etc. After the move, the menu expanded to serve Chinese customers too. According to my sister, Esther (who used to help make the dim sum), Peking Duck was introduced to Calgary as well as steamed minced pork, chicken and Chinese mushrooms and different types of noodle dishes.
Dim sum was so successful that many other restaurants eventually followed suit. An interesting side story is that I met a fellow by the name of Marc Okrand on April 22, 2016 at a spoken word event.
He was the keynote speaker because he developed the Klingon language for Star Trek (yes– it’s a real language)! After the event, we went for dim sum at the ‘U & Me’ restaurant in Chinatown. As it turned out, we were seated in the section where my old bedroom was when I lived in the fourplex!
Back to the original W.K… as far as I can recall, the building was brick and there was a stainless steel door at the entrance with a window in the top half. There were two stainless steel push bars mounted on a 45-degree angle on the door and the door handle was also metal with a push button.
On either side of the entrance were glass blocks. The corners were curved and inside were neon tubes which lit up at night to complement the neon sign overhead. There were several versions of the sign, but the one I remember most had many neon tubes spaced a few inches apart that blinked like chaser lights. The colors were assorted and it looked like something out of Las Vegas (although I didn’t know about Las Vegas at the time).
The floors were linoleum for easy clean up (I mopped them many times) and the steps had ridged metal corners. The lights were fluorescent but I also recall some long neon tubes that were mounted to the ceiling in the aisles between the booths on the second floor. However, I’m not sure if that was the original W.K. or the new one when we moved across the street to 210 Centre. There were red posts that supported the roof – one of which is visible in the photo below.
There was a jukebox from Southern Music located next to the washrooms, which were at the rear of the building. There were two Seeburg wall-mounted boxes on the walls facing Centre Street as well as one on the main floor next to the entrance. The upstairs area was divided into two sections because it encompassed the second floor of 207. The main floor of 207 was used for a Chinese association meeting area and reading room. They had Chinese newspapers and magazines that members could access.
Entering the restaurant from Centre Street, there was a vestibule so patrons had to turn right and go through a second door. The stairs were double wide, leading up to a landing about four feet high from ground level. Then you had to turn left to walk up the remaining stairs to get to the second floor. At the top, there was a walkway space of about four feet with a divider on the right and an L-shaped counter in front.
The counter was made of wood, with a glass vetrine to showcase items for sale, such as “oriental” souvenirs and artificial flowers that my mom made by hand. On the right side of the counter was the cash register where customers paid before leaving. There was a glass shelving unit behind the counter that also contained cigarettes and gum for sale. Here is a photo my sister Mabel found of my mom behind the counter in August 1965 at age 36.
The archway that’s barely visible behind the glass case led to a small private dining room that had 2 tables and could seat about a dozen people. On the left side were the washrooms and jukebox and beyond that was the waiter’s station where there were utensils, plates, water pitchers, glasses and a large stainless steel container for hot water. In the back, there was a pop cooler and a receiving area for the food that arrived from the kitchen below via a hand-pulled dumbwaiter.
Sometimes, it was so overloaded with dishes that it took 2 of us to hold the rope downstairs so the dumbwaiter wouldn’t fall back down due to the weight. We’d be yelling up through the shaft for the waiters to unload it quickly. Next to the dumbwaiter downstairs was a large metal stove used for pots to cook rice or boil soup. To the right of that were 3 woks that were gas fired. I remember that the gas pipe used to run the length of the stove and woks and that the pipe sat a few inches above the concrete floor. Sometimes the cooks would rest one foot on the pipe as they stood to cook the food. Between the woks were cookie sheets that held porcelain bowls with salt, sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, MSG, etc. I don’t recall much pepper being used. There were teaspoons in the bowls so the cooks could quickly spoon out the condiments as needed while cooking.
It was a marvel to watch them work as they never seemed to measure anything! They’d just toss stuff in the wok and spoon out what they needed in rapid fashion. The woks sat on a stainless steel platform and directly behind them was a recessed channel that was angled for water to drain. The back walls were stainless steel and so was the hood above with ventilation fans. Between the woks were a couple of water faucets that were a foot long and swiveled so they could wash out the woks by turning on the faucets directly over the center of the wok. They used bamboo brushes to brush the water out so that it hit the back wall and fell into the drainage trough.
Next to that was a smaller gas stove with 2 spots: one for a large aluminum pot that always had boiling water for the vegetables and the second for a rice steamer that also ran constantly. The rice was cooked in pots on the big stove and then spooned out into the steamer for use throughout the day. Opposite this stove was the entrance to the main floor dining area I mentioned earlier.
Next to the stove were the wooden butcher blocks for cutting the meat and beyond that were the refrigerators. There was a walk-in cooler in the basement of 207 Centre Street. Opposite the butcher blocks were the stainless steel sinks for washing dishes. The sinks were also gas-heated to keep the water hot for washing and rinsing. On either side of the sinks were platforms. The left side was where the dirty dishes were placed before washing and the right side was where the clean dishes were placed to dry.
There was also a prep table opposite the woks where the cooked dishes were placed for final finishing touches (e.g. adding dried noodle to the top of chicken chop suey) before serving downstairs or placing into the dumbwaiter for upstairs. I also remember the toasted rice from the pots (after the cooked rice was spooned out) being placed into the empty rice sacks so they could be taken to the families that lived on Second Avenue SE because they kept chicken coops. They would add water to the toasted rice and use it to feed the chickens.
A vivid memory for me was being asked to bring one of these sacks over to a house on Second Avenue SW that our family owned. My maternal grandmother lived there and she used to add hot water to the toasted rice and eat it. Because I was curious, she gave some to me to try and I guess that’s why I still like it today. We cook rice in a pot, instead of using a rice cooker, just so I can toast it and add hot water to the bottom. The flavor is similar to Japanese Genmaicha.
+ When did The W.K. move across the street from this original building?
The W.K. moved over to the Canton Block in 1971 and took over the New China restaurant space under an arrangement with Mr. Poon after my father lost his lease on the original location. My sister has found the original lease dated July 29, 1971. There is a caveat on title that was discharged on March 12, 1974 when my father bought the property. The old W.K. then became The House of Chan and then later Bobby Chao’s Peking House. The building eventually burned down on January 25, 2010 and is now a parking lot.
When The W.K. stopped operating at the new location due to my father’s eye problems (he was one of Dr. Howard Gimbel’s early patients for cataract surgery — since then, Dr. Gimbel has become a leading ophthalmologist and a pioneer in his field) the restaurant was taken over by Ho Won.
After the operations, my father had to wear thick glasses because they didn’t have the technology to replace the lenses in his eyes with artificial ones like they do today. This made it difficult for him to cook when his glasses would steam up, which must have been a frustrating experience.
One of my vivid memories is of my dad inviting Dr. Gimbel and his family for dinner at the restaurant in gratitude for the successful operations. They sat at the large table next to the windows that faced Centre Street. Because of the stairwell, the other booths seated 4 but the large table was at the end beyond the opening where the stairs descended to the main floor. The reason I remember the dinner is because Dr. Gimbel requested a vegetarian meal and my dad had never had to make one before. He made sure to cook with peanut oil and had fresh vegetables, tofu, etc. for his honored guests. The oyster sauce was out, of course!
My brother-in-law, Hon ended up running the Mayflower restaurant a few doors to the north of The W.K. after it closed around 1976. He later started Hon’s Video when VHS rentals were becoming popular and moved to the main floor of 210. That business later became Jade Video, then House of Video and eventually Hon Sing CD when they took over the restaurant space upstairs as Ho Wan moved around the corner to 2nd Avenue SE. The current occupant of the space is Calgary Harmony Arts.
+ How did you help out at the restaurant?
I was a busboy and a waiter. When I got a driver’s license, I became a delivery driver as well. Delivery was free back in those days with a minimum order and I enjoyed driving around the city at night because I could listen to the radio. However, it was not without its risks! One time, someone called in a big order from Bowness. It was far away from Chinatown but the order was so big, it was determined that it was worth it to drive that distance even though it was beyond our normal delivery area.
Then a few minutes later another call came in for a smaller order below the minimum charge. However, we agreed to deliver it since the location just “happened” to be on the way to the big order. I was instructed to go around to the back door to deliver the small order. Because drivers weren’t in the habit of locking our cars (especially in the winter when it was a good idea to keep the car running and warm) someone stole the big food order as soon as I was out of sight! It was a set up so I learned to be more careful after that!
At the restaurant, sometimes people would “dine and dash”. It was country boys who did it after a night of drinking at the bar. They would sit at the table closest to the stairwell for a quick escape. After the meal, they would all leave except for one person who hung on to the bill, making it look like he was going to pay. There would be a car outside, running, with the door open…
We knew the setup from experience. What really frosted me was the fact that they would order way more food than they could eat (never intending to pay for it) and then pour salt on the untouched dishes assuming we would reuse the food, which we didn’t – adding insult to injury!
Back then, before the building code changed, the doors opened inward. On one such occasion, I was at the cash register when the last guy came up to “pay”. Then he suddenly turned and ran down the stairs. By coincidence, my cousin Jimmy came out of the kitchen with a large bowl of soup in his hand. He saw the guy running and threw it at the back of his head and then managed to catch him at the bottom of the stairs when the guy tried to push on the doors instead of pull.
In those days, there was a “social club” on the main floor called King Fat where restaurant staff would gather when they were off work to gamble and socialize in general. There was a buzzer to notify people if there was any trouble so I pushed the button. A swarm of people came out, saw what was going on and proceeded to pull the culprits out of the car and beat the crap out of them. The funny thing is that, the next day, one of the guys came back (after sobering up) looking for his jacket. One arm was in a sling, he had a black eye and a missing tooth!
+ Why was it called The W.K.?
“Wah Kue” was what they used to call the people [in Cantonese] who came to the “Golden Mountain”, the Chinese people who immigrated to Canada. I’m not sure if it was my father or grandfather who named this restaurant but there are W.K. restaurants all over North America – all independently owned, of course.
+ How long was the old W.K. there?
As far as I know, my parents already had the restaurant before I was born. My grandfather arrived in Victoria, BC on April 24, 1900 and became a Canadian citizen on February 5, 1949. He worked in Vernon, BC before moving to Calgary. According to his obituary in the Calgary Herald, he moved from BC to Southern Alberta in 1917 and operated restaurants for 10 years before settling in Calgary in 1927. I don’t know what year dad came to Canada but I do know that he went back to China to bring my mom here. They arrived in Calgary in 1952 shortly before I was born in September of that year.
+ Do you know of any major renovations or changes to the building since it was first constructed?
Really it was just the exterior signage… At the old W.K., we updated the sign — back then they used a lot of neon. As described previously, the entrance of the old W.K. had columns; glass blocks with neon inside, chrome bars on the stainless steel door and chaser lights underneath the sign. It was like a mini Las Vegas for kids. Now it looks like Back to the Future – Part II — it’s not very inviting; it’s dark. Back in the day, when all the signs were lit up, it looked like the Las Vegas strip. It was beautiful.
The sign in the background of these photos (below) is circa 1958.
I recall dad meeting with a fellow from Neon Signs and saw a drawing of the new sign. Just the top of the sign was replaced and it had a rotating W.K. in the middle which attracted more attention. The lower section with the neon chaser lights remained the same. Sadly, only the top was moved over to the East side of Centre Street when the restaurant relocated in 1971. A fluorescent sign was added on the face of the building at that time.
+ Tell me about life in the restaurant at the old W.K.
We usually had breakfast at home and then lunch and supper at the restaurant. Since our parents were working there and The W.K. opened at 11AM, it was more convenient for them to cook our meals there, especially since the kitchen was much bigger. Sometimes we would help with chores, provided the schoolwork was done. We had a large family (7 kids) and one observation I made was that when business was slow, the family was always fed because we could eat the food we didn’t sell. I imagine that’s the same reason why some families open grocery stores. Pretty tough to do if you’re an accountant, so I think my parents were being very practical with their choice of occupation.
+ What kind of food was served at the old W.K.?
I’ve written about the food previously but I didn’t mention that sometimes customers would ask for “cold tea” which was code for a teapot full of beer! Long before restaurants were licensed it was common to bootleg. Many taxicabs had mickeys of Rye Whiskey and Lamb’s Navy Rum in their trunks to sell to their passengers. It was long before the concept of “dial-a-bottle” so, while some say they were criminals, I prefer to think of them as pioneers!
The W.K. Chop Suey house menu. Images courtesy of the Wong family.
+ Who came to the restaurant?
Because it was a Chop Suey House, there were mostly non-Chinese folks (except during banquets). There were some interesting characters around in those days. One of them was a wrestler by the name of Sweet Daddy Siki aka Mr. Irresistible! The first time he came into The W.K., I had to do a double take! In those years, the black population in Calgary wasn’t very big so we rarely had black customers, but to see a black man with a blonde afro was something else! Other wrestlers came down for Chinese food but he really stood out (as he intended, I’m sure).
Although he wasn’t a wrestler, Ed Whalen (who coined the phrase “ring a ding dong dandy”) was a wrestling celebrity as well and a highly regarded announcer for the Stampede Wrestling matches. He was also a Sinatra-style Jazz singer and many years later, when I was in the music business, I helped to produce a CD of him singing some standards to raise funds for charity so there was a dual connection: The W.K. and music!
Not all customers were the paying type (excluding the dine-and-dashers). One fellow who was a regular was called “Chicken Neck”. He was an alcoholic who looked like W.C. Fields. From time to time, he would knock on the back door of the restaurant where the kitchen was located. You could smell the alcohol on his breath and his clothes didn’t smell that great either. Yet, the staff would give him a bowl of chicken necks left over from the chicken carcasses used to make soup broth. There wasn’t much meat on the bones but there was a little on the necks and that’s what he ate for food. Some people asked for pop bottles but he was happy with chicken necks!
HISTORIC BUILDING PHOTOGRAPHS
CHINATOWN INN / W.K. RESTAURANT
“Chinatown Inn Restaurant, opened in the 50s.” Before the W.K. restaurant, the building was occupied as the Chinatown Inn. Photograph taken at the Chinese Cultural Centre museum.
In 1971, the W.K. moved to the Canton Block on the other side of Centre Street. Photograph courtesy of the Wong family.
Carol Poon in front of their home, 1962. The WK Chop Suey house in its original location can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy of Carol Poon & the Poon family.
CURRENT DAY SITE PHOTOGRAPH
OF THE FORMER FOOTPRINT OF THE W.K. RESTAURANT BUILDING
After The W.K. Restaurant moved across the street to the Canton Block in 1971, this building continued to operate as a restaurant, first as The House of Chan, and then later as Bobby Chao’s Peking House. On January 25, 2010, the building burned down. Today, the restaurant’s old footprint is used as a parking lot. Photograph taken in 2020.