HONG KONG PLAZA
Builders: Duncan Beverage
WITH ELLEN WONG / MAH & JIM MAH (FORMER RESIDENTS and family business owners IN THE
+ Tell me about your family’s story and connection to the Flatiron Building.
Jim: I was born in 1960 and grew up in the Flatiron Building. My parents rented it. Dad was living there since 1958.
It wasn’t anything fancy… every one of the storefronts were all buildings that had a second floor. The kitchens were all in the back, with a room on the main floor and an interior stair in the rear that went upstairs to the second level. There were two rooms and also the washroom upstairs.
There were perhaps around 12 units.
There were initially a few businesses on the ground floor, but only later on. Upstairs were all residential. The basement used to have dirt floors. There also used to be a garden in the back of the Flatiron.
Our grandfather bought the building between 1952-1953 and later sold it around 1973-1974. Len Wong (Senior?) bought it and renovated it.
There were two fires that happened in the building.
Ellen grew up across the street (at 125 2nd Ave), next to where the Pentecostal church is, and is now a parking lot. It used to be a residential 1-story bungalow.
My dad came over when he was in his 20’s, sponsored by Grandpa… Mom was a mail-order bride. Their names were Gan Ton Mah (my father who owned the tofu shop in the Flatiron Building) and Ming Mah (my mom).
Suey Kee Mah was the name of our grandfather who owned the building.
My father’s bean cake shop was located at 132 Flatiron Building. My aunt lived upstairs. That was there for a long time.
My dad retired in 1973, and then it was sold to another family who was running the business. My dad was the only one in Calgary manually making bean cake (plain tofu). We didn’t have a car at the time, so he would take the bean cake in silver pails with water and drag them to Centre Street to Kin Sang [grocery store] and the other restaurants. They would sell it to the restaurants. If anyone wanted to come, they would come directly to the manufacturer where he made the bean cake.
+ Ellen, what about your father’s tofu shop at the Flatiron Building?
At one of the shops there, my father made the tofu, because my grandfather owned the building. We never had a refrigerator, so it was soaked in cold water and sold on the same day. They would ground beans, cook the beans in a big wok, pour the mix into a square mold made out of wood and put cheesecloth over and press it. They placed bricks on top to press it. It had to get mixed with gypsum. My mom would sometimes get up at 2AM to start the day and sometimes don’t get home until 8 or 9 PM. My dad would get up later (at 6 or 7AM) to help make the tofu and he would deliver the bean cake.
+ Do you know of any major renovations or changes to the building since it was first constructed?
In the late 1970s, Pak Kut was a restaurant that used to be in the old Flatiron Bldg at the end of the block. It encompassed 2-3 units after the renovation.
The first renovation of the Flatiron building happened in 1973. It was more of a maintenance-oriented renovation: the facade was fixed and the apartments upstairs were redone. The downstairs were converted to shops, with separate entrances to the apartments. The gardens disappeared after the renovations in the 1970s.
During the second renovation, they built the high-rise (today’s Hong Kong Plaza) afterward. We’re not sure if the Flatiron was demolished entirely.
+ What was it like growing up in Chinatown?
Jim: We did work as kids… Howard Mah (a farmer) used to bring in crates of onions and we as kids used to peel them and put them in bunches. That’s how we supplemented our income. After school at lunchtime, that was our job. We got like 10 cents per dozen.
Ellen: We were the only family with a TV in the early 1960s, so everyone came over to watch at our house. All of the kids came over to watch TV.
[About the house EM lived in, across the street from the Flatiron Building:]
There was one room in the front, one in the back, and a kitchen in the back with a living room. There was a covered porch, and stairs to the left. Upstairs was an attic.
+ What was the garden like?
There were lots of vegetables, fruit, weeds… At the time, lots of people had gardens.
There used to be a confectionary shop where Hing Wah Imports now is at the southern end of Hull’s Terrace. It was small, but it was the only confectionary shop in Chinatown from the 1930s. You walked through the back, and they had the living quarters and kitchen there. The bedrooms were upstairs where the Dofoo kids grew up. Paul’s dad had a flower garden in the back of the shop, with award-winning flowers.
Inside the shop, There was a small freezer with eggs and milk. In the front, there was glass with all kinds of candies, pop, potato chips, chocolate bars, everything… There were mostly Chinese patrons, local kids.
+ Where did the bad kids hang out?
Jim: Our playground included the Centre Street bridge. We’d catch pigeons and sell them to the old grandmas for food. Where Prince’s Island was, there used to be a lagoon. We used to run and catch tadpoles.