By Alex P., Research & Publications Assistant
The month of May marks the start of Asian History Month, a time to celebrate and recognise the significant contributions that Canadians of Asian heritage have made and continue to make to the growth and prosperity of Canada. As early 1898, there have been Chinese-Canadians choosing to live in Oshawa to operate successful laundries and restaurants. Despite discrimination and anti-Chinese legislation, these early Chinese families called Oshawa home.
One family in particular was the Chow family, who operated popular restaurants Chow’s Restaurant and House of Chow. This past fall I was given a family history by Gordon Chow, the grandson of George S. Chow who first came to Oshawa in 1926, taking over the management of the Central Café. It was located on King Street just west of Simcoe, below the hotel of the same name. Its chief competition was the Globe Café, a few blocks east.
George had first arrived in Canada sometime in the early 20th century, working in restaurants in Alberta before travelling east to open a restaurant with a partner in Napanee. George’s grandson, Gordon Chow, recalls of stories where they would play Mahjong in the upstairs room, often joined by the Chief of Police.
After some lean years, in 1926, George decided to move a little west to Oshawa to take over the management of the Central Café on King Street. Its proximity to Toronto made it ideal to gain access for restaurant supplies and fresh foods.
George returned to Oshawa and continued to work at the Central Café, sending money back to China to support his wife and son. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, they could not join George in Canada, and he himself was only allowed to leave Canada for up to two years before being barred himself.
When Japan invaded China in 1937, starting the second Sino-Japanese War, this separation would have been more strained, particularly as the conflict became a part of the much bigger Second World War. Many Chinese perished due to the conflict in Eastern China, but many more died from starvation. George and many other Chinese living in Oshawa banded together as all other Canadians did, to raise money to support the war effort. In the photo below, featured in a GM’s War Craftsman magazine, George is standing in the centre back row.
Fortunately, George did reunite with his wife and son, Roger, in 1949, after Chinese exclusion was lifted to allow families to come to Canada.
After the war, George decided to open a new restaurant of his own, partnering with Harry Chow. It was called Chow’s Restaurant and located at 19 King Street West. This location was once Kwan’s Restaurants, operated by Alice Kwan who decided to retire and move to Toronto. The restaurant did well and George became the sole proprietor after Harry decided to sell his shares to him. The business was eventually passed on to Roger in the late 50s and renamed it House of Chow.
Roger and his wife went on to have five children. However, due to the long hours at the restaurant, some of the children often lived with their grandparents, until the family was able to buy a house. Gordon recalled the restaurant had become a popular hang-out spot for local teenagers.
Roger was also a large supporter of the local police, making appearances at any police functions and the charitable police hockey tournament for more than 30 years. He would often provide meals for police association events. When Roger passed away the police provided an honour guard and pall-bearers during the funeral, as the only civilian non-police honorary member of the Durham Regional Police Association. Roger was also an honorary member of the Canadian Corps, and member of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Gordon and his siblings went into the restaurant business themselves, despite their parents wishes for them to otherwise. They opened the Jade Garden in Oshawa and it did so well they partnered with another family to open Jade Garden 115 in Orono. After many successful years, the Orono restaurant was forced to close due to the highway construction in the 80s. When the lease expired on the Oshawa location in 1991, the Chow’s decided it was time to close the restaurant and move onto other things. Gordon became an IT Manager the following year, where he worked until retirement.
Many thanks to Alex, who spent 6 months researching Oshawa’s early Asian history, research which will be part of a book about Oshawa’s unwritten history. We hope to publish this book as a way to commemorate Oshawa’s 100th anniversary of being a city.