Chinese hotel owners: ‘Best of service’

Joan Chase

“George Brennan built the first hotel and managed it until Prohibition came. When he could no longer get a licence 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 1935, the year the provincial government allowed the sale of beer by the glass in hotel bars, Chinese people were excluded from obtaining a liquor licence because the law required that an applicant had to be a person who was entitled to vote. The Chinese in Saskatchewan did not receive the provincial franchise until 1947. Thus, many hotels changed hands in 1935, and the former Chinese hotel owners moved on. That year, the Saskatchewan Hotels Association reported that, out of its 480 members, 80 – mainly Chinese hotel owners – did not qualify for a liquor licence.

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Like many Chinese enterprises in small-town Saskatchewan, the hotels were operated by men – relatives or friends – rather than by families. This was because, from 1885 until 1946, restrictive immigration laws such as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, commonly referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” prevented Chinese from bringing their wives and children to Canada. As a result, the Chinese Canadian community became a “bachelor society.”

Wong Gin was an exception. He came to Canada from China in 1908, and by 1913, he was the owner of the Tuxedo Café in Herbert. 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 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 became a naturalized Canadian in 1929, so in 1935, the year the province allowed the sale of beer by the glass, he was eligible obtain a licence to open a beer parlour – something many Chinese hotel owners were not permitted to do. That year, he bought the Herbert Hotel from Mrs. Stephenson.

Wong Gin died in January 1960. The Herbert history book (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.

 

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