Larry Kwong wearing a New York Rangers jersey in 1923.

2021/’22 Hockey Season

With the cooler weather setting in, hockey season is only just around the corner. The 2021/’22 National Hockey League season begins on October 12 between this year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The NHL has a long history, dating back to 1917 when it replaced the National Hockey Association. But it was not until 1948 that the league saw its first non-white player; the player who broke the colour barrier was named Larry Kwong, and he was born right here in Vernon.

 

One of Fifteen

Larry Kwong (1923-2018) was the second youngest of fifteen children. His father, Ng Shu Kwong, had immigrated to Canada from China in 1884, eventually setting up a store in Vernon called the Kwong Hing Lung Grocery.

Like many young boys, Larry grew up listening to hockey games on CBC radio. His passion for the sport was obvious even from the age of five, and two of his older brothers, Jack and Jimmy, encouraged Larry to start playing hockey himself. When the weather was cold enough, Jack and Jimmy would pour water into a vacant lot near the family store, creating a rink for Larry to practice. Larry and some of his friends also liked to frequent a nearby local pond to play their games and sharpen their skills.

 

A first hockey Team

When Larry was 16, he joined his first hockey team, the Vernon Hydrophones. His natural talent gained him instant attention, and his career took off from there. This is not to say that he did not face significant racial barriers along the way; in fact, in 1942, he was invited to the training camp of the Chicago Black Hawks, but the Canadian Government never processed the paperwork that would allow him to leave and return to Canada.

 

Joining the NHL

It wasn’t until after his enfranchisement as a result of serving in the Canadian Army during World War Two that Larry was able to accept an invitation into the NHL. He made his debut with the New York Rangers on March 13, 1948. However, Larry decided to leave the team after only one season; although he was the Rangers’ top scorer, he received very little ice time.

 

A long Career

He went on to have a long and successful career in senior leagues across Canada and the United States, and coached both hockey and tennis in England and Switzerland. He also helped to run his family’s grocery business, which had migrated to Calgary.

In 2011, Larry Kwong was inducted into the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, and two years later, in 2013, into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. This remarkable man passed away in Calgary on March 15, 2018. 

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

glory days

 

August 25, 2020

“They used to have the like of Sing Le Lung, Mr. Lee, Mr. Kwong, Mr. Loo Jim who were the head ‘boss.’ If anybody had any problems they would go to see him and he would say ‘now let’s think this thing out. What seems to be the problem?’ And then he would say ‘well, I think you’re wrong. You should just pour a cup of tea—offer your friend a cup of tea and an apology, and the case will be all settled.” – Walter Joe (born Chow), talking about the resolving of interpersonal conflicts within Vernon’s close-knit Chinese community.

Chinatown was one of the most culturally rich and lively parts of our city’s downtown. Despite the fact that they were immersed in a larger settler community that, throughout the years, regarded them with alternating detached curiosity and out-right intolerance, Vernon’s Chinese population was unabashed in their traditions and lifestyle.

 

 

McCulloch’s Aerated Waters Coca-Cola ‘Cooler’ float, used for a parade in 1934

 

In fact, they were known for their hospitality, and particularly so on Chinese New Year. According to the Vernon News of 1905, “during this special season of rejoicing, the Chinese are peculiar in the open-hearted manner in which they welcome stranger as well as friend and acquaintance to share their best and join with them in the festivities of the occasion.” Shops and dwellings throughout Chinatown were elaborately decorated, and cigars, wine, sweet-meats, and fruit were handed out to visitors to the light of fire crackers. Other cultural practices enrichened life in Vernon over the years, from the Dance of the Dragon, to the flying of kites, to the secretive rituals of the Chinese Freemasons.

A variety of businesses and residences formed the physical bounds of Chinatown, including several restaurants that were frequented by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The smorgasbord at Goon Hong, which opened in 1950, was particularly popular; a heaping plate of fried prawns, egg rolls, roast pork, chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice cost only $4 in 1976. Other businesses included laundromats, cobblers, groceries, stables, a boarding house, and a church. 

One such business was a dry goods and grocery store run by Eng Shu Kwong. Kwong immigrated to Canada from a village near Canton, China. After failing to strike it rich in the Cherry Creek gold rush, he moved himself and his family to Vernon, and opened a business. The two-storey building, which housed the family on the top floor, had a facade with the store name printed in block letters — KWONG HING LUNG & CO. DRY GOODS & GROCERIES. “Hing Lung” translates roughly to “abundant prosperity,” and this is indeed what the Kwong family brought about for themselves. The second youngest of Kwong’s 15 children, Larry, would go on to become the NHL’s first non-white player.

How is that so few traces of Vernon’s one-vibrant Chinatown, which allowed families like the Kwongs to prosper, remain in 2020?

Gwyn Evans

early chinatown

 

August 14, 2020

“We were in Chinatown. On each side of the street were unpainted, boxlike, two-story buildings. They were dimly lit. In the background, the unfamiliar tones of a stringed instrument were heard and there was the drone of sing-song voices in the air. Seated on a porch were a couple of men with lighted punks in hand sucking on their gurgling water pipes. Noise coming from one building told us that a gambling game was under way. Everything was serene” – Vernon’s Chinatown as it was described in a passage of the 1983 Okanagan Historical Society report. 

Since few visual traces of it remain, it comes as a surprise to some Vernonites to learn that their city was once home to a thriving Chinatown, and the largest Chinese population in the B.C. Interior. A community that was once so full of vigor has been silenced by the passing of time.

 

 

Vernon Chinatown, 1907

 

The first group of Chinese immigrants came to B.C. in the mid-19th century in the pursuit of gold. Back home, these men were known as “Gold Mountain Sojourners,” and like most hopeful prospectors, only hoped to stay long enough to make a fortune before returning to their families. Unfortunately, most never did strike it rich and were instead forced to stay in B.C. for longer than expected.

Many Chinese labourers were also employed in the construction of the western portion of the CPR; in fact, over half of the crew that worked on the Shuswap & Okanagan spur line were Chinese. They were lead to believe that they would be paid well for the back-breaking work, and given a ticket back to China once the job was finished. Unfourtunately, the Canadian Government and the CPR did not honour this pledge, and many of the immigrants were left destitute, unable to return to their families.

About 1000 settled in the Okanagan; while some were entrepreneurs who opened cafes and laundries, most worked as low-wage labourers on farms and orchards. Some also worked as kitchen help for pioneering families like the O’Keefes and Ellisons.

Since their early days as hopeful prospectors, Chinese immigrants had faced prejudice and discrimination, and had formed tight community groups, modeled off of traditional Chinese societies and clan associations, to combat to this ostracism. It was for this reason that distinctive Chinese communities would begin to crop up in the middle of interior towns, including in Vernon. One of the first administrative buildings in Vernon’s Chinatown was a hall for the local chapter of the Chinese National League, opened in 1919 on the corner of 28th Avenue and 33rd Street.

Gwyn Evans