Some of these stories are recalled by Ed Hong-Louie, Vhalleri Hohn, Ben Yee, and Janet Yee.
“Is the blending of nations a story of shame and pain? Or is it a story of courage and pride? Or both? And is the blending of nations only through bloodlines or does it encompass living together in a caring community?” These questions which arise by Vhalle Hohn (grand-daughter of Louie Hong), born to Mary Chang (Duncan, BC) and Henry (Hank) Hong (Cluny, Alberta) is one of the backbones of this research.
Vhalle is rooted in Aboriginal, Chinese and European blood; born in Canada, She is a Canadian. Both her grandfathers were born in China and immigrated to Canada, and both married outside Chinese bloodlines. The focus of this story is to talk about the blending of Aboriginal and Chinese people in Alberta.
By Vhalle T. Hohn as researched by Teddy Kwok
Louie Hong (雷)1 immigrated to Canada in the late 1800’s looking for the promises of the Gold Mountain.
His journey started as a cook for the Canadian Pacific Railway and later as one of the crew members for the building of the Kananaskis dam project.1 His family knew him as an industrious, hardworking man. In the winter of 1910, Louie cooked for one of Alberta’s Big Four ranchers, Pat Burns.22 As Pat and his ranch-hands herded cattle back and forth across the Alberta Prairies, Louie scrounged for firewood so he could keep them fed.
Around 1913 Louie homesteaded in Cluny3, Alberta, where he built and ran several successful businesses. Over the next 80 years Louie supplied people with everything from eggs to fencing, it was the only place to buy supplies for miles around, it serviced people on the reservation as well as farmers4. His businesses included the Louie Hong General Store, a confectionery, laundry service, a hotel, restaurant, a DODGE dealership and at one time a bank. 1,3,4 Life on the prairies was harsh, living through The Great Depression with nine children, Louie and Nellie did what they had to do to support their family.
According to Mrs. Brenda Dingwall, whose husband, Donald, knew Louie before he ever opened a business in Cluny, said that Louie was once “the cook on the cook-car” and he was known as “a great friend to all the older Indian people, as he could speak and discuss things with them and help settle many misunderstandings”.1
Cluny is located on the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and in its time was the supply hub for all of the local farmers. Not only was the CPR the major mode of transportation in the early 1900’s, it was also the boundary between the Siksika Nation reserve (Siksika 146); the south side of the tracks belonged to the Siksika. In more than a century ago, the town’s population was mainly made up of French immigrants, Aboriginal people and two Chinese families (the Hong and Quong families).1
Despite having two wives and family in China, Louie married Nellie (nee: Tuck also known as Nellie Bertha Chin) in 1925. According to Edward Hong-Louie (Ed; 雷京權), fourth child of Louie Hong, his mother was “purchased” at the age of 15 – to have children and work in the store. Bride-buying was a fairly common practice at this time, especially for the Chinese.
Nellie and her two brothers were born to an Aboriginal (Chinook) father and Chinese mother. Though no records of birth are available, the family believes she was born in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Prior to being sold as a bride, she was sold at a very young age to the Chin family as “a slave”. Being of mixed race was shameful for Nellie,Vhalle remembers her grandmother timidly speaking of the abuse she endured as a child; often locked up and beaten by her “mean aunt”.
Nellie was a tiny little woman of 4’10” who worked hard in the family store from 1925 until it’s closing in the 1980’s. “It is difficult to believe such a tiny woman had nine children,” Vhalle recalls, “she was such a gentle soul.” In order that she could continue to work in the store between pregnancies, Louie hired an English nurse, Mrs. F. Derksen, who raised the children and taught them the “English way”.
Nellie was multilingual. Ed remembers hearing his mother speak Chinook, and in order to do business it was necessary for her to learn Blackfoot from Louie. She also had to keep up her Chinese, as this was her husband’s first language5. Nellie passed away in 1998, predeceased by her two brothers and her husband.
There were separate schools in the area, one for the Aboriginals and one in Cluny for everyone else6. A Catholic mission on the reservation housed and taught the Blackfoot children. Despite being educated separately, the Hong children developed many close friendships with their Blackfoot neighbours. They learned the language and were invited to fish and hunt on the Blackfoot land. Conversely, the Blackfoot people worked off the reservation and were very much part of the Cluny community.
Henry Hong, second son of Louie Hong and father of Vhalle, had a very close relationship with the Blackfoot people.6 Vhalle says, “my Dad was a ‘blood-brother’ fully initiated as ‘Prairie Chicken’, he was named Sue Was Giss and honoured with a headdress and traditional beaded clothing, which I still have today.” With this initiation, Henry claimed he had Treaty Rights, though his card has never been found. Henry was very proud of his blended roots of Chinese and Aboriginal, he jokingly called himself a “Chindian”.
Vhalle’s family moved to Calgary when she was six. Her sister, Mavis and cousins Leslie and Tara (daughters of May Culham, nee: Hong, the eldest daughter of Louie Hong), would spend many of their summers in Cluny working in store. “We would stock shelves, sell candy, get orders together for customers, count money and sweep the floors. After working we would often go down to the Bow River on the Reserve to fish and swim”, Vhalle recalls.
Vhalle’s memories of the Hong Store are filled with sweet smells of tobacco and the wet smoked leather coats of Chief One Gun and Ben Calf Rope. They would sit for hours on a bench outside in the summer and on colder days beside the butcher shop rolling and puffing on cigarettes. Vhalle says, “I even can hear the song of the Blackfoot language as my grandfather chatted with them.”
However, as with most experiences, not all of her memories are so positive. Vhalle remembers when alcohol was legalized for the Aboriginal people which brought about changes to their community. Crime increased, which brought risks to the Hong Store. She can remember people breaking into the store looking for money and things like vanilla extract and spray paint. “One time, my poor little grandmother, who was living alone at the store, got beaten by someone who had broken in”, said Vhalle. Despite these few negative experiences, friendships between the Hong family members and the Blackfoot people remained strong for her father’s generation.
Vhalle and Ed recognize Aboriginal blood as part of heritage. Throughout her life, Vhalle has volunteered and will continue to volunteer in the communities where she lives. It is important to her to bring awareness and encourage acceptance for diverse backgrounds. She says, “I have taught my children to embrace their diversity which includes encouraging them to engage as non-status Aboriginals at their universities. My children are proud of their heritage, they volunteer on campus and feel they can embrace this part of their identity through their involvement on campus.”
The Hong family honours Nellie’s tenacity, having lived through horrific experiences of shame and prejudice. They honour Louie’s courage and lessons of hard work that have opened doors of opportunity for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. This family believes the blending of nations has enriched their lives.
As a well-respected businessman, Louie Hong was described as a “community-minded, generous, a reliable friend who… garnered a legion of friends over a very large area of southern Alberta”.7 The older generations of the Chinese Calgarians well knew Louie and Nellie Hong.
For more about this research: Aboriginals & Chinese Then and Now
- Cluny and District Historical Society (1985) Memories of Cluny: a story of Cluny and the surrounding districts: Cluny, Ouelletteville, Crowfoot Creek, Blackfoot Reserve in Alberta Canada. Alta: Inter-Collegiate Press (2002, January 1) pp. 98-104, 435-437, 553, 639, 673 Retrieved from http://www.ourroots.ca/toc.aspx?id=13231&qryID=22bd4911-508c-4ba4-9198-36d62d1d2371
- Alberta Settlement: Book Excerpt: Louie Hong (2001, February 3). Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/pasttopresent/settlement/chinese_hong.html
- Voices of Alberta: Louie Hong’s Life on The Canadian Pacific Railway. Retrieved from http://changemakerbios.weebly.com/louie-hong-by-lucas.html
- Voices of Alberta: Louie Hong and Wong Yet. Retrieved from http://changemakerbios.weebly.com/louie-hong-and-wong-yet-by-ally.html
- Harvey McCue, Harvey (2015, April 22). Reserves Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-reserves/
- Obituaries: Hong, Henry (Hank) Retrieved from http://www.yourlifemoments.ca/sitepages/obituary.asp?oid=964102
- Dawson, J. B. , & Dawson, P. M. (1991) Moon Cakes In Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains Calgary, Alta. : Detselig Enterprises
1His Chinese name was Hong Louie, but immigration officials thought it “sounded better” if they switched his name, thus he was known in Canada as Louie Hong. Some of the descendants changed their last name to Hong-Louie to recognize the common mistaken change that happened to many Chinese immigrants. In this article, we address the family as “the Hong family”.
2According to interpreters from Bar U Ranch National Historical Site, Chinese cooks working at ranches in southern Alberta are dated back to before Alberta was given provincial status. Some cowboys were probably Aboriginals.
3Cluny was a village; incorporated in 1921.
4During the two World Wars, when goods were short, anything one needed could be found at the Hong General Store. However, there were several other stores since 1917: Quong Kee was operated until 1929; a store that operated by Fred Boisvert was sold to Louie Hong. 1
5Mae Mak, a Chinese tutor was hired in 1940 for a year and a half to teach the Hong children the Chinese language. 1
6The children of the Hong family who were in school in Cluny all had the same primary teacher Mrs Ann Reese (nee Riley).