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Following in his grandparents’ footsteps

Second in a series of pioneer profiles

Arriving in Canada in 1959 from China at age 12, Cameron Mah had no idea of his Nelson roots. Then known as Mah Kin Shum, his parents sent him to seek opportunity and a better life. They simply told him to find someone who spoke Chinese and ask for help. It worked.

“I came into Vancouver and this couple from the St. James Hotel said we know somebody from Kelowna who will take you in,” he recalls. “In Kelowna, they said we’ve got a nephew who opened a restaurant in Castlegar. He’s going to take you, and you can go to school and work.”

That restaurant proprietor was Yorkie Mah (no relation) of the Marlane Grill, who taught Cam his culinary skills. After a couple of years at school, he went to work there full-time.

When he was 18, his landlady asked: “You’re getting married pretty soon?”

“I said ‘No, I’ve got no money.’ She said ‘I’ll lend you some.’ She was just joking at first.’” But before he knew it, a wedding had been arranged.

His bride was Jayne Jay, who came here from Hoi Ping in 1954, joining her father after six years apart. In 1967, with the first of four children on the way, Cam and Jayne moved to Nelson. Here, oldtimers told him they remembered his forebears.

It was news to him: it turned out his great grandfather, Lung Mah, came to Nelson early in the century, attracted by the mining rush. He was a scribe, who wrote letters home for illiterate immigrants. He left a few children behind in China, one of whom, Fong, followed him here and worked as an elevator operator at the Hume Hotel. The two also ran a laundry in Silverton.

Fong later returned to Tin Sum in Canton province, where he built a beautiful home. He was also head of the Chinese Nationalist League in BC, and through that organization met a man who asked him to be his daughter’s godfather. Fong accepted — over the objections of his superstitious wife, who told him “You should never be a godfather, because you’ll die young.”

Unfortunately, the prediction came true: in 1943, while only 35, Fong died following an operation in Vancouver for liver cancer.

Years later, Cam discovered Fong’s goddaughter was Faye Leung, who played a key role in former Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s downfall. She gave Cam a picture of his grandfather.

Cam’s great grandfather, meanwhile, continued to live in Nelson until he died in 1957 — so by the time Cam arrived, he had no family left here.

His reputation preceded him, however, and several restaurants offered him work. He cooked at Ken’s Cafe (which later became the Redfish Grill), and also bought the Stirling Hotel, which Jayne ran almost single-handedly.

In 1970, Cam and five partners considered starting their own restaurant. When word got out, he was fired from Ken’s Cafe, forcing his hand.

The KC Restaurant, established in a former men’s wear store, was a success from the first. (KC stood for Kootenay Centre, inspired by a passing Kootenay Cleaning Centre truck). It’s now Nelson’s oldest restaurant by the same name in the same place (Itza’s, formerly the Medi, opened a few months earlier).

A few years later, Cam brought his parents and siblings to Canada. He’s never gone back to China, although some of his children have.

He’s now retired — brother Russell runs the KC — but the awning still says Cam’s Restaurant. It wasn’t his idea: “Rick Collin, the guy who built the canopy, said ‘I’m going to put your name on it.’ I said ‘Nah, don’t.’ He said, ‘I already did.’”

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