In 1952, Diamond Grill on the 500 block of Baker Street was the newest and most modern café in Nelson.
Fred Wah worked there, starting at age nine and through his teenage years.
“I worked up front,” he says, “hustling dishes and filling the coffee and so forth. And eventually my Dad (the owner) let me run the whole soda fountain.”
Even discussing this in 2022, Wah seems proud of that soda fountain.
“It was a beautiful soda fountain, all stainless steel with little pushers with syrup in them, and ice cream and a milkshake maker.”
At the time there were six or seven cafés in Nelson, he says, all but one of them run by Chinese people.
This was typical of most small towns in B.C. in the 50s and 60s. Chinese restaurants served western food as well as a predictable handful of Chinese dishes like chicken chow mein, sweet and sour spareribs, and egg foo yung. But few of those old-style Chinese restaurants remain, gone and mostly forgotten.
In 1996, Wah published Diamond Grill, his memories of the restaurant written in a mix of poetry and prose. In 2019, in collaboration with Kootenay Coop Radio, he adapted the book into a radio play and recorded a dramatic reading of it, with a group of eight actors playing Wah’s family members, restaurant kitchen employees, and members of the community.
As a teenager, Wah loved being in the cafe and working up front where he could watch everything happening on Baker Street and greet his friends.
“The café was well known for its sugar donuts. Joe the pastry cook, he made these sugar donuts that were unbelievable. So lots of people came in for that and other delights.”
Between the dining area and the kitchen, stood a pair of two big doors.
“They were great big wooden doors and you had to kick it as you went through, because you were carrying dishes of food or returning dirty dishes to the kitchen,” Wah says. “It had a big brass plate along the bottom of it. I loved to kick that door.”
In the podcast, the door is a metaphor for what Wah refers to as his hybrid life in Nelson – his heritage is mixed Swedish and Chinese. At Diamond Grill the kitchen staff were Chinese and most of the diners were white.
“The door represents that space between being Asian and being white, being mixed, and I’ve played around with that notion of the door as an in-between space. The doorway is the place that I can stand in and not go through, so I have a better view of both rooms.”
Wah, who now lives in Vancouver, won the Governor General’s Award for his 1985 book Waiting for Saskatchewan. In 2012 he was named Canada’s Poet Laureate, and in 2013 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Writer and media artist Nicola Harwood, formerly of Nelson and now living in Vancouver, helped Wah transform his book Diamond Grill into a radio play.
She says that while living in Nelson she discovered that there had been “an entire dynamic Chinatown community that was completely invisible in contemporary Nelson history … there was just no sign of it anywhere.
“I think A Door to be Kicked is a national project,” she says. “It was created in a small town and it is a piece of the lived history of that town. And it’s been created by the artists of that place. So in terms of cultural production, it’s a real gem, that something so beautiful and meaningful and with such a depth and breadth of meaning can come from a small town the size of Nelson.”
Nelson musician and theatre artist Bessie Wapp, who directed the radio play, says she remembers eating at Diamond Grill as a child. She says the erasure, for so long, of the small town story of Chinese people and their restaurants means we have missed out on “beauty and tragedy and rich, rich, interesting history.”
Much of that history is covered in the narrative and conversations in A Door to be Kicked, dramatizing relationships in the kitchen, interactions between the restaurant staff and the customers both Chinese and white, and interaction between Chinese families in Nelson.
Nelson composer and musician Don Macdonald composed and performed the music for A Door to be Kicked, which was produced by Catherine Fisher with technical direction by Anthony Sanna.
Wah says the podcast is an exercise in identifying unknown history, revealing it, and making it meaningful in the current world.
“We (are trying) to get history and story and narrative and characters into a situation that is identifiable, and that resonates with where we are now.”