Nine Notre Dame University alumni originally from Hong Kong revisited Nelson this month, some for the first time in 40 years.
Organizer Stephen Siu says they took the school’s Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Sciences programs between 1970 and 1973, and most later transferred to the University of Alberta.
“There’s a core group, including myself, that has kept in touch,” he explained. “We kind of grew up together through our university years.”
Siu arrived here in 1971, shortly before turning 22. Friends who had been to Nelson told him Notre Dame was a good university with a nice setting.
“There were many good reasons why we went to Nelson,” he says. “At that age I was kind of rebellious. I came from a very traditional Chinese family [who felt] I should stay in Hong Kong and do everything everybody else did.”
However, at that time Hong Kong still had a British colonial education system, which he didn’t want any part of. Post-secondary education opportunities were limited; even though he had completed his senior matriculation, he couldn’t find a university seat.
Then, through word of mouth, he heard about Nelson — and a local landmark helped lure him. “When we saw the picture on the student calendar of the [orange] bridge, that was one of the things that attracted us,” he says.
DAYS OF YORE
Siu, now retired after a long career with the Alberta government, has many fond memories of attending school here.
“Nelson gave us a very fresh, fantastic start,” he says. “We did not face any racial discrimination. People treated us so well and gave us a tremendous new experience.”
The students all stayed in the dorms — he can still remember his room, on the second floor above the laundry.
He captained a pick-up basketball team made up of fellow international students, and remembers the coach of the Notre Dame girls team challenging them to an exhibition match. “It was close and we won by one point.”
On weekends, because they missed Chinese food, he and his friends would chip in a few dollars each and treat themselves to dinner at the Purple Lantern or KC Restaurant.
On the first night of their reunion, they made a point of returning to the KC for a “memory lane dinner. Nothing fancy, but similar kind of food we had.”
Siu also used to work part-time at the KC as a night-shift dishwasher, and was reunited with his old boss, Cameron Mah.
Siu chuckles that the job gave him his first experience in court.
“Nothing I did wrong. After work, Cam always gave me a ride home. I finished usually at 3 o’clock. This night, on our way back to the dormitory, a drunk guy hit Cam’s car, which I was in. Cam needed a witness, so I was the witness.”
Siu says Mah remembered the incident — and how mad he was at the time.
After finishing the year at Notre Dame, Siu spent the summer of 1972 working at Peebles Motor Inn (now the Best Western Baker Street Inn). He returned to work there the following summer, even after transferring to the University of Alberta.
“I probably have a deeper memory of Nelson for that reason,” he says. “I had two fantastic summers.”
Siu’s classmates went on to distinguished careers. Many remained in Alberta while others went back to Hong Kong. Once in a while they’d get together in Calgary or Edmonton or Vancouver.
Siu returned to Nelson a few times when his son and daughter were young, but had not been back in over a decade. Many others had never been.
The idea of a reunion was first raised about eight years ago by alumni in Hong Kong and Vancouver. Two years ago, Siu got involved in the discussion and eventually became an organizer with Arthur Tang.
They obtained contact information for close to 25 students, out of a total of 30 to 40. Of them, nine were able to make it, plus spouses, for a total of 15. Several came from Hong Kong.
They met here for three days in early August, and toured Selkirk College’s Tenth Street Campus, the site of their early academia, and saw construction on the student residences.
“It was such a wonderful feeling,” Siu says. “Several times I was getting goose bumps walking through the gymnasium and residence.”
They made a point of taking a photo beneath the Selkirk sign, replicating a similar one taken at the same spot the week Siu arrived in 1971.
A visit to Lakeside Park showed some things have changed — Streetcar 23 is back on track — but other sources of nostalgia, like the beach, bridge, and totem pole haven’t.
“Deep down in our hearts we want to say thank you to Nelson,” Siu says. “That’s how we started. I kind of think if we didn’t spend that year in Nelson, we wouldn’t have become who we are.
“We’re lucky that we had a good start from NDU. Nelson was the first place I landed in Canada. I kind of consider it my birthplace here.”