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Pillar of Nelson’s Chinese community dies at 72

Cameron Mah moved to Nelson in 1967
Nelson’s Cameron Mah, former proprietor of the KC Restaurant, was born Mah Kin Shum in Tin Sum, Canton, China in 1946.

Cameron Mah, a leading figure in Nelson’s Chinese Canadian community, has died at 72.

Mah, who was the longtime proprietor of the KC Restaurant, passed away Saturday at Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson of apparent heart failure, his daughter Ginger said. He had been in failing health for some time.

Mah’s family connection to Nelson dated back more than 100 years, but he had no inkling of it when he arrived in Canada in 1959 from China at age 12. Then known as Mah Kin Shum, his parents sent him to seek opportunity and a better life. They simply told him to find someone 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 recalled in a 2012 interview. “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, the wedding had been arranged.

His bride was Jayne Jay, who came to Canada from Hoi Ping in 1954, joining her father after six years apart. In 1967, with the first of their 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 B.C., 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 dire premonition 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 as a chef preceded him, however, and several restaurants offered him work. He cooked at Ken’s Cafe (in the building that 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 beginning. (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 never went back to China, although some of his children did.

When he retired, his brother Russell continued to run the KC, although the awning still said Cam’s Restaurant. It wasn’t his idea: “Rick Collin, who built the canopy, said ‘I’m going to put your name on it.’ I said ‘Nah, don’t.’ He said, ‘I already did.’”

Mah is survived by his wife, children Ginger, Tracy, David, and Dennis, and granddaughter Meela.

A memorial service is planned on Friday, June 21 at Thompson Funeral Home in Nelson.

Before coming to Canada in 1959, Cam Mah studied English for a year at a Pool Sun College. This is his student card.