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COLUMN: Pioneer restaurateur’s story served up

Greg Nesteroff is on the trail again of Yahei Hoshi, who ran the Nelson Cafe in 1898-99.
This photo by the Dominon Foto Co. of Nelson and Kaslo shows the Nelson Cafe in 1898 or 1899

A few years ago I bought an old photo showing the interior of a Victorian-era restaurant, stamped “Dominion Foto Co., Nelson and Kaslo, BC.”

I wondered where it was taken and who the dapper-looking Asian man it depicted was. A magnifying glass revealed a menu on the table read “Nelson Cafe,” which was listed in the 1898 and 1899 civic directories at 13 East Baker St., near Ward St.

Its proprietor was Yahei Hoshi, a Japanese man who hired Caucasians, judging from the man and woman standing behind and across from him in the photo. But he also advertised “No Chinese employed.”

In the Nelson Miner of May 15, 1898, Hoshi wrote that “Owing to the fact that since taking over the business of the Nelson Cafe, we have been short of help, we have not been able to give as good satisfaction as we wished. We have now a good, well qualified staff of assistants and will do our best to cater to the wants of the public in first class style in every particular.”

The menu included fried sea bass, boiled halibut, pickled pigs feet, beef sirloin, fricassee chicken, pork loin with apple sauce, and a wide variety of cakes and desserts.

In other ads, Hoshi claimed “the best meals in the city from 25 cents up,” stated the cafe was open all night, offered Japanese tea parties every afternoon, and promised “experienced waitresses.”

By the fall of 1899, C.H. Stibbs of Rossland took over the business and Hoshi left town. The presence of a Japanese business owner in Nelson at that time was so anomalous that I wrote a column about it and always wondered what became of him. After more digging recently, I finally have some answers.

While he’s nowhere to be seen on the 1901 Canadian census, Hoshi turns up on the 1906 Prairie census as “George Hoshi” a cook in Pincher Creek, Alta., age 32. He told the census-taker he came to Canada in 1896.

Another clue came from the Southern Alberta Buddhist Association, which compiled and translated early items from Tairiku Nippo, a Japanese-language newspaper published in Vancouver. One such item relates how around 1908 or 1909, Hoshi bought eight lots in Edmonton for $400 and then sold them for $15,000.

He apparently went back to Japan, for in September 1908, there’s a record of him returning aboard a ship that landed in Vancouver. His gave his occupation as poultry raiser and market gardener and his destination as Saskatoon. Though the handwriting on the ship’s manifest is hard to read, his father appears to be listed as Risaburo Hoshi of Wakuya-cho. (Wakuya is a town in Miyagi prefecture in the country’s northeast which today has a population of about 17,000.)

Yahei became a naturalized Canadian citizen on May 21, 1910 but soon after returned to Japan again, where he married a woman named Yone. He sailed for Canada in November 1911, arriving in Vancouver from Yokohama aboard the Empress of India, but did not bring his bride with him.

On the ship’s manifest, he listed himself as working in a livery business but soon returned to restaurateuring by establishing the Maple Club Cafe at 122 East 20th St. in Saskatoon.

An item in the Red Deer News of June 26, 1918 noted: “Geo. Hoshi, proprietor of the Maple Leaf [sic] Cafe, Saskatoon, was fined $100 and costs for serving more than two ounces of white bread to a customer at one time, contrary to the Canada Food Board regulations.” (During the First World War, restaurants were under strict rationing orders concerning flour and sugar.)

Although there is no record of it, Hoshi and his wife must have travelled to see each other several times, for a daughter, Masua (or Masaye) was born to them in Hawaii in 1916. But it wasn’t until 1920 that they joined Hoshi in Saskatoon. On one document I found Yone indicated she had been in Canada before but Masaye had not.

The 1921 census found the family living at 414 East Spadina Crescent. Yahei (or Yahai, as it sometimes appeared) was then 51, his wife 43, and his daughter four. They had a servant, Stella Ishida, 15. Other information on the census contradicted earlier documents, suggesting Yahei and Yone came to Canada in 1890 and that Masaye was born in Japan and immigrated in 1918.

The Hoshis continued to run the Maple Club Cafe — and rent rooms in the same building — through 1936. According to the civic directory, their daughter, now known as Marjorie, also worked there as a cashier.

The family disappears from the directory in 1937. In place of the Maple Club Cafe was now the Arena Cafe, operated by William Brady.

The diner went through a series of name and ownership changes. It remained the Arena until 1945, then became the Frontenac Lunch (1945-48), Stromme’s Cafe (1948-50), Webb’s Grill (1950-52), and Quick’s Lunch (1952-60).

In 1960, Joe Leung bought the business and called it Joe’s Lunch, by which name — and for whose burgers — it was known to several generations of Saskatonians until it finally closed in 2006.

The brick building, which bore several fading signs for 7-Up and Orange Crush, was demolished the following year. The lot was slated to be developed as a 12-storey office building, although as of 2013, it was just a parking lot.

Was Yahei Hoshi responsible for building it? Hard to say. In 1911, the Saskatoon civic directory listed a new building and an employment agency at that address. Hoshi might have built it with some of the proceeds of his successful real estate transaction in Edmonton several years earlier. Or not.

In any case, by the time Joe Leung came along, Hoshi was already long forgotten in Saskatoon. I don’t know what happened to him and his family after they left Saskatoon. By then he would have been about 67, so presumably he retired. But his final fate still awaits discovery.