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How Mar Jok bridged the gap for Kelowna's Chinese community

Mar Jok was a famous Chinese Canadian pioneer in Kelowna.
Image Credit: Forty-eighth annual report of the Okanagan Historical Society

West Kelowna residents may know Mar Jok by his name on an elementary school but his legacy stretches far beyond that as a communicator between the Chinese and Caucasian communities in the Okanagan in the 20th Century.

The Canadian Chinese pioneer and his beloved Golden Pheasant Restaurant welcomed everyone, even the poor, during a time when Chinatown, located along Leon Avenue, and its residents faced racism and discrimination.

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Born in 1900 in Canton, China, Mar Jok came to Canada via Hong Kong in 1912, at the age of 11, according to an Okanagan Historical Society report. With his brother Mar Fee and his father, they opened a laundromat in Revelstoke.

North America at that time was known as “the golden mountain,” to the Chinese. In Jok’s words: “Their ambition was to come and work, to make good and save a little money to go back and help others,” according to the historical society.

Gold was discovered along the Fraser River in British Columbia in 1858 and thousands of miners, including Chinese who had been working in California, rushed into the region. By the time the gold rush was over, the need for labour in B.C. led to many Chinese being hired to build roads, clear land and construct railways. They also worked in coal mines and fish canneries and on farms, according to the Library and Archives of Canada.

Jok’s natural fluency with the English language suited him well and he was frequently hired as a translator in civil and criminal court cases across the Okanagan, Kootenays and Alberta, according to the historical society.

In 1927, he moved to Kelowna and opened up the Star Restaurant on Water Street. In 1930, with the assistance of Fee, he defied the depression with a new first-class restaurant on Bernard Avenue called the Golden Pheasant. 

The Pheasant featured a three-course dinner with coffee for 40 cents. During the depression, when his regular customers were finished, he’d lock the front door and open the back to feed Kelowna’s hungry, according to the historical society report.

“The Chinese tended to be pushed aside. They were living in Chinatown, which is on Leon Avenue and they sort of stayed there. Mar Jok was sort of the odd one out… and that was a bit of an anomaly that a Chinese business was not located in Chinatown and it catered to everybody,” said Kelowna historian Bob Hayes.

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“People didn’t mind going there and this was during a time where (there was) a lot of racism and Mar Jok was able to straddle both the Chinese and non-Chinese communities and did it very well. He was well respected,” Hayes said.

“He was able to be accepted in both communities as he should be.”

He was an instructor of the First Kelowna Boy Scout Troop in various sports, a member of the B.C. Dragoons Militia and a founding member of the Chinese Cultural Society. He was the first Chinese person in Kelowna to own and operate a car, a Model T Ford.

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In 1968, he farmed asparagus on 25 acres of land in West Kelowna on Westlake Road, some of which is still lived on by relatives, including grandson Gary Jones.

“He really was just a really decent guy. He showed up to build the railroad and integrated into the Canadian society and was just like any other guy,” Jones said.

Jones, his brother, his mother and Jok lived on the farm together and Jones helped his grandfather with the farming chores.

“He’d show you how to use a hammer and nail,” Jones said. “He’d let you drive the tractor. I do remember picking asparagus, that was something we all did, he had the kids out there doing that… everyone got involved.”

“(Jok), his father and his brother, they had amazing character. What they overcame coming to Canada and basically (earning) slave wages… to overcome that, to live your dream, to run a business and have a family and ultimately for him to own this acreage, all that hard work and determination… they survived the depression and (the Second World War), their whole generation impresses me,” Jones said.

Tun Wong, who grew up in Kelowna’s Chinatown and was one of the few children who lived there, said the perseverance of the Chinese community was achieved through hard work and determination.

In the early 20th Century, the population of the Chinese community numbered about five hundred, or some 10% of the entire local population, according to the City of Kelowna.

“Why he got such prominence was really because he had a grasp of English and the rest of people in Chinatown don’t have a grasp of English,” Wong said, adding that’s where Jok got his reputation but he didn’t live or work in Chinatown.

“It’s one point and an important point… In order to be able to understand and perceive, one has to understand each group,” Wong said.

Wong met Jok a few times and knew his relatives who had come over from China, but didn’t know him well.

Wong lived in Chinatown for 26 years and his mother was the only woman in Chinatown in the 1930s, he said.

Chinatown was like a mystery to everyone outside of it because no one other than those who lived there ever visited. It was small because its main street was the alley between Lawrence and Leon Avenue, Wong said.

The way the Chinese people conducted themselves, as hard-working and loyal citizens, eventually led to their acceptance, he said.

- This story was originally published Jan. 24, 2020.

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