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Sunday Night Read: 'A tribute to my father'

This short story series submission is from Ming Louie Stein of Port Moody.
Father's Day Weekend
A father spinning his kids around in a circle by lifting them in the air with his hands.

My father was a remarkable man.

It’s not that he saved anyone from a burning building. There were no medals pinned to his breast pocket. He couldn’t swim, skate or play baseball. He was one egg in a carton of 12 with no distinguishable markings.

Father was an immigrant who arrived with nothing and by the time he passed away, mother had a home and security for life. Today, my siblings and I are independent adults with children and grandchildren of our own.


After arriving from China in the late 1950s, father dreamt of making big, easy money playing mahjong. If he won a few games, it’d be better than toiling away for several days in hot, greasy kitchens for small wages. On the second floor of many Tong Associations in Chinatown, foursomes sat around countless little tables as men chatted, smoked, and played. The clicking and clacking of the mahjong tiles travelled out the small horizontal windows and down to the street below. In those early days, he often came home smelling of grease, sweat, and cigarettes.

When the autumn air was crisp, father took me to the racetrack after work on weekends after payday.

Along the way, I could almost hear his heartbeat with anticipation, and with each step, his strides grew wider and faster, pulling me behind.

Without fail, he wished out loud, “This could be the day we go home with a new life. Wouldn’t that be grand?” I nodded as he trembled under his coat. Before he lit a cigarette, he buttoned my coat up to my chin to keep out the cold.

He held tightly onto my hand and, with the other, he tapped the program nervously against the two-side of his coat. As the horses trotted onto the track, we could smell them — earthy and oiled leather. The gates opened, and they were off. Father tensed up, feeling the rush of excitement, and tapped his program faster and faster in pace with the horses.

Then it was over. Anti-climactic. The rush left him in a cold sweat. He tossed the ratty ticket and program into the trash.


When father and mother first settled in Vancouver, he had little choice but to work in the Chinese kitchens. Unhappy with his job, he took many breaks loitering in the alleys to smoke. He knew this was going nowhere. Limited in English and marketable skills, there weren’t many options. I was in kindergarten and my sister was only three, and without daycare, mother stayed home with us. I heard mother saying to father, “Be smart, and learn how to work the cash register, take orders, and order supplies. Once you learn everything you can, then you become the manager.”

Father was not interested. If he had a choice, the last thing he wanted was to work in a restaurant his entire life, especially not the kind of restaurant he knew of at the time. He checked the help-wanted ads often, hoping to find something else, although he didn’t know what.

Then he saw it. The ad practically invited him to apply and he felt his heart thumping. It was a job which was completely different, and away from Chinatown. On the day they called to say he got the job, father almost fell off his chair.

Mother exclaimed, “What? Shining shoes? Are you crazy? How is that better?” She worried as she rubbed her giant belly.

The Bayshore Inn’s barbershop had a proper shoeshine chair set up high on a pedestal. 3 The chair was only ever empty long enough to eat a sandwich, but the last shoe-shiner reluctantly quit and left for Kelowna on a personal matter. Father’s earnings and tips would be his own. The barbershop charged a reasonable rent for the chair. Part of his contract was to thoroughly clean the barbershop on Sundays to a spotless gleam.

Who would have guessed, but shining shoes won father bragging rights in the mahjong rooms. The reason wasn’t the job itself; rather, it was because he worked in one of Vancouver’s most prestigious hotels.

He enjoyed being his own boss. I noticed how father’s walk quickened to a purposeful stride. I caught mother smiling occasionally without him noticing. His pride, for once, was as open as clear blue skies, and we all shared in his happiness. Finally, he felt he could work here to sustain a good life. On the days when the tips were good, he ran up the stairs, eager to give mother the heavy coins he carried in his small pockets. Mundane kitchen work was finally behind him. His satisfied sigh of relief marked the end of each of his working days.

On Sundays, father brought us to the barbershop, and after the cleaning was done, we walked together to Stanley Park. Father rented a rowboat at Lost Lagoon. Away from home, the crisp, clean air of the outdoors introduced an unfamiliar freedom and sense of calm in all of us. I remember those Sundays fondly, watching father row the boat, and mother throwing bread into the lagoon for the ducks and geese. Along the trails, we fed squirrels peanuts. Father smiled often, and so did mother. I could sense he felt he was finally a good husband and father and was proud.


Unfortunately, after a few years, the Bayshore Inn closed its barbershop. Sadly, it was also the 4 end of our family’s Stanley Park outings.

During the years as a shoeshiner, father had learned a few things. The changes, though gradual over time, were evident in the choices he made. Significantly, he stopped playing mahjong and betting on the horses. Even more impressive, he quit smoking. I was thirteen at the time, and acknowledged that this required extensive willpower on his part.

Working at the Bayshore Inn proved advantageous in many ways. Father acquired and increased his working vocabulary, which he could easily use in everyday conversations. He learned about subjects that were foreign to him and ignited a curiosity in him to learn more. His place of work was more than a barbershop; it gave father a chance to observe a different type of man. He noted the way these men dressed, walked, and talked. They were confident and engaged in interesting and informative conversations while getting their hair cut or their shoes shined. They talked about business, investment opportunities, gastronomy, world events, stock markets, family, and sports. The experience changed the way he saw himself, and he realized the options were open to him.

It was strange, but when father purchased a set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias, I thought it was for me since I was starting high school in two months. But when I saw him open up volume one, he obsessively pored over every page. Then he did the same through every one of the twenty-five volumes. I don’t remember how long it took him to do that, but I was amazed.

Father said months later, “It wasn’t just a barbershop, and I didn’t just shine shoes. It was the Bayshore Inn’s School of Opportunities.” He laughed when he realized how funny but ironic it sounded.

He decidedly signed up for the Culinary Arts program at the Vancouver Vocational 5 Institute. After months of being free of gambling and cigarettes, father told us, “I need a clean body and a clean mind to accompany a clean environment to learn culinary arts.”

After a few weeks of anxious waiting, he received acceptance into the program at the Institute in downtown Vancouver. During all the years of playing mahjong and betting on the horses, father never felt lucky. But he did that day. Perhaps luck followed him home from the Bayshore Inn.

I vividly remember the day he attended his first class. It was the Tuesday after Labour Day in 1969 because it was also the day I started high school.

My siblings and I were father’s silent cheerleaders. We knew he appreciated us. Father never raved nor boasted, but communicated through silence. We could feel the satisfaction father exuded through his household. Mother was noticeably grateful judging by the better meals she prepared. So much of life was symbolized with food and the weekend dinner table became colourful displays of celebratory dishes—barbecue pork, roasted chestnuts, braised mushrooms, and lots of leafy greens.

After dinner, we sat together to do our homework; I struggled with physics, and my sister with her creative writing, while he memorized cooking techniques.

We watched how pleased he was as we gathered in the kitchen to marvel with rounded eyes while he made mayonnaise. It was even better when mother complained that he had taken over her kitchen when we all laughed.

It was during this time that we went on a different kind of outing. Father wanted to dig for geoducks on Boundary Bay. I remembered all of us wearing rubber boots and armed with shovels and pails, screaming with excitement as we saw puffs of air bubble up from the sand, and we raced toward it to dig. Those were exhilarating times, although foraging for wild watercress, 6 and mushrooms was not as fun. We spent lots of family time outdoors on the weekends.

Two years later, father received his diploma and immediately landed a position in the hospital kitchen. He framed his certificate and hung it up. He walked a step or two away and admired it. How funny life was that he found himself back in the kitchen. He worked there until his 65th birthday.

Upon retirement, he discovered a new purpose and spent his free time by frequenting the flea markets and thrift stores to find “treasures”. His treasures that mother called junk. Within two years, he had piled the covered porch with cabinets, plant stands, and lamps. Among the smaller items were decorative buckles and jewelry, medals and pillboxes. Soon, every inch of every surface in the house was cluttered with his collectibles.

Mother was livid. “Dust and garbage everywhere!” she complained.

After 60 years together, mother needed father to complain about. He felt lost if she didn’t. That was his normal and comfortable state. Father didn’t expect excessive joy, but he sought a better life in Canada for his family than it would have been in China and that he did.

When father passed away suddenly, mother found boxes of old gold rings, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. He had left a small fortune in gold. Mother inherited his union pension with benefits. Life was not always easy for him, but he did the best he could.

On this Father’s Day, we acknowledge all of you with love and appreciation. Happy Father’s Day!

- Ming Louie Stein, Port Moody

You can find Ming Louie Stein on Facebook.

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