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Chinese Canadian pioneers of West Kootenay: Mar Sam

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

The photo below, taken in 1950, shows the evocative Mar Sam laundry at the corner of Front, Lake, and Ward streets in Nelson. You’ll recognize it as the spot where Charcuterie Totoche is today.

The laundry was in business in Nelson for nearly 60 years. Mar Sam was first listed in the 1892 and 1893 directories as running a laundry on Vernon Street, the west end of which was then Nelson’s Chinatown.


At the 1894 Dominion Day celebration, Mar Sam finished first in the “200 yards, open only to Chinese” to win a prize of $5 (about $112 today).


Near the end of that year, the following notice appeared in the Nelson Miner.

But Mar Sam started another laundry before long; he was listed as holding a business license for one in 1898.


The 1901 census indicates he was born in China on Nov. 15, 1865 and was married. He was the head of a household that included 11 boarders, all married men who worked in laundries. Their wives were all presumably still in China.


Although the census indicated Mar Sam came to Canada in 1893, we’ve already seen it was actually earlier than that. An index card in the Shawn Lamb Archives at Touchstones Nelson also suggests he was on the civic voters list in 1890 and 1891. I haven’t seen the actual lists, but it’s interesting because Chinese Canadians were barred from voting in provincial and federal elections in 1872.


The same card has a notation that he “picked up and delivered laundry around town with a child’s hand wagon.”


Also in 1901, Mar Sam testified before a royal commission that held a hearing in Nelson on the subject of Asian immigration. The Nelson Daily Miner reported: “Mar Sam, a laundryman, said there were ten laundries, employing 50 men, but there was no money in it. He was quite indifferent as to any future action in keeping Chinamen out.”


(However, Kwong Wing Chong, a prominent merchant sometimes referred to as the mayor of Nelson’s Chinatown, told the commission there were only four laundries, employing 20 men.)


I’m not certain when the Mar Sam laundry was built at Front and Lake Streets, but it shows up on the July 1899 fire insurance map, seen below. It was also listed there in the 1901 civic directory. (City council forced Chinatown’s relocation to Lake and Front streets in the late 1890s.) It remained there through at least 1950, although in 1946 strong winds blew down a large section of one of the walls.

The late Cam Mah said being at the intersection of three streets would have been considered excellent feng shui. Cam recalled meeting a very elderly Sam Mar. Cam’s great grandfather, Lung Mah, was in partnership with Sam in the laundry in the 1920s.


“They were making about $160 per month, more than anybody else, working day and night,” Cam said. “He told me ‘I used to put toothpicks under my eyelids to keep going and get all the laundry out.’ It would be one cent for a pair of socks – cleaned, dried, and delivered. They used to get all the judges and rich people [as customers].”


Mar Sam’s name was periodically in the newspapers as a contributor to the Dominion Day celebration fund and other causes. In 1921, the Worker’s Compensation Board apparently filed suit against the laundry in Revelstoke county court, but I don’t know the details. The BC Archives has the case file.


Mar Sam returned to China around 1912 to visit his wife and father a son, York Chow (Yorkie) Mah, born Feb. 23, 1913. They had two other children as well. (Ma, Mah, and Mar are all anglicizations of the same surname, but Cam was no relation.)


Sam’s wife never went to Canada, but Cam met her as a child in Hong Kong. Her feet were bound and she rarely left her fourth-floor apartment. Yorkie did come to Canada as a teenager, however, and worked briefly in Nelson’s LD Cafe. Later he worked at a restaurant in Trail and then became a pastry chef and butcher. Yorkie also had his own grocery store there, listed in the 1945 civic directory as Kootenay Foodland at 1402 Bay Avenue.


Mar Sam moved to Trail to live with his son — partly, Cam says, so Yorkie could make sure his father didn’t gamble all his savings away. Mar Sam eventually retired to Hong Kong and died there in his mid-to-late 90s.


By the time Cam came to Canada in 1959 at the age of 12, Yorkie was cooking at the new Marlane Hotel in Castlegar and took him under his wing. He was always impeccably dressed, Cam said. Yorkie and wife May Wah Gee had several children, one of whom became a lawyer, another a teacher, and another a mechanical engineer. Yorkie died in Vancouver in 1994.


The 1950-51 directory shows the Mar Sam laundry being run by Mah Loung (presumably Cam’s great grandfather) and Mah Yen. It was no longer listed as of 1953. The building was demolished within the next few years and Hank Coleman put up the current wedge-shaped building in its place, where it became home to Coleman Electric. BC Assessment says the building dates to 1957 and gives its address as 502 Front Street, although the Mar Sam laundry’s address was 510 Front.

The site of the Mar Sam laundry is now home to Charcuterie Totoche.


Updated on Sept. 5, 2022 to add the image from the 1899 fire insurance plan.

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Greg Nesteroff
Greg Nesteroff
Mar 18, 2018

I don't know much about it, although BC Assessment says it was built in 1942. Likely built as Thompson Funeral Home, for that it was it listed at that address in the 1943 civic directory.

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Doug Sly
Doug Sly
Mar 17, 2018

possibly a story one day on the provenance of the building where Max & Irma's / La Bomba d'Amore is now, including the funeral home days?

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