Thomas Ma, a Life in Vancouver’s Kitchens

Thomas Ma (b. 1932), an immigrant from China, built his career working in Vancouver’s kitchens before achieving success as a restaurant owner. 

Thomas ma in 2014, age 82

I started playing badminton here at Britannia 35 years ago. Someone got a grant that paid for all the rackets and the gym plus a hot lunch. Now we have to pay for everything, but it’s still good exercise. I’m 82.


I came to Canada in 1956, when I was 24. I was born and educated in Canton, China. My grandfather lived in Victoria; my father was here in Vancouver and always asked me to come. My father worked for the Union Steamship Company for 46 years and retired when I came. My grandfather had retired and gone back to China during the Second World War but my father stayed here.


I didn’t want to come to Canada. My brother had come here many years earlier, and my sister had married a man from Ohio, but I had a good life in China–a job, friends, my girlfriend. But my father was ill when he retired, and I wanted to be the good son, so I came to look after him. We had good times with my father, and I looked after him like a baby for 11 years. He had an ulcer, which, at that time, made people very sick. Towards the end, he was in Surrey Hospital for 9 months and had three operations to try and fix it. He died in 1966.


My grandmother in China was blind, so my mother stayed there to look after her. Then my mother came and lived here until she died in 1997.


When I arrived I lived in a house on Pender at Dunlevy with my father. You had to be rich to own a house then, so we rented. My girlfriend in China and I had a son but, if we had married, I would not have been allowed to come to Canada. So I came here and worked very hard to become established in order to bring them here.


My brother was a cook at the Royal City Café in New Westminster. He had worked in many restaurants in Vancouver, cooking both Chinese and Western food. The two brothers were running the restaurant after World War II were very good. I got a job there working as a dishwasher, then I had the job of bringing their supplies. Every Monday, I would load up my Fairlane station wagon with rice and oil and vegetables in Chinatown, and then drive from Kingsway to New Westminster. Meat and seafood were each delivered straight to the restaurant, but I was responsible for everything else. Most of the vegetables would come into Chinatown from the truck farms in Richmond and Vancouver. It was a long drive then; it is much faster now. There was a very bad fog, making it hard to drive.

1963 ad for the Ford Fairlane, a popular car model in the 1960’s
Image credit: Bill McChesney, CC, Flickr

I also worked at The Cave on Hornby St. Oh, that was a wild place! It was very busy there, with many people in the kitchen. Hollywood people came there; the most famous were The Kim Sisters.

Between 1937-1981, The Cave (pictured here in 1948) on Hornby St. was one of the most popular clubs in Vancouver
Image credit: Jack Lindsay, public domain

After five years, I was able to bring my wife and son to Canada. But first, I went to Hong Kong, and we finally married.


It took nine years until, with my sister’s help, I was able to open my first restaurant in Cloverdale-Surrey, called The Lotus. My sister, as I said, had married a man from Ohio and worked in a laundry there, but was still able to help her family. Later, I took her to San Francisco and Las Vegas and treated her like a queen. I cooked a lot of T-bone steaks in Cloverdale for people coming to the horse races and the rodeo. I looked after all the promotions myself and made many good friends.


Then I sold that restaurant, retired and bought myself a Cadillac. After a while, my brother and I went together and opened a restaurant in Mission, which is still there. When we sold that restaurant, I traveled for a couple of years, then I moved back to East Vancouver to 14th and Renfrew.


That was 20 years ago. My son graduated from UBC and after teaching in Japan, Taiwan and Australia, has moved back home to teach in Coquitlam. Now I play with my grandchildren. And I play badminton.

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