Joi gin, and thanks for all the food

The last time I ran into Ming Mah, he was playing with his grandchild at Hardy Park. He approached me enthusiastically and, with a voice made raspy by an illness I did not inquire about, asked me if he could give me twenty dollars for my children.

I did not have time to refuse. The twenty quickly made its way into my shirt pocket.

Knowing Ming and his compulsive generosity (he once tried to slip me a Crown Royal, but more on that later), I politely thanked him.

When he walked away, I quietly approached his daughter, who was pushing her child on the swing, and told her I felt uncomfortable about the money and wanted to give it back.

She assured me it was best to keep it, as it would make her dad feel better.

Less than an hour later, back home, I got a call. Same raspy voice. Ming now remembered I have three children. He wanted to come over to give me more money, a twenty for each, and wanted directions to my house.

That was Ming Mah, who passed away Saturday at the age of 77. I have never known a more generous man with strangers, and there will likely never be a more frenetically enthusiastic businessman on King Street.

Up in Heaven someone is right now saying the words: “My good man, you did not charge me enough for those chicken balls and that fried rice!”

The first time I met him, early in 2003, I was seeking out members of the local Chinese-Canadian community for a feature in The Recorder and Times’s Celebrations section.

He was at his familiar perch behind the counter of the New Wave Restaurant on King Street West and consented, with some reluctance, to an interview. I ordered his trademark seving of chicken balls, for which he later refused to charge me.

In the course of the interview he proved himself quick to offer coffee and conversation to any and all. The postman, dropping off the day's mail, politely declined, saying that, if he stayed, he doubted he’d want to get back out and finish his rounds.

As city police Det-Sgt. Tom Fournier said on Facebook: "Walking the beat on King Street will never be the same without the stop at The New Wave Restaurant."

Ming Mah became the owner of the New Wave Restaurant in 1964.

He would become an established member of a local Chinese community that once numbered more than 150, one that shrank over the decades as the children of these immigrants found better opportunities in larger centres.

Ming left Hong Kong for Halifax in 1953, where he stayed with an uncle. Three years later, he headed out on his own, ultimately ending up in Brockville through a reference in the restaurant business.

He would become one third of the downtown Chinese food triumvirate of Wing, King and Ming, along with King Yee and Wing Hum – although they were by no means the only participants in the Chinese restaurant boom.

Now, as they pass on and their children and grandchildren lead their lives in Toronto or Montreal or elsewhere, the imprint these Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs left behind may seem a little faded. A fitting symbol of might have been Ming himself, who sat by the window of his restaurant in his later years, keeping it open as a retirement project for his beloved coffee club.

But as any downtown denizen will tell you, other Asian restaurants have since opened their doors, with equally irresistible servings. It was the early pioneers such as Ming who opened the way for these newcomers.

While we remember this first “new wave” of Chinese-Canadian businesspeople, we will also never forget Ming’s distinctive character.

Shortly after writing that piece in 2003, unable to resist the allure of Ming’s food (prepared, one should mention, by his wife Norra), I brought my family back to New Wave Restaurant for an excellent Chinese meal. Only halfway through did I realize Ming would not charge me.

Horrified by this prospect – especially after writing a piece on the man – I explained to Ming how his characteristic generosity, further tales of which came to me from others in the newsroom and the community, might in this case open up the prospect of a conflict of interest.

Only then did the kindly old fellow relent and write me a bill that did not do justice to his portions.

Kindly, but tricky as well. Since there was too much left of Ming’s generous portions, we came home with bags of leftover Chinese food to put in the fridge. Only upon unloading those bags did we notice the bottle of Crown Royal he had hidden in one of them.

Back I went, returning the bottle to him with the same conflict-of-interest excuse.

He seemed less inclined to grasp that argument the second time, although he took the bottle back, saying: “You no drink, huh?”

Well, Ming, the truth is I do drink, and when I heard the terrible news on Monday I had a shot of Crown to say: "Joi gin, old friend.”