Born in Asia, Raised in Halifax: Stories of Asian Immigrants to Canada

Written by staff blogger, Vicky

When you make the decision to travel halfway around the world, it's not a choice that you make lightly. Sometimes, you leave home for the thrill of adventure or for the excitement of seeing the world and having new experiences. Other times, there is no choice; you don't leave because you want to, you leave because you have to.

In the early 20th Century, many people from all over Asia came to Canada in hopes of finding a new life for themselves and for their families. These are the stories of three families who came to Halifax and made it their home.

The Labas

Peter Laba, the son of Francis and Annie (Hitlage) Laba, was born on October 17, 1876 in Mount Lebanon, Syria. If you looked for Mount Lebanon on a map today you would discover it is no longer a part of Syria. Following the end of World War I, a portion of Syria's land was declared an independent state and became the country of Lebanon we know today. Although Peter's religion was recorded as Catholic on Canadian Census records, it is likely that he and his family were more specifically Maronites. Maronites practice a form of Catholic Christianity where they follow similar teachings and recognize the Pope as the head of their church, but their religious rites are very distinct from those of Roman Catholicism. Peter married Josephine Ramyea (Romia) (1883-1960) sometime before the turn of the century.

Between 1880-1914, many people from that area of Syria began to immigrate to Canada. "People had to leave to look for more opportunities, so they would just get onto a boat and wherever the boat arrived, that's where they'd get out" (Wadih Fares, quoted in Cadogan, "Our Lebanese Legacy"). Peter and Josephine immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1900, and began to make a life for themselves in Halifax. In 1901, Peter was working as a peddler, meaning that he traveled throughout the city selling goods door-to-door. Over the years, Peter and Josephine lived with relatives on Upper Water Street, including with Peter's brother, Frank, and his family. Between 1902-1921, Peter and Josephine had two sons and seven daughters!

By 1911, Peter had moved on from his peddler occupation and was working in a general store, and by 1920 he was running his own shop. Peter's dry goods store was located at 3-5 Spring Garden Road on the east corner of Hastings Street (now a part of Brunswick Street); this is the same property as Grafton Park, the Halifax Memorial Public Library, and the Poor House Burying Ground. The building had been the No. 6 Engine House for the Halifax Fire Department before the City put the space up for public lease. Before the end of the decade, Peter moved his store to 79 Birmingham Street, (now 1535). He ultimately returned to the life of a travelling salesmen in his older years, but the house on Birmingham Street would be where Peter would spend the rest of his life.

The late 1920s were an incredibly difficult time for the Laba family. In 1928, Peter and Josephine lost their son, Leo. His death certificate states that he passed away from "Pulmonary TFC", or fluid around his lungs. He was 22 years old. In 1929, tragedy struck again with the death of their daughter, Rose. She passed away from an abscess that had formed in her chest following surgery. She was 24 when she died on May 11, 1929. Both of their children were buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

In the summer of 1943, the Laba family would be left in shock when Peter suffered an unexpected heart attack. He passed away on Sunday, July 18, 1943, at age 66. The funeral was held in the family home on Birmingham Street the following Wednesday " time for Requiem High Mass at 9 o'clock at St. Mary's Cathedral" (Halifax Chronicle Herald). Peter was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery with Leo and Rose. When Josephine passed away on April 12, 1960, she was also buried in the family plot.

Many of the remaining Laba children made Halifax their home into their adulthood. For example, Joseph G. Laba worked as a manager for T. Eaton and Co. After he married in 1942, he and his wife, Marie, operated a stationary store and post office on Edward Street for many years.

The Fongs

The name "Fong" is not a traditional Chinese surname. Rather, it is a transliteration of a number of Chinese surnames. Transliteration is an attempt to translate parts of one unique writing system/alphabet to another. In this case, it is Chinese into English. 

The Fong family has had roots in Atlantic Canada for generations. Chinese immigration to Canada had been on the rise since in the mid-1800s. Many people came to Canada hoping to take advantage of the West Coast gold rush, but instead were hired to build roads, dig ditches, and build railways. When the gold rush was over, many of the White workers who had also been seeking fortune were now unable to find work. They blamed the Chinese immigrants for their unemployment, and anti-Chinese sentiment grew on the West Coast. This resentment towards Chinese immigrants permeated through the government, and by 1885, the Federal Government had imposed a head tax of $50 on Chinese immigrants coming into Canada.

"In those days, the average Chinese labourer could earn only $225 a year. After deducting food, clothing, rent, medicine and other expenses, he could only save $43 a year. The intention of the head tax was to discourage Chinese labourers from coming to Canada by imposing a heavy financial burden on them. The tax was increased to $100 in 1901 and again to $500 in 1903."

- A Brief Chronology of Chinese Canadian History

Despite these financial hurdles, members of the Fong family made the long journey to the East Coast. In 1901/1902, Fong Mon Ding (Since) immigrated to Canada with his son, Quon, to join his brother who had come to Canada several years before. They laid down roots in Campbellton, New Brunswick, and opened both a laundry service and a restaurant called The Canada Café. In 1921, Since returned to China where he married Jang Mah Shee (Marsee) and brought her to New Brunswick. The couple eventually had 14 children, although not all lived to adulthood. While Since and Mah Shee were growing their business and their family, other immigrants bearing the Fong name were making lives for themselves in Halifax.

In 1919, the Criterion Café opened shop at 30-32 Sackville Street (between Hollis and Granville Streets). The first Fong name associated with the Café was George Fong, but over the next decade multiple people with the name Fong operated the restaurant. In the late 1920s, the Fongs closed the Criterion and opened a new shop at 432 Barrington Street: The Bon Ton Café. It is difficult to trace the ownership of the Bon Ton during this time as City Directories do not mention the Fongs for nearly a decade in the alphabetical listings. However, subsequent documents state that Since was heavily involved, as well as a man named William (Billie) Fong, and Since's son, Quon. Tragically, the Bon Ton Café burned down in 1945, but that did not stop the Fong family from pursuing their passion for cooking.

Quon moved the family business to 29 Inglis Street (now 5461 Inglis Street) and started a new restaurant called Garden View. By the late 1940s, Since, Mah Shee, and Quon's siblings had also moved to Halifax and were helping with the family business. The restaurant was so popular that they moved to a new space at 145 (later 5521) Spring Garden Road.

The Garden View Restaurant on Spring Garden Road was a Halifax institution for decades. When Quon retired in the late 1960s, his brothers, Dow and Mone, became co-presidents and owners. They expanded the business in 1981 with another Garden View Restaurant opening on Main Street in Dartmouth. The Dartmouth location was later taken over by Mone's son, Greg.

However, with time, all things change. In 1990, the Spring Garden location of The Garden View was sold to developers; the Dartmouth location closed in 2016.

The Arakelians

Sarkis Arakelian was born in the city of Antab on November 7, 1889. On documentation, Sarkis states Antab is in Armenia, but it is more likely he is referring to the city of Aintab, now called Gaziantep in Turkey (Türkiye). At the time of Sarkis' birth, Aintab was part of the Ottoman Empire. The city had historically had a large Armenian population for hundreds of years, and - although they were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire - the Armenian people continued to have a strong sense of community and cultural identity. In the early 1900s, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire began a genocidal campaign to eliminate the Armenian population. As a result, many Armenians, Sarkis included, fled the country hoping to find new homes in places all around the world.

Sarkis arrived first in Brazil, but by June of 1914, he had travelled from Rio De Janeiro to New York and by 1915, to Burlington, Vermont. As part of his immigration process, Sarkis signed documents renouncing any allegiance he may have had to the Ottoman Empire, and declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States. In the paperwork, he is described as 5 foot 7 inches tall, 154 lbs, with brown hair and brown eyes, and having a scar on his left cheek. His occupation is noted as photographer. Although Sarkis may have originally had intentions of staying in the U.S.A., he ultimately moved further north to Canada.

The 1919 Halifax City Directory placed Sarkis in the heart of downtown Halifax. He was living at 663 Barrington Street and was the proprietor of a photography business called Victoria Photo Stores of Canada at 51 Sackville Street. On April 22, 1922, Sarkis married Siraphooli (Sophie) Geulesserian, another immigrant from Aintab. Over the course of their marriage, they had two daughters and three sons. In the early 1920s, the Arakelian family spent some time in New Glasgow, but were back in Halifax by 1927. They called several places in the city home: Wellington Street, Roome Street, and Preston Street.

Sarkis was the proprietor of several businesses. In 1927, he started a photography business under his own name, which eventually became Empire Photo Services at 586 Barrington Street. Sarkis also made attempts to enter the candy business. In 1929, he was the Vice President of National Candy Co Ltd, and by 1935, he had opened a shop called Marathon Sweets at 557 Barrington Street. Over time, the candy shop began to diversify; first, in 1939 it became the Marathon Tea Room which operated as both a restaurant and a confectionary, and then it became the New Marathon Restaurant in 1942.

Unfortunately, in 1943 Sarkis passed away at age 54. It is unclear how he died. The New Marathon Restaurant was closed shortly following Sarkis' passing, but Sophie continued to operate Empire Photography until 1945. Sophie passed away in 1996.

The Arakelian children spent their formative years in Halifax and established themselves both here and across Canada. For example: Leo Arakelian purchased Halcraft Printing Ltd. in 1949; it continues to be run by the family to this day. Hemreld (Em) Forbes (Arakelian) sang professionally as a coloratura soprano with choirs and operas across the country.

The Finishing Lines

The Labas, the Fongs, and the Arakelians are just a few examples of Asian immigrants who came to Nova Scotia and made it their home. This May, in honour of Asian Heritage Month, take some time to explore, experience, and celebrate the nations of Asia!



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