The “Look Back” piece we ran on the 75th anniversary of 93.3 The PEAK, courtesy of the Alberni Valley Museum, brought back a lot of memories for the Mah family in Port Alberni.
Their father, Rob Mah, taught for 30 years in this city, and was known for a number of “firsts” in the country.
“My sister and I both went down memory lane with this,” said Corinne Mah, who now lives in Victoria. Robbie or Rob Mah, who passed away in 2008, loved photography among other hobbies, so there were lots of photographs to go through.
The memories are even more poignant for the Mahs because the month of May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. This month is dedicated to learning more about the achievements and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent, and a call to action to all Canadians to combat all forms of anti-Asian racism and discrimination.
The Mah family ran the Chinese Garden Restaurant in the 1930s and ’40s, and Man Yuen Hing Convenience Store on Second Avenue, Corinne Mah said.
Rob Mah first picked up the sounds of CJAV on a crystal radio set he built. In 1951, at the age of 20 and a graduate of Vancouver Technical School, Mah was hired as a disc jockey at Port Alberni’s first radio station; he hosted the Strictly Jazz show, and spun a lot of Dixieland. He was the first male Chinese Canadian DJ in Canada.
Mah earned his teaching certificate in 1954 and first taught at Gill School, where he met and later married teacher Alma Currie.
Teen Town was a big deal in the late 1940s: by 1949 there were 12,000 Teen Town members on Vancouver Island (Mah was president of the Vancouver Island Teen Town Association in 1948-49). More than 100,000 attended all the Teen Town activities throughout B.C., Mah wrote in 2001. Activities included sports, hobbies, volunteerism, council meetings and dances.
“As a social gathering place Teen Town filled a need,” he wrote. “Outside of movies and sporting activities there was little else.”
For Mah, Teen Town always brought back memories of the music of the time: nights would be spent listening to 78 rpm records from Glen Miller, Harry James or Tommy Dorsey. He recalled the Big Band sound, and songs by the Andrew Sisters, Ink Spots, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee.
Those nights led to his stint at CJAV, and then later to the audio-visual department for School District 70. He never lost his love of music, cars or photography.
Corinne and her sister discovered signs that gave a glimpse of what life was like for their father growing up in Port Alberni.
Mah and his siblings were “renamed” Mar when the Alberni school district Anglicized their name. They went through school as Mar—it wasn’t until Mah moved to Vancouver to attend post-secondary school that he changed his name back to the Chinese Mah, Corinne said.
“Going through his things I found a button that said ‘I am Chinese,’” which she presumes he wore during the Second World War when Canadians of Japanese descent were being rounded up and sent to internment camps following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The pin would have helped prevent someone mistaking him for a Japanese person.
Mah’s father was born in China and emigrated to Canada. His brother served with a Chinese Air Force squadron that fought in Asia.
Corinne said the Mah family was one of a handful of Chinese families living in Port Alberni at the time.
“Great changes were taking place in our lives in this post-war period leading up to the 1950s,” Mah wrote in his Teen Town memoir. “Port Alberni began to grow with opportunities as the new mills and their jobs brough prosperity to the Valley.”
When he wasn’t teaching Mah loved model airplanes, cars, clocks, gardening and history.
When Mah retired after teaching for 30 years he and his wife ran the Somass Auto Court for seven years. He and his wife of 52 years, Alma, retired to Victoria. Robbie Mah died on June 16, 2008 of cancer at the age of 77.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.